The critic under your roof

Many of us here are married, or live with a long term partner. How do you deal with criticism on your art from your spouse or partner? Is it helpful? Did you and your other half have to work out ways to communicate what they mean better? (On art, specifically. We all have to work out communication on everything else, as well.)

Some artists use their spouse as their sounding board, to bounce ideas off and help them grow into full stories. Others use their spouse as their first reader, and some even as their first editor – in which case the spouse often puts extensive work into the formal language and technique of the craft, to help pinpoint what might want work and how to fix it. Others view their spouse as a great example of the public, and the very lack of training makes them much better at giving a target market response which the artist then has to figure out how to interpret, and what if anything to change.

And some artists have spouses whose tastes in art, entertainment, and literature are so different that their feedback is rarely helpful past a copyedit… because they don’t enjoy the subgenre / style, and aren’t the target market at all.

The last, by the way? Not as unusual as you think; it includes Peter and myself. Which shouldn’t be surprising when you look at our bookshelves. His includes British comedies from the 1920’s and British noir from the 1930’s, Louis L’amour, David Weber, David Drake, James Blish, H Rider Haggard, and tech-heavy thrillers and military histories…. mine includes CJ Cherryh, Lois Bujold, Patricia Briggs, Wen Spencer, wildcrafting books by biome, gardening, Jacques-Yves Cousteau on scuba diving and Sparky Imeson on mountain flying. He loves paintings with wide-open vistas dwarfing a guy on horseback, and I like WWII pinup art. He likes the Goon Show, and I like Deadpool.

Even so, as we’ve read each other’s books, we’ve found a few ground rules to help.

First, understand that feedback from your spouse is never going to come clean, clear, untangled with everything else going on in the relationship at the time, and it’s hard to take objectively. Understand it, and center on the fact that you love the person, they love you, and they’re not attacking you. They’re commenting on the art. The art is not you. The art is not your relationship. It’s only the art.

(This is hard. See also: why we get friends and professionals to teach us things instead of our spouses.)

Second: most artists actually appreciate the feedback, and wish they’d get more. (Even if a certain emotional cooling off period after getting it is needed).

Third: most of the clash comes from the manner of the feedback. (Communication issues – what did you mean? What did you say? What did they hear? What did they understand?)

Spouses with training in writing are much better to articulate the feedback, but spouses who enjoy the subgenre and aren’t trained are much closed to target market response. Either way, the writer and spouse are going to end up with miscommunications and raw feelings from lack of understanding – so writer, please work on feedback to your spouse on how the feedback helped, what you need in terms of feedback, and how best to communicate that to you.

Spend a lot of time focusing on the positive here! The aim being to build each other up, not tear each other down. Sometimes a partner is communicating poorly just because they don’t know what you need! Usually, that’s when you get “That was good” or a copyedit in return.

Also, keep in mind that just as what you need will change over time, from story to story, and over your career as a writer, you’ll want that to explain to your partner so the communication and critique will change, too. (Nobody here is a mind-reader.)

….but what do you do when you feel your spouse is wrong?

Well, first off, take a deep breath, let it out, and repeat until the initial emotional reaction is past. Know they they love you and have your best interest in mind. Then, considering that they’re talking about the art and not about you, is this a reaction other readers are likely to have? If so, what’s the root cause of it? (Remember: beta readers including spouses are often good at identifying a symptom, but often terrible at identifying the real cause.) If you still think they’re wrong or missing the point, (especially when your spouse doesn’t get the reader cookies for this subgenre), stay true to your story.

In the end, you have to write what makes you happy, and feels true to you – otherwise, this isn’t going to be fun anymore, and it’s not going to feel like your book with your voice.

(Last, but importantly, sometimes partners aren’t always operating with the artist’s best interests in mind. Sometimes their feedback comes out of jealousy, or fear, or anger at something unrelated motivating them to hurt. And sometimes their tastes are so incompatible they’re trying to help, but all their suggestions boil down to “make it something I’d like to read.” In the first case, it’s time to ignore their feedback on the piece, and spend some time with them working on the relationship itself… or ending it. In the second, it’s time to love them for who and what they are, but not to burden yourself or them with requests for feedback.)


  1. I’ve never met anyone in person who likes my writing. There have been a few who have been willing to admit that it’s a harmless waste of time, provided that it doesn’t interfere with making a living and taking care of the house. The majority, however, have viewed it as a bad habit that they should take steps to break me of.

  2. “That was pretty good . . . I spotted a few typos.”

    ::sigh:: At least my husband likes them, and is always asking for more. But useful feedback? Nope, doesn’t happen. Probably just as well.

  3. “How do you deal with criticism on your art from your spouse or partner?”

    Ha ha, if only! Nobody around here will read any of it. Not a word. Nobody wants to hear about it either.

    The closest I got was sitting Young Relative down in front of my first book on the computer. Ten minutes later there was laughter, and the book was still on the screen, so I took that as a win. Young Relative lasted an hour, which is pretty good in a kid, so I took that as a win as well.

    They just think I’m weird, pretty much. Which it fair, really. I am kinda weird.

  4. My husband beta read my first few books—bless him!—but we discovered two things: 1) even though he reads SFF, the sub-genre of it that I am writing in isn’t really his wheelhouse; 2) the feedback he generates isn’t that helpful to me, because it tends to focus on the phrasing with a focus on changing my voice closer to his.

    Amazingly enough, we managed to figure out those things without hurting one another’s feelings. Yay!

    In the process, my husband grew fascinated with all the changes that were happening in publishing. He became a regular reader of Kris Rusch’s blog and of The Passive Voice.

    So we regularly discuss publishing, indie publishing, marketing, etc. He feels like a solid partner in my career, but the focus is on the publishing part, not the writing part.

    My 16-year-old son, however, is a real fan of my stories. He devours them once I’ve reached the final draft. I use him to asses the effectiveness of my revisions and whether my target audience will like the book. If he gives the ms. a thumb’s up, then it is ready to go!

  5. My parents beta-read my books, up to about halfway through one of them (Quivera Trail, IIRC) when my father died suddenly, and my mother never had quite the same interest as he did. But I did value their input, especially my fathers’ when it came to nature, and science, and certainly practical things like – how heavy a sledge-hammer can an ordinary guy swing effectively. My mother was excellent for horse-lore, and for advice on my characters’ development. They did not pull their punches when it came to thoughtful criticism, OR think that every word was perfect as it was, and I appreciated the heck out of their input – and still rather miss it.

    1. My mom died before I started writing, and I wish I could let her know. Husband’s feedback is affectionate but un-detailed, and the Kid gobbles them up.

  6. Last, but importantly, sometimes partners aren’t always operating with the artist’s best interests in mind. Sometimes their feedback comes out of jealousy, or fear, or anger at something unrelated motivating them to hurt.

    I would say an even bigger danger would be that the feedback would come out of love. “You made this, honey, so it’s beautiful.” “I want to encourage you and make you happy, so I’ll say it’s wonderful.” Or even, “This sucks, but sleeping on the couch tonight would suck even worse, so I think I’ll just correct a few spelling mistakes and keep mum about the rest.” That last guy isn’t necessarily wrong, by the way, in thinking that an honest assessment of the art isn’t worth a fight with his life partner.

    I know some people have managed to make such a partnership work, like Dorothy and Peter, but I would definitely be cautious at asking spouses for help. It’s a lot easier to find new beta readers than it is to find a new husband.

  7. I actively seek out Rhys’ opinion, especially when I’m in a rut. He’s helped with a number of projects because I’ll find that I’ve gotten what I call ‘eye burn’ – especially with art – and I have trouble seeing mistakes when I get there. So, new perspective and fresh eyes.

  8. At the extreme, C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner extensively co-authored stuff. And when he died tragically young, it was the end of her SF writing career.

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