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  • Leah E. Welker

My Second Fear: Criticism

A typewriter with the word "Review" typed on the inserted page. Photo credit: Markus Winkler on Unsplash.

My second fear is of criticism, or critical feedback. It's a fear, just like failure, that I faced as soon as I shared my work with someone else, and it is one I've grappled with ever since, with less success.

My writing isn't—and can't be—perfect. But it can be better. And it's not going to get as good as it can get without someone else showing me my blind spots. Feedback, therefore, is an unavoidable part of the writing process. I know that.

Doesn't mean it isn't my least favorite part, and perhaps always will be, because I haven't yet found any way to make it pain-free. And yes, it almost always hurts.

Why copyediting doesn't hurt

Almost always. People pointing out typos, style inconsistencies, grammar issues—goodness, that feedback is always welcome and doesn't cause me a twinge of discomfort. Those things are so human, so easily fixable, and so objectively correct or incorrect (or objectively a style decision) that I don't give them a second thought. I'm an editor, and most of my training is in just that sort of editing: copyediting. Perhaps I know that kind of editing so well that I know just how utterly ridiculous it can be at times and I can just laugh at it and fix it in a jiffy.

But that's not even really feedback, is it? It's just . . . editing. It's just the writing equivalent of kindly pointing out to someone that their shoelace is untied—something that we can almost universally agree is a small, slightly troublesome thing that we've all done, and pointing it out is almost just pointing out our shared humanity in the kindliest way possible.

Feedback . . . is something different. It's not pointing out untied shoelaces. It's saying that orange just isn't your color, that the cut of the shirt you're wearing doesn't suit your figure, and you should never wear black with navy. Feedback is personal.

Why feedback hurts

Unsolicited, feedback can be downright rude, is often delivered poorly (broad, subjective, not actionable, one-way, presumes motive, etc.), and is frequently just plain wrong. (Also, I'll wear black with navy if I want, thank you very much, and there's fashion advice out there to back me up. Just Google it.)

Solicited feedback is different. Obviously, when I am handing my manuscripts to my beta readers and asking for feedback, the rude thing would be for them to not give it to me. And so far, my beta readers have very graciously delivered.

For any beta readers reading this blog post, thank you. Your time is valuable, and so are your thoughts; I don't take either for granted. Every one of you have given me things to think about, and I think every one of you have helped me improve the books in at least a small way.

But because this is a post about fears, I do have to admit that I fear feedback in the same way that any sane person going into a fight fears getting hurt. Because any comment that rises above the shoelace level hurts. It's just a fact, and I haven't figured out how to make it entirely go away, no matter how much I remind myself how necessary and beneficial feedback is, no matter how well-intentioned the giver is, no matter how kindly the feedback is phrased. It still hurts. Because it's personal.

I've said this before, but I'll say it again here. My writing—especially my fiction—is an invitation into my mind: my hopes, my dreams, my fears, my curiosities. And my characters that populate that world are my friends (aside from the villains, obviously). My dear, dear friends. Comments on any of those things feel inherently personal.

And I have not figured out a way to turn it off. And I don't think that's unique to me. Negative feedback triggers the human fight-or-flight response. Humans are pack animals, and therefore our brains are heavily programed to be on alert for any sign that the pack might reject us, because rejection = death. It's as primal as that.

Making feedback hurt less (and lessening the fear)

The good news (to me) is that emotional reactions to feedback are natural and expected and can be reframed to continue learning.

I've had professional training and coaching on giving and receiving feedback, but since that was in a workplace context, dealing with things that weren't so personal to me or with people who were so close to me, I was still unprepared for the feedback cycle on these first six books. I'm working on separating myself from my writing, because I understand it would be much better for my mental health. I'm not there yet, but I have hope that I'm getting better. Because even if I have to keep entering the ring in order to make my writing stronger, I'm starting to learn I don't have to enter unarmored or unarmed.

Listing the following methods I'm developing is good for my own thought process (as I said in an earlier post, I'm treating this blog like my public writing journal), but I also hope they'll be helpful for any other creative who is reading this and struggling with how to deal with feedback.

Setting Boundaries

The cycle of fear and pain (and insecurity) reached such a pitch at one point, soon after I finished the sixth book, that I had to ask my very kind, intelligent, well-meaning family members to stop giving me critical feedback except in written form—in other words, not out loud, off the cuff, when I was just walking around the house, going about my life. Though that may have been the most convenient method for them, it was the most damaging kind to me (and the least useful kind because it put the burden on my memory instead of giving me a written record I could reference when I was ready to use it).

No one wants to just be going about their life and have curveballs like that just thrown at them at random. Remember: negative feedback triggers the fight-or-flight response. That's why spouses who are critical of their partners wreck the health of their partners so thoroughly. Of all the places we need to feel safe in order to recharge, it's home. If we're walking on eggshells waiting for the next critique, however well-meaning, we can't feel safe, and we can't recover enough to face the slings of the world too.

I am so lucky that all I had to do was realize what I needed so that I could ask for it, and my very kind, respectful family members immediately complied. I can't imagine what it is like for people who live in other situations.

Fear isn't always rational, as much as I'd like it to be; as much as I'd like to just be able to reason it away, I can't in all cases, and this is one of them. But identifying and setting that boundary and seeing it respected quieted the most irrational side of my fear of criticism almost immediately, perhaps because it convinced my psyche I was safer and had more control than it had thought.

That was when I realized something very powerful: boundaries create safety. When we can identify the boundaries we need and ask for them, and our loved ones respect those boundaries, they are giving us back the sense of control that we irrationally felt we were losing, and that can make all the difference to restoring safety (and rationality).

Creating Buckets

Along those lines, I started creating better buckets for my feedback. Until that point, I'd accepted feedback in whatever way was most convenient for the beta reader, whether that was verbally, in texts, in emails, or in marked up documents. Rationally, that seemed the best approach, because those readers were doing me a favor. And feedback was a gift, right?

Unfortunately, that led to . . .

  1. A lot of work to gather and analyze the feedback, and even more to sort through the noise of unhelpful comments to get to the actionable points.

  2. Probably losing some feedback that was only given orally.

  3. The aforementioned lack of psychological safety, when I could get a text, email, or verbal critique at any moment.

I realized that laissez-faire approach wasn't sustainable. (Also, feedback is not a gift—it's data, which can be useful and/or useless.) And so, I began requesting to all my beta readers that I only receive feedback in a marked-up document and a survey.

That method still needed refinement, since I still wanted to make it easy to give me feedback, but I think I've hit a good medium now with a combination of Google docs and surveys. Not only has that helped keep the feedback totally separate from my everyday life (now I only receive emails when the beta reader wants the next book, and those go to my work email at that) but I've gotten better quality feedback ever since. Although some of that better quality can be attributed to the next point.

Setting Expectations

As a writer by lifelong hobby and editor by years of training, I just took it for granted that the people I shared my books with would know how to give good feedback on writing. If I'd even thought about it in so many words, I would have realized my mistake at once, but I didn't think about it. I was just too excited to share.

Just as it takes training to give good feedback in any context (personal, professional, etc.) it takes training to give good feedback on writing. Even if someone who is a lifelong reader and aced their English classes doesn't mean they automatically have the mental framework, vocabulary, and phrasing practice to give good, useful feedback to a writer. And boy did I have that point hammered into me (really, it often felt like hammer blows) time and again over the next year.

That was my fault. Since I'm starting out with a shoestring budget, I'm relying on a lot of kind friends and family and friends of friends and so on who have never done this before. To my knowledge, not a single one has that kind of experience and training. I should have set some expectations and prepared them from the very beginning, but I didn't, and that's my bad. Sorry, everyone.

I soon realized my mistake, and when I began really expanding my pool of beta readers, I wrote up a set of instructions, explaining exactly what beta reading was (and wasn't) and giving examples of the most useful kinds of feedback and how to phrase them. I think that, combined with my new survey/doc method, has helped cut down on the noise and get me to the actionable stuff.

Future Plans

As I said in the beginning, I'm still far from having conquered this fear, and I'm not even sure it can be conquered, given how hard-wired that emotional response is in the human psyche. I've heard of feedback experts who still have that initial emotional response.

But I am learning and can learn more on how to manage it. To continue to combat this fear, I plan to . . .

  1. Do even more research on the topic of receiving feedback (which I should have done earlier). Predictably, I've just ordered several books on the subject.

  2. Continue to improve my feedback collection process.

  3. Identify more beta readers that enjoy my genre and writing style in general so I'm emotionally grappling with less feedback that's about things that don't need to change.

In the future, that last point may require paying people, or maybe I'll gather fans that can be beta readers. I don't know yet what form that will take. But as deeply grateful as I am to the many people who have kindly taken the time to read the books and give me feedback, I know it won't be a productive use of everyone's time and my emotional energy to ask for all of them to do it again with another series.

So thank you again, any of you reading this who beta read for me before. It was a good way to start out—perhaps the way I needed to start out to learn all I am learning now. But that phase in my journey is closing, and another one is beginning.


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