Not only are you allowed to say no: sometimes you just have to.

But first, look for reasons to say yes.

tl:dr boundaries are hard.

The art of when to push back against those we perceive as authority figures is a hard skill to master.

My experience for the last fifteen years is largely as a freelancer, so I’m going to talk specifically about that here, but I also feel as if these skills I’ve developed as a freelancer would have been useful to me in earlier days when I was an employee.

It’s easy to push back too hard and too often, to the detriment of your art and your career. (Divas, it turns out, don’t actually tell better stories than writers who know when to take critique, and they’re certainly less fun to work with.) It behooves us all to remember that our agents and editors want our books to succeed.

They are bringing their own hopefully not inconsiderable skills to bear to make that happen, and although most people’s response to critique is MY PRECIOUS BABY IT’S PERFECT, it’s probably good for all of us to be able to take a step back, breathe into a paper bag, take a walk, and come back and look at the critique again when we can take it in before we make decisions that will have lasting consequences.

Maybe break it down into a list of bullet points and consider each one separately. That’s a trick that works for me when I am confronted with the overwhelm of FIX EVERYTHING IN YOUR BOOK.

Also remember that your editor wouldn’t have bought the book if they didn’t like it and think it would sell, and your agent wouldn’t be representing you if they didn’t think the effort was worth it.

But it’s also easy for writers, especially beginning writers, to erase themselves and twist their narratives into awkward shapes to please other people—critique partners, agents, editors, frenemies, what-have-you. It’s possible to hear supportive critique as negative, even hateful or undermining.

It’s equally possible to take bad critique far too seriously. And a lot of which way one tends to over-react will depend on one’s basic temperament. As with so many things, self-knowledge is key.

So, when receiving a critique, the things to ask one’s self include:

  • “What is my vision of this work perfected, and does this critique help me get closer to it?”

  • “Am I, the artist, acting or reacting as I respond to this critique? Am I considering it reasonably, or is it just pushing my buttons?”

  • “What are this reader’s qualifications to offer critique?” (I’ve seen far too many talented writers take the advice of confident-sounding randos in online crit groups way too seriously. Confident-sounding randos in online crit groups are often the last people you should be listening to. Especially if they have a SYSTEM that you should FOLLOW to GET PUBLISHED.)

  • “Does the reader understand what I am doing?” (If they don’t, then your problem is to fix the story so the reader does understand what you are doing, not follow whatever random suggestions they made while they were groping for something useful to say.)

  • “Is this reader my target audience?” (If the person offering critique wants your steamy paranormal romance to be a sweet YA to suit their reading preferences, or vice versa, you might have a problem.)

  • “Does the reader’s agenda match mine?” (If the person offering critique wants you to conform to their standard of how to present, for example, your own lived experience—especially if it is lived experience of a marginalization—their unconscious discomfort with How Real Your Shit Is might get in the way. Some critiquers will unintentionally push a story in the direction of the conventional—the tropes they are comfortable with. OTOH, if somebody is telling you that what you wrote is exploitative of their own lived experience, it might be a good idea to take that one on board.)

  • “Does this break my story in a bad way?” (Some crit advice breaks a story in a good way—it exposes problems and flaws or overly conventional/cliche plotting. Some crit advice breaks a story in a bad way, and turns it into the story you don’t want to tell. I got a very nice offer on a fantasy novel once… if I’d been willing to take all the deconstruction and nastiness out of it. In that particular case, the deconstruction and nastiness was the point: my entire reason for writing the book had been to underline some stuff that tends to get elided in a particular kind of commercial fantasy. I eventually sold the book to a different house and it did pretty well…)

That last one brings me to my final point: It’s okay to turn down work. Either because it doesn’t pay enough, or because you are too busy, or because you don’t like the job. You can turn down an offer on a book, too, if you don’t like the editorial direction.

It’s okay. It’s your name on the final product, not anybody else’s. You are the person who will own your work forever.

That’s the reason why, once you’ve thought about all the reasons why you might want to say yes, I give you permission to say no.

My new book, The Red-Stained Wings, is available from fine retailers online or near you now.