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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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