Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 5: How to Take Criticism

How do you take criticism? How do you react, if you even do react? Does criticism cause you to change the way you work? Criticism can come from your peers in a writing group, from editors sending you rejection letters, and from those one-star Amazon reviewers who are out there looking for something to hate.

In this episode we provide anecdotes from other authors including Patrick Rothfuss and Kevin J. Anderson, and share our own experiences about criticism we’ve gotten and how we’ve responded to it.

This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by XDM: X-Treme Dungeon Mastery, by Tracy and Curtis Hickman, and illustrated by Howard Tayler. Pre-orders for XDM open on Wednesday, July 1st.

Writing Prompt: Write a story about a critic who is the hero.


37 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 5: How to Take Criticism”

  1. Interesting choice of topic; I just wrote a blog post sharing my thoughts on the subject: http://www.onelowerlight.com/writing/?p=849

    I totally agree that getting defensive in writing groups and fighting solicited criticism is just a bad idea. It’s the mark of an amateur.

    I think a lot of aspiring writers have really big egos and really low self-esteem (if that combination is even possible). The trick is to keep your ego from getting in the way of looking honestly at your work, while developing the self-confidence necessary to weather the worst of the criticism. Ego is not a substitute for self-confidence; at least, that’s what I’ve found.

  2. “I think a lot of aspiring writers have really big egos and really low self-esteem (if that combination is even possible). The trick is to keep your ego from getting in the way of looking honestly at your work, while developing the self-confidence necessary to weather the worst of the criticism. Ego is not a substitute for self-confidence; at least, that’s what I’ve found.”

    The big ego is totally a bluff! ;) Often the people who seem to have really big egos are actually just covering to try and avoid people challenging them at all.

    Whether your ego is a bluff or not though, the answer is the same: substitute self-confidence and humility. Be ready to accept when people are just saying they don’t like something because it’s just not what THEY would do. :)

    I found this one a bit less useful than normal, possibly because I love to work collaboratively when I get the chance so taking criticism doesn’t seem to hurt so much- so maybe my imaginary writing prompt should be to find a good writing group so I can do it more often instead. ;)

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    This podcast came at the right time. I’ve on the edge of panic over my first WIP (non-speculative fiction). I need to transcribe it to my computer.


    Because after that it is the querying stage! And I don’t know if I can pull that off or face the rejections. After a year or so of work I hate to send it out just to be told it sucks. I really believe in the story but can I convince others of that? Or have I fallen into a deep hole of self delusion believing that I have not butchered the English language enough.

    Oh boy!

  4. Great podcast. Much need and much appreciated. Thanks again for this extremely beneficial podcast.

  5. An important podcast, no matter what stage of writing you are in. I always read my own rejection letters. For me, it’s more painful not to read them than to take the plunge. I have to know what these people think about my work, if they personalize the rejection. Form rejection letters are good, because they are always very tasteful: they never ridicule you or your work. Most of them just say “not for us, send it along to the next publisher/agency you were considering.” Most companies are very professional in their rejections, and if there are any out there who don’t act professionally in their rejections, then they’re probably not a publisher/agency that is any good.

  6. @Rafael

    I probably shouldn’t be talking because I am at the same stage as you! I have a children’s book that I am having trouble doing just one more edit to send it on it’s way. Just nervous (to say the least). How do I edit it ‘just right’?

    Though, a first rejection letter will be cool. Then at least that is over with and I can concentrate on the second!

    If you get rejected try to laugh. Those letters can be pretty funny. I sent an essay to a contest and got a three paragraph letter on how they had SOOO many entries, and how I got ‘Honorable mention’. Which basically meant that I, along with 40 other people…lost. They just took three paragraphs to say it!
    And My Essay was SOOOOOO good!

    Writers Digest had some good article on Quarry information. I can’t remember what issue it was or if it’s on line or not. Basically it just said read the rules before you send. But you probably already know that.

    I wish you luck!

  7. I think another good point to make is to consider the source. I currently am sharing my WIP with two people, my dad and my good friend. My friend tends to like best sellers and can get bored or impatient if a book isn’t fast paced enough. My dad loves epic fantasy and getting lost in a new world, so he absorbs any description he can get. That of course, slows the pace of a book down. So when I get feedback from them, I have to consider the tastes of the individual giving me feedback. My dad has already told me a few times he thinks I’m rushing a bit as if I’m trying to get to the “good part” and I should slow down and set the scene more. I think he has a point, though I take it with a grain of salt.

  8. Very timely for me, too, especially Brandon’s “just try it” story. I’ve been doing the same thing, but a little bit of validation helps take some of the doubt out of the decision, if that makes any sense. (Actually had that exact conversation Saturday afternoon. Talk about timing!)

  9. A lot of aspiring writers are shy and fragile, but there are a lot out there, especially in sf&f, that seem to think they’re god’s gift to the genre. Have you ever been at a panel in a convention and had some newbie raise their hand, only to go off for three or four minutes giving their opinions on the subject instead of asking a question for the experienced professionals? Or have you ever been in a writing group where everyone thinks that they know everything about publishing, simply because they’ve got grand aspirations to be published? Or heard stories from editors about the unsolicited submissions they receive, with cover letters like “I will keep submitting this to you until you finally accept it,” and other crazy stuff like that?

    In some ways, amateurs and aspiring writers can be the least helpful people to critique your work. They have studied creative writing enough to know all the rules, but they don’t have the experience to know when it’s okay to break those rules. As a result, they’ll throw the rules in your face instead of giving you honest feedback specific to your story. I have one friend who told me to cut out this scene in my novel because it briefly switched from first person to second person. I ignored her advice, submitted the scene to a contest at my university, and won first place. You definitely have to consider the source, and realize that a lot of people who think they know what they’re talking about really don’t.

    That’s one reason why I like the guys on this podcast. Even though they know a lot, they don’t play it up like they do. “Fifteen minutes long…”

  10. I think I can take criticism, but I don’t always do something about it. I know they’re trying to be helpful and stuff, but there are times when I don’t want criticism on certain things (like my repeated mistakes that I know I have to fix but I don’t have the time and so they bug me about them).

    And I was very amused today when the Science Fiction Book Club (a Canadian thing, check out SFBC.ca) came in the mail and ‘Warbreaker’ was all over the front cover and the first two pages. :D It’s like they know I listen to you guys.

  11. It took me a long time to really get the right attitude for criticism. I always thought I took it well, but that was a lie I was telling myself. I really didn’t get it right until I listened to the writing group podcast and got the idea that you shouldn’t try to defend your manuscript.

    Now I try to implement the three horses and a donkey rule (if you buy a horse and one man tells you its a donkey, ignore him. If two men say the horse is a donkey, check your horse. If three men say you bought a donkey, you bought a donkey).

    Excellent podcast guys.

  12. Great cast, as always. I’ve really come to depend on you three gentlemen :P

    Brandon was saying that if you are not sure about a particular piece of criticism, it doesn’t hurt to just try it. However, I know that I personally am just not a mature enough writer to tell if something is helping or hurting my overall work. I suppose that’s when you ask for a second (or third, or fourth) opinion? What do you do in that situation?

  13. I tell my alpha readers to give me specific comments and to look for logic flaws. That way there is less dealing with their opinion on how the story should go. Too often, people want to rewrite your story the way they would write it. Ignore those comments.

    Since I am no longer into role-playing games, I was not planning on getting the XDM book, but after that commercial, I’m going to have to buy it now.

  14. SM,

    Here are some steps I’ve found useful.

    1. Filter for real reader responses.

    1.a Is the reader reading for rules or effect? If they’re reading for rule compliance, then the report of their response is not going to be very useful. You can listen, but it’s just as likely to make your work worse as it is to fix it.

    1.b Are they the right audience? As Dan illustrated. Some people are great at accurately reporting their response, but they’re just not in the audience for you kind of writing. Listen, you might actually get some ideas, but again: it’s just as likely to make your work worse.

    2. Follow YOUR heart. If they’re suggesting something you’re not interested in, don’t do it. It’s going to make your work worse. Notice that Brandon was ALREADY doing humor. He was interested in it. His editor wasn’t asking him to do something different, just to do it better. You don’t have to be a mature author to know if you like something.

    3. If the suggestion passes both 1 & 2 and it sounds like a good idea–try it.

    3.a Step back and ask yourself what type of an effect you want the said character, beginning, scene, etc. to have on the reader. Until you know, even if it’s only in general terms, what you’re trying to do, how can you tell if you’ve achieved it? Notice that Brandon’s goal was not to make it better. It was to make it funnier and he and his editor figured out in what way. You can do the same.

    3.b Yes, you can get a sample of responses and see if most of the folks like it. But there’s a danger in submitting the same thing over and over and over again to the same audience.

    3.c You will know if you like it better. You don’t have to be a mature reader to know this. The fact is that there are hundreds of ways to do something that will be right. When you go with YOUR gut, you’re going to do something that’s only you. Go with your gut until a professional editor or someone you know you can trust tells you different.

  15. Thanks CM.

    I just needed to vent. Wrote the first draft of the query letter and spent the afternoon combing through the 2009 Agent’s Guide (forgot the official name). The thing is that many agents represent either sci-fi/fantasy OR contemporary/mainstream works of fiction but rarely both. I want an agent that can accommodate all my needs not just one side of my writing portfolio (if in fact I manage to score an agent that is).

    The hunt is on!

    I’ll have to search previous podcast (although I think I have heard them all), but I don’t think you guys (calling Dr Sanderson, Dr. Tayler, Dr. Wells!) done a podcast about agents/queries. Then again the Net is full of agent websites and suggestions about how to query.

    Just a suggestion from an avid listener.

    Oh and one more thing. I saw Brandon’s latest book on the shelf at the local Border’s but not any of his previous works. I want to give the earlier stuff a try, where do you recommend I should start?

  16. Mistborn

    *Grin* I basicly just said that to cause confusion. I havn’t read Elentris yet.

  17. Onelowerlight: Yes, I read another similar article on the same thing, and it’s just incredible.

    I’d never read a Hoffman book, but now I’m not going to.

  18. Mike,

    I don’t but I am damn sure they are a valuable resource and you’re a star for making them.

  19. John Brown,

    Wow. Thanks for the great in-depth advice (and step by step instructions; haha!) I really appreciate it. I imagine I’ll be coming back to this page in the future ;)

  20. Great podcast as always!

    One question. A comment was made in the podcast about rejection letters that indicate what was wrong or that they didn’t like, but don’t explicitly ask for revisions and a resubmittal. The comment indicated that these are implied invitations to revise and resubmit.

    I recently had a pro magazine reject a story with comments along the lines of “loved the ending, but the beginning not so much.” I’ve since been workshopping revisions, but wasn’t sure about resubbing to the magazine since they didn’t explicitly invite me to. They did sound encouraging about future subs though.

    What are the boundaries on something like this? Is it typically okay with editors to see the same story again in case of rejections like this, even if they did not explicitly invite it?

    Interestingly, last night, right after listening to the podcast, I read comments from Larry Niven where he sent the same story over and over again to Frederick Pohl, revising each time. Pohl finally said something like: “I think this could be better, but you may be tired of revising it, so I’ll buy it now as is.” It was implied that Pohl didn’t invite the revisions. I’m not sure I’d have the guts to just keep sending over and over again like that. 8-0

  21. Mike, they’re invaluable when you need to search for some specific advice you remember them giving but can’t remember which podcast it was in…

  22. Mike, while i don’t read them every time I do look them over probably two of every three podcasts. Thanks!

  23. Mike: I don’t make a habit of reading them but I do look them over occasionally.

    Guerry: My suggestion (not that I have any firsthand knowledge whatsoever) would be to query other magazines first, and if they turn you down, go back to the one that gave you comments and try again. You’d probably want to mention that in your cover letter if they want a cover letter.

    But no, I probably wouldn’t send it eight times…

  24. Thanks all! Appreciated hearing from you about the transcripts. I have to admit, I hadn’t even thought about searching, but that’s an important point. We don’t (yet) have good search methods for podcasts… so how are you going to find that podcast where Dan denied that he was a serial killer, anyway?

  25. Guerry,

    Editors (and slush readers) at pro magazines gets hundreds of submissions each month. They do NOT read to the end of the great bulk of the submissions. They can’t. Nor do they want to. They read until something bumps them out. They are reading to filter the bulk of the stories out. The fact that they read to the end of yours says something. It says your beginning was good enough to keep them going. So rejoice, look at your beginning, see if it really is slow/boring/whatever, and if it is, revise and resubmit, saying something along the lines of “thanks for your feedback on this story. I’ve revised the beginning, and think I have something that starts much better. Please let me know if this will work for your magazine.” Or whatever feels right to you. You don’t get those kinds of letters unless you’re almost ehre.

  26. Thanks John! I’ve already revised and workshopped the changes. After another round, I’ll resubmit.

    Much thanks,


  27. Great advice.

    The part about the one star reviews is spot on. No matter how good your work is, somebody is going to absolutely savage you just because they’re jerks.

    For example: Moby Dick. There was way too much whale stuff in this book. Or at least there was in the first chapters that I kinda skimmed. Whales are fat and they eat plankton. Planton is stupid and so is Herman Melville! ONE STAR!

    I’ve got a real hard time with this one because I’m prickly and like to argue with random folks on the internet. It is totally true, you can get dozens of great reveiws, and then you get one guy who picks you apart, and it ruins your whole day. I’ve got a handful of alpha readers that I trust, and nobody else sees anything until I’m really happy with it.

  28. My mother is a fantastic author- she’s had a novel that was the NY Times Notable Book of the Year, O. Henry Award, etc. But of course when she was starting out, she was getting rejected on the scale of many young unpublished and agentless wirters. It got her frustrated, of course, and she thought about doing something different with her life. Then she pulled herself up by her own bootstraps and decided to embrace the rejections in an interesting way; she wallpapered her study with them. Every time a rejection letter came in the mail, she would have me and my sister help her to paste it in place like a jigsaw puzzle. Then (this was before computers, just imagine) she hand-wrote her novel on gigantic sheets of graph paper. As each page was finished, she tacked it up on the wall, covering a section of the rejection letters. When the novel was finished, there was not a rejection letter in sight, and she sold the novel in about 3 months.

  29. Well like to me, rejection letters are one thing because its not like they are trying to write a book report on why your project sucks.

    A Helpful Critique is: “This part did not work for me, because the character suddenly switched from having green hair to having blue hair.”

    An Unspecific/Unhelpful critique is: “I’m starting to get a feel of padding, I’m going to crumple this and throw it in the toilet.'”

    If I’m having to ask a critiquer to be specific, then they are doing it wrong.

Comments are closed.