The 5(+1) Stages of Critique Grief for Writers

I’ve just come back from an Illinois SCBWI Spring conference. The whole conference was themed around writing pitches. I got to sit down at a table with other writers and an agent while they gave me feedback on my work. Not only that, I got back an agent critique that was full of hard truths. Getting professional feedback on your work is both vitally important and…. well…. terrifying.

Which has me reflecting on the nature of the critique beast. Getting feedback on your work is a lot like the 5 stages of grief. (BUG IN A VACUUM by Melanie Watt does a wonderful job of illustrating this process.)

5 STAGES OF CRITIQUE GRIEF FOR WRITERS

  1. DENIAL: “No, you’re wrong. There’s nothing wrong with my narrative arc.”
  2. ANGER: “How dare you! What do you know anyway?”
  3. BARGAINING: “But I can leave in just this one part, right?”
  4. DEPRESSION: “I’ll never get published. This manuscript is hopeless.”
  5. ACCEPTANCE: “Ok, you have a point. I guess I’ll have to revise.”

For writers I would add one more step to the process:

6. EXCITEMENT: “Wow, this is so much better!”

This is what people mean when they say you need to have “tough skin” in this business. We pour our hearts and souls into our writing then serve it up on a platter for others to tear apart. It’s hard. Just remember that your work will be better when you accept help.

Some people get to the depression stage and just give up.  Finding flaws in your writing is not a terminal diagnosis. One-dimensional characters can be rewritten. Plot holes can be bridged. Stilted dialogue can be changed.

The only thing that’s terminal, is giving up. If you keep going and get to the other end of this process, your work will be much stronger.

This process works better the more times you do it. Every time you throw yourself into this process, you get a little better. So not only is your first manuscript stronger at the end, your tenth manuscript will start out stronger because of what you learned in the previous nine manuscripts. And by the time you get it to the end of the process, it will be a masterpiece that you couldn’t have dreamt of back there at manuscript number one.

If your thinking that subjecting yourself to this emotional turmoil more than once sounds like a writerly version of hell, let me tell you a little secret:

When you’ve been at it awhile, this process changes a bit.

5 STAGES OF CRITIQUE GRIEF FOR THE EXPERIENCED WRITER

  1. DENIAL: “No, you’re wrong. There’s nothing wrong with my narrative arc.”
  2. ANGER: “How dare you criticize my work! What do you know anyway!”
  3. BARGAINING: “Well, what if I just keep this one part? This character is ok, right?”
  4. DEPRESSION: “I will never get published. This manuscript is hopeless.”
  5. ACCEPTANCE: “Ok, you have a point. I guess I’ll have to revise.”
  6. EXCITEMENT: “Hey, this is going to be so much better. Yay!”

With time and experience, you learn to skip right over all the angst and get to the productive end of the cycle.

Ok, this is a simplification. Of course seasoned professional writers can get emotional when they’re getting feedback. They’re people, not robots, after all. But with experience these emotions aren’t so raw. And they can move to the good stuff at the end more quickly. After all, they’ve been to the other side and seen the fruits of this process.

So, take a breath. Thank the person for their time. Then go have some chocolate. In a day or a week or a month when the sting is a little less, you can sort out what’s valuable and use it to improve your work. The important part is to keep going so you can get to the shiny new manuscript at the end of the tunnel.

After this conference, I have a lot of feedback to sort through but I’m looking forward to the manuscripts that will come out of the other side.

But first, chocolate.

Leave a Reply