Criticism. I don’t think I have truly crossed this bridge yet with my writing. I’ve read numereous other writer blog posts, where they mourn negative reviews of their work. I read their words and wonder if my life experience has prepared me for the kind of criticism I am sure to see in the near future. Over the years, I’ve been told by different supervisors, that I take criticism well. When my editor praised my ability to take her criticism in stride, I saw it as further proof that yes, I do take criticism well. I don’t have a magic formula for dealing with criticism, but it is the focus of this weeks writers advice.
Writers Advice #6: Criticism, ready or not here it comes!
I was an Army Intelligence officer, and my branch of officer gets copiously groomed during the basic course on how to take a beating during briefings. It is one branch of the Army where you could graduate your basic course as a Second Lieutenant, and walk into a position where you might be briefing officers with stars on their shoulder. I didn’t believe my instructors when they touted this fact. Boy was I wrong. I learned a lot in a short few years as a junior officer working with a Division staff. The best lessons I learned was how to take criticism, and not take it personal. I was surrounded by senior enlisted and senior officers, some of whom liked to tell me they had uniforms older than me. Everyone outranked me in time or grade. I was constantly being criticized, mentored, chastised, and groomed. What does my fledgling officer career have to do with writing? A lot, I definitely grew a thick skin for job performance based criticism in the Army. I may not have had a novel torn apart, but I’ve had my share of lovingly crafted Operation Order Annexes and Appendices ripped apart.
1) It is impossible to please everybody. What I found most frustrating about all the copious grooming I experienced, was the sheer amount of it. For me it felt like everyone around me felt the urge to impart some nugget of wisdom or advice. It just got to be a to much, to soon, and a to often kind of deal for me. While the majority of it was well intended, in the long run I had to decide who I wanted as my mentors. I needed to determine for myself who’s lead was best to follow, and let the rest fade into the everyday noise. I learned how to discern criticism by incorporating my opinions about the person giving the advise. How do you feel about their performance, experience, and ability? Do you revere them or does their opinion not mean a whole lot to you? This is easier to quantify when dealing with a supervisor or coworker. When you are dealing with a general audience reader you will never get a handle on how you feel about each individual. Which means you should not hang your hat on the good or the bad reviews. Focus instead on the people whose opinion you honor and respect. As writers we need to hone in on whose opinion matters to us.
2) The truth can hurt. In my experience, criticism that hurts the most, is what I’ve needed to work on the most. If it hurts, then a part of you is conscious of what has been addressed, and you are feeling the pain of the realization of a shortcoming or failure. It is easy to rebuff hearing a hard truth, play it off as false, or as being said by someone trying to be mean. However I think it is more brave to face down shortcomings. Don’t push away the people willing to deliver a hard truth with you. It takes heart and courage for someone to deliver a hard truth. People who have your best interests at heart will be honest with you, even when it is a difficult message to deliver. Others will tell you how wonderful you are, and remain content to watch you fail, verses taking the risk of telling you about a potentially offending truth. It is up to you how you handle a hard truth, but in my experience it is much more noble to own your failures than ignore them.
3) Relevant Criticism will be accompanied by a remedy. Often times helpful criticism will be accompanied by rationale or a way to improve the mistake pointed out. For example:
- I didn’t like it, the characters were to dumb for me.
- I was not a fan of the protagonist, she made a series of bad decisions I could not relate to or understand.
While both examples might have the same meaning, the second example gives an explanation. If I was given the above comments about something I wrote, I would simply write off number one as someones opinion, “oh well I can’t please everybody”. However number two I would latch onto. That is criticism I can take action to correct in the future.
- It was such a bad read, I didn’t finish it.
- I had a hard time finishing this book. There were numerous grammatical errors, and the formatting of the dialog was strange.
- I couldn’t finish it. There’s to much exposition narrative for my taste.
- This is just not my genre.
As someone who cares about writing a quality review for both the author, and future readers, I hate it when I run accross reviews where a reader makes a blanket comment. For example the comment, “It was such a bad read.” This kind of critic is not helpful if it is not followed up with disclaimers or explanations as to why. A helpful review will give explanations of the good and the bad. In contrast to number one, two through four provide reasons for a potential “bad read” or low review score. Numbers two and three a writer can work to fix in the future, and number four is not the writer or readers fault. It is much easier for the writer to know the reader did not enjoy their work because of the genre, than get a blanket “bad read” comment.
4) Where is it coming from? This is the question I was taught to ask myself, while learning to be discerning about criticism. Is what was said intended to be mean or are they trying to be helpful? This can be tricky, you have to be careful not to assume the worst in people. There is a difference between how you hear things being said when you read it, and what was actually written. It is easy to exert our own internal voice over written communication. If we are negatively responding to something, we can suddenly be reading into what is there, and see a message that was never actually stated. Put the criticism aside for few days and circle back to it later when you might be less emotional about it. Have a trusted friend read it without telling them what kind of message you are reading. See if they are reading it with the same message you are. If they are not, then odds are you are emotionally over reacting to what is there. Your ego is probably angry at the audacity of someone not seeing your perfection, and that is an entirely different issue.
5) Don’t “What if” about the future opinions of your audience. I had the opportunity to observe my daughters Kindergarden class last year when a guest speaker was presenting. At first the questions asked by the students were focused and specific. Towards the end, the five and six years olds questions got a little crazy, and these questions all began with the words “What if”. The teacher swiftly took over for a moment, reminding the class, “What if” questions were not allowed. She turned to me as an aside saying, “They’ll what if all day if I let them.” Don’t “What if” about the thoughts and opinions of your future readers. You too can what if all day if you let yourself. This is a form of worrying that is unproductive, and will not aide in your pursuit to handle criticism with grace. There was a study done about what Americans worry about verses what actually ends up happening. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati have found 85% of what we worry about never comes to pass. In most circumstances, we are our own worst critics. We will identify and perseverate over our flaws, while everyone around us will never see it. Generally speaking, most people are so self consumed, they hardly notice what we find fault with. Don’t get distracted worrying about something you cannot control, the opinion of others.
6) You will be judged. I didn’t forget about that other 15% of valid worries. Common phrases I’ve heard, when writers agonize over the lack of empathy people have when criticizing their work:
- “They can’t even comprehend how much time it’s taken me.”
- “It’s part of me I’ve exposed.”
- “It’s my baby.”
Please, get over your self. Quit being a baby. Yes it’s taken a ridiculous amount of time, yes you have made yourself vulnerable, and of course you have nurtured it. That’s how most art is made last time I checked. It is for these reasons I feel it takes a special level of courage to be an artist. Publication puts a writers art in front of an audience. Welcome to the world of being an artist, you shall be judged. Learn to deal with the critics, learn to get over the disappointments you might feel reading less than stellar review. Congratulations, someone actually read your work, hopefully they will share an articulate opionion of it. You should honor the time the reader dedicated to reading your work, by considering what they are saying about it. Most people don’t open a book hoping it will be a terrible read. Be a professional, don’t hang your hat on what they say, but listen to your readers opinions. Doing this has the potential to provide you with an opportunity to learn something. If you can’t be a professional, your ego is to fragile. Being overly sensitive to negative criticisms about your work, means you are defining yourself by your work. If you cannot tough through this assault on your ego, I suggest you not pursue publication of your musings. You get to choose whether or not to place your work in front of an audience. You need to choose how you react to them. You can ignore criticism, you can leverage it for your betterment, you could even try to fight it, but you will not escape it.