The skin of a writer is an extraordinary thing: hard enough to stand up to criticism, but soft enough to let good advice through.
But how do you know the advice is good? There is a difference between good advice and what we want to hear. And there is a balance to be struck between listening and ignoring.
Tip: Get yourself in the right mindset
It can be difficult, even wounding to hear criticism of our darlings. If you are wounded, it pays to take some time to let emotions settle before you assess the advice. Remember, all criticism is opinion. Your critic may be right, but they may also be wrong. OK, now you’re settled, loins girded. I’ll share with you the process I go through
Step 1: Listen to yourself
Even if I don’t like a criticism, there is sometimes a small nagging feeling of recognition. Even though it may be a monumental pain, to which I’m instinctively resistant, to restructure the first third of the work, is there an inner voice whispering that this may be a good idea? If there is no such voice, the criticism could still be valid: I may just be in denial.
Step 2: Is this actionable?
Not all criticism is useful. For example, “I didn’t like this” is completely useless: there’s no change I’m being recommended to make. Whereas, “If you prefigured her fear of the dark, this scene would have much more impact” is useful: it’s actionable. I may still decide I don’t want to take the recommended action, but that’s a different matter.
Step 3: How many?
How many critics have made the same comment? If one critic dislikes something you’ve written, that can be readily dismissed as opinion. If several people have the same criticism they are more likely to be onto something.
Step 4: Who are they?
Does the criticism come from someone whose opinion I respect and trust? Does the criticism come from people who read or write in the genre I’m writing? The response of romance readers to a thriller may be less relevant than that of thriller readers. There’s little point in telling a fantasy writer that dragons don’t exist and their inclusion spoiled the story for you.
Step 5: Does it fit?
Individuals are, well, individual. Some people will comment on the lack of, for example, olfactory description, others will comment on an overabundance. Advice to improve the pace by adding conflict scenes may not help a work whose aim is reflective. The question for me is “does this advice fit with and enhance my intention?” To take a concrete example, a critic recently pointed out in a chapter the lack of interaction between the protagonist and many other people. For this critic, it made the character less three-dimensional. But my character is deeply introverted and, in my view, it’s the lack of interaction that makes him three-dimensional.
Step 6: Whose voice?
Ideally, a critic is examining how well I’m achieving my intent. But this is not always the case. Often, criticism is of the “if I was writing this” type. It’s almost always best to ignore this advice, however seductive. You can only ever write in your own voice.
Step 7: Sequence
If a critic says (especially if several say) they didn’t follow something, I pay close attention. I’m the author so I know exactly what’s going on. But I may well have omitted to write a step in the sequence, or to signal a change of place or time.