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Absorbing Criticism

As everyday writers, the minute we put our writing into someone else’s hands, we open ourselves to criticism. When asked recently what she would advise her younger self, Hillary Clinton said, “Take criticism seriously but not personally.” This is sound advise.  Especially for writers.

To me, taking it “seriously” does not mean to use everything everyone says to you. You’ll drive yourself crazy! Some criticism is not worth the time. General critical comments are often not helpful at all.  It can get sticky in fiction, too.  I had someone tell me young accountants never went out for drinks!  Or that they never give out that kind of money in the music business. (I, having worked there, against the criticizer who knew nothing about it.)  I’m not sure where these kind of comments come from.  Simply note the source.

Editors, people who have been successful in the publishing industry or the industry you’re writing about, fellow writers, and others you think worthy should be accorded the respect of taking what they say seriously. That means seriously considering it.  Listening to it. Being open to it.

To accept any criticism it must first be filtered through your own knowing.  You are the author and therefore it is imperative that whatever you write stays true to your story, characters or subject.  What you need to say is the most important factor.  As the writer, it is up to you to stand up and protect what you’ve written.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seriously consider criticism. Criticism dismissed because it hurts is unnecessary and a sad waste. There is so much wealth to be found in another’s point of view!

Recently, a fellow writer made some strong comments about my submission to our critique group.  To be helpful, she also made suggestions of how I might correct the problem.  Her ideas did not feel right for my characters or where I want to go with the story.

The first thought my ego tossed out was that she was wrong, she didn’t understand and I had to explain why I hadn’t gone that way.  In the process, it all began to shift and I was able to see it from her vantage point. Suddenly it made sense.  I was able to seriously consider what she was saying.  Maybe I had been just turned off by her suggestions of how to fix it, or perhaps it was the extra work involved. I may well have felt hurt that she didn’t like what I’d written.  As soon as I got enough distance, I could see exactly how to fix it. In the end, I did the work and it was so much better for it.

I believe Madame Secretary had it backwards.  You need to step out of the way of criticism first. When you can disconnect from the comments you have a much better chance to fully absorb it. When you take the “personally” part away, what seems so solid isn’t anymore.  The criticism can be viewed as about the writing, not the writer. From that perspective you can truly hear what the person is trying to tell you.  And incredibly valuable information may be revealed.

We can use this in life, too, whenever we face difficult or hurtful situations. If we find a way to move back, to step out of the gooey personal stuff, we can see what’s really going on.  From there, we can take it seriously, absorb the lesson and find our own way through.

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Writing Tip: Learn to Use Criticism

Let’s just get this clear, right from the start: if you are writing and putting your writing in front of others, you will encounter criticism. Just the way it is. Doesn’t matter how good you are, how much money you make, how many contests you’ve won. When you expose your writing to anyone else, you are asking for comments. Like most of the arts, it’s largely a matter of taste and opinion.  And everyone, if I may say so, has at least one.

Can you really be said to be writing if no one else reads it?  If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one to read what it wrote, did it make a noise? Getting criticized means you’ve delivered what you’ve written. What you’re supposed to do.  As long as you do, there will be comments and feedback, especially if someone is paying for your words.

Criticism is a blessing to an act as subjective as writing.  Most of the time it’s me and my words.  A writer’s perception of what’s written can become fuzzy and familiar.  An outside source provides a sharpening of the lense.  When delivered properly, criticism shines a light on information which can make your writing better.

The other truth here is that, at our core, we are all sensitive beings.  Some criticism is more difficult to hear than others. General comments are often more hurtful and generally less helpful. How damaged we are by it depends on who is delivering and the stage of feedback receptivity we are in at the moment. Criticism is not easy to take.

The wrong criticism, given by the wrong person can send us out of the room screaming, cause an adult to crawl up into a ball, weeping, frozen on the tracks.  It might even, dare I say it, make a writer give up!  Fear of criticism is often the reason why novels sit in the back of a drawer, unread. Every writer must construct methods for conjuring a protective barrier. Some of us couldn’t earn our living without some way of handling it, no matter how it is delivered.

It may be possible to let the hurt inspire you and move you forward, but I don’t think that’s a long-lasting solution.  It can works well, though, as fuel to get you started. Tending to your wounds can help you get back on your feet again, but it is not enough to fix the problem.

To be more successful, it has to be an internal change.  Remembering that it means we are really writing can sometimes ease the pain. Disassociating yourself is another good ploy.  When we write, it often feels like we’re putting a piece of ourselves on the paper.  In many ways, we are.  But we can keep in mind that it is only ONE piece.  If there is something wrong with the writing, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the writer.

Someone once said, no person or group of persons defines our worth. One cross word (or 5) from others doesn’t add up to who you are as a writer. What’s helped me is to say, some people like my writing, and some don’t. Inevitably there will be people who simply don’t like how I write. Thank goodness, there are also some who do!

If you can, ask the person for more information.  Getting clearer on what they’re really trying to say you might find: a) what they’re saying is not really as hurtful as you thought, b) it is just what you needed to hear, or  c) their criticism is incorrect.

Keep in mind that not all criticism is valid.  Just because someone says it, doesn’t make it true.  Consider whether it’s general or specific.  Who is saying it?   See how it feels to you. Would the change make your writing better?  If it doesn’t feel right, thank them for their thoughts and keep doing it the way you’ve been doing it. (However, it might pay to stay alert for any other such comments from other sources.)

The more criticism you can take without dramatic repercussions, the easier it is to  use it.  When you can skip the angst and go straight to asking questions – Do I understand what this person is saying?  How could I use this to improve my writing?  Is it true? – then you will open yourself to the data that can really improve your work. The fodder for honing your craft.  Learn to process it without hurt and you can do some wonderful things for your writing!

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