So much of writing is done alone. Our ideas are inside our minds, and we sit in front of a computer or over a notebook by ourselves, typing or writing those ideas into words. Even if we prefer to write in a coffee shop or at the library, surrounded by other people, we are often too focused to be a part of things (if we’re really writing).
Our work is easily kept to ourselves. A lot of the time, we want it to be that way. Our writing is commonly referred to as the blood from our veins put on the page. But, if we want to make our stories into something spectacular, we have to share them. But we do, don’t we? We share them with our mothers and our closest friends, and they love them. Isn’t that enough? The problem with that is, in most cases, mothers and close friends love us more than they know what might need fixing and how to suggest it, so they praise us—sincerely—telling us how proud they are and how wonderful our work is. But no query was ever made more successful with such narrow references.
No matter how much we love our work, there will always be something wrong with it. Even in published works we can find typos and other things that have been missed from revision to revision, edit to edit, and proofread to proofread, so we can be certain that we all need extra pairs of eyes on our manuscripts. But with extra eyes will come feedback, both good and bad.
It’s so important to be open to these critiques! In my own life, I’ve noticed that when someone is stubborn or defiant about their work, they always miss something important they could have learned from comments. Even when the commenter is completely wrong, we shouldn’t brush it off as soon as we hear it. But more on that later.
So, you want to get opinions! Where do you start? You can really ask at any point during your process: During the ideas stage, you can use others as a sounding board, telling them the general ideas you’ve come up with and having a conversation about them. This can help you delve deeper into your story, as well as help you fill in some plot holes before they’ve started.
During the drafting phase your characters and plot are more likely to be roughly built, and you can ask about details and consistency all around, before you focus on beautifying your writing and choosing the perfect word for every situation.
Once your manuscript is as good as you can get it, you can ask for beta readers to take a look. Beta readers can be anyone you like, but be sure they come from multiple demographics—the more, the merrier. Everyone will have different life experience, and each new point of view will bring with it knowledge they can give. What might bother one of them, another might absolutely love, and vice versa.
It’s easy to get emotionally attached to our writing, and it can be difficult not to take criticism of our words as criticism of ourselves. But though initially writing out a story can be done individually, putting it into print is a team effort, and working well with others and hearing out what they have to say is part of that effort. The more critiquing you seek out, the easier it will be to not take them personally.
Now, to go back to what to do when people give you comments that seem to have no merit. This happens a lot, so here are two steps to take in order to handle it: First, listen and think about what the commenter is saying. They might say they didn’t know a bit of information at a crucial point, and you might say “I mentioned that in the last chapter.” So they’re wrong, right? You could say so, but look deeper. It could be the real problem isn’t that the information wasn’t mentioned at all, but that the instance in which it WAS mentioned wasn’t strong enough, or that the information needs to be presented at another point in order to make it stick for the reader. You might also run into comments that have misinterpreted information you thought was clear, such as motivation for your characters. It well may be that even though the commenter was wrong about what your character was trying to do and why, there are ways for you to make it more clear so that others will not be confused.
Second, DON’T GET DEFENSIVE! No matter how you see your work, arguing that such-and-such isn’t what you meant to say, or “if you go back here, you’ll see what I mean,” only wastes time for both of you. If they didn’t get it, they didn’t get it, and that’s worth looking into. Once your work is out in the world, in whatever medium, you won’t be able to hover over every reader to explain away their confusion, so don’t argue with the people that are telling you there might be something to fix. Instead, you can try asking questions about certain changes you could make, and if those changes would help with clarity.
There will always be those critiques that feel like a knife to the gut, that you just want to throw away, but if there’s a group that all gives the same comment, or a person who is an expert on the subject, it’s wise not to ignore what they have to say. You may not even have to change as much as you think in order to satisfy those critiques.
But what if they really are just plain wrong? What if they say they hated something in your manuscript that you really love? I’ve just told you that you should be open to any and all comments, and that you should look for the validity of each one before turning your nose up at it. Still, you shouldn’t feel like you have to take every suggestion given to you. This can be a tough thing to balance, but your manuscript will not be a horrible, unpublishable mess if you decide a few comments simply aren’t worth taking. This is your work. In the end, you know your story better than anyone, and YOU get to decide what it will and will not be. Thank the reader for their time, and know for yourself that their opinions are just that—opinions.
Remember that even if your manuscript gets many negative comments, it doesn’t mean you aren’t good at writing. The real worry should come when you’re not getting any negative comments at all. If this does happen, find different people to go over it.
The more you open yourself up to the perspectives of others, whether or not you agree with them or end up taking their advice, the better your work will get.
Rachel White is an aspiring fantasy author who dreams of becoming an audiobook narrator. She lives in Utah with her husband and three children.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.