Are you willing to take the risk that half the people who read your book will hate you? If you’re not willing to take that risk, you won’t be able to write a tremendous book. You won’t move anyone to feel anything because you’re too worried about offending everyone.
Dita von Teese once said: “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.”
Some people will love your book. Some will hate it. So what? Once your book’s out there, what people think of it — and you — is beyond your control.
But what about when you’re wallowing deep in the editing stage of writing your book and it’s time to get some feedback? What then? How do you deal with criticism with grace and gratitude, and how do you turn it into something helpful?
My primary weapon in the defence of my ego and self-esteem is to get in there first. I ask for feedback from my beta readers often and early — and here’s why: I want my book to be the best it can be.
So do you, right? You’ve poured weeks, possibly months, of your skills, knowledge, passion, tears, and experience into creating this book. You’ve written it because you want to reach more people and help them improve their lives in some way. And of course, you want your book to be the best it can be.
No good book is written alone. (Plenty of bad ones are, though.) It takes a group of dedicated, caring weirdos to write something worth reading.
You have clients, customers, email subscribers, colleagues, and peers who are willing you to succeed, so bring them into your book writing adventure. Create a group of beta readers and ask them to read your book, piece by piece. Ask them for feedback. What works? What doesn’t? Does it flow well? Was there anything that tripped you up, or you didn’t understand?
Ask detailed questions and make it clear you’re after constructive criticism as well as praise.
We all love to hear what we’ve written is fabulous and moves people… but simple praise with no substance, while lovely, isn’t helpful enough.
Criticism, on the other hand, is like uncut diamonds: somewhere in there is treasure you can turn into a tiara.
You and I both know criticism can hurt. It’s hard to hear you’ve created something that’s not up to scratch. It’s tough to realise you’re not done yet — especially if you’re tired and you can see the finish line.
But criticism — constructive criticism — is crucial if we want to write better books.
My advice, to soften the blow, is to remember three things:
You’ve asked for the feedback so you can make your book as good as it can be — use it.
This isn’t about criticising you as a person, it’s about improving the book you’ve written. Separate yourself from your art (because it is art, even if it’s non-fiction).
Receive the criticism, allow yourself five minutes to grumble or cry or swear — then read it properly and objectively and figure out how to use it.
Most of your critics want you to succeed. They want to help you. Let them. You don’t have to listen to everything they say and you don’t have to agree with it all — but listen and evaluate. Do they have a point? If so, make changes to your book. Improve it.
If they don’t have a point — thank them and ignore it.
If someone gives you negative unsolicited feedback, you can ignore that, too. Ask people you know will be honest but kind and value their input.
Finally, if you’re lucky enough to be asked to critique someone else’s book, remember this: it’s a great privilege. Someone trusts you enough to ask your opinion on their work of art. That’s huge. So be kind.
Start with what works well. We’re a fragile lot, writers. We bruise easily. Tell your author friend what you love about their book, how it moves you, and why. This is helpful, because when they’re editing, they’ll be able to incorporate more of what you like into their writing.
Then, and only then, move onto criticism — and be constructive. Telling someone their writing is clumsy or amateurish or just not good, and leaving it at that isn’t just unhelpful, it’s mean. Instead of focusing on what the writer has done, look at how they can improve in the future.
We get defensive when people tell us something we’ve done is shit (and even if you don’t actually say something is shit, that’s how we often hear it). But if we hear suggestions for how to make something better in the next round of editing, it’s positive. It’s not connected to us and what we’ve written in the past. It’s about what we’ve not yet written.
Remember the negativity bias: we’re far more likely to remember negative feedback than positive, so we focus on the negative and forget we’re also amazing.
Suggesting where a writer can rephrase sentences and paragraphs, or cut out words, or use more fascinating descriptives, is much more helpful — and it’s kind.
If you have a specific criticism, pair it with a suggestion.
Mix your feedback up: include positive and constructive criticism — and when you give positive feedback, explain why. Why did this paragraph work? What moved you about the end of that chapter?
Finally, I’d like to share something I learned from Brené Brown’s wonderful book Daring Greatly — grab a Post-It note or a small square of paper, and write down on it the names of all the people whose opinions matter to you. People you admire.
If you get negative feedback from anyone and it upsets you, check your list. Is their name on it? If not, screw them. They don’t matter. If their name is on the list, remember why you admire them and remember they’ll certainly have your best interests at heart.
Finally finally, remember this: you are skilled. You are talented. You want to create something wonderful that’ll make a real difference in the world. Let people help you do that, and ignore those who can’t or won’t be helpful and kind.
If you want to learn more about how to write, self-publish, and market a book for your business, snaffle yourself a copy of How The Hell Do You Write A Book? Then check out the blog and podcast for more articles and guides. If you want a little (or a lot) more help, find out how you can work with me.
Vicky Fraser is the founder of Moxie Books and author of How The Hell Do You Write A Book and Business For Superheroes. She helps business owners write books, connect with readers and new customers, and grow their businesses. When she's not doing that, she's hanging from a trapeze by her feet.
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