If you’re a writer, that word elicits a very specific set of emotions. Never mind the F word, the real taboo for us is the R word. And any kind of unfavourable critique or criticism of our work can, and often does, feel like a slightly less gut-churning variety of rejection.
You are not good enough.
Can you hear those words behind all the other words?
The problem is that if you want your words to one day pay your rent and buy the occasional bottle of gin, you must get good at the word-making job. How do you get good without learning what needs fixing? You can’t. You won’t.
Criticism is one of the most valuable and useful tools in a writer’s toolbox. Ironically, it’s also the one we are most happy avoiding, ignoring, or “accidentally” dropping down a sewer. Don’t. Look at the tool. Pick it up. Feel the weight in your hand. Get to know it. It will never be a fun tool to use but it can get easier if you’re willing.
I have been told that I’m “so good at taking criticism on [my] writing that [I] should teach a course about it”*. I’m not sure that’s true but I do know that, thanks to years in the film biz, I have a thick skin and I am able to separate myself from my work long enough to learn important lessons before I drown my sorrows in martinis. Because of this, I’m going to share some of my thoughts here. Hopefully, this will be helpful to those of you struggling with accepting critiques but, as always, YKMM (your kilometerage may vary).*Deb O’Keefe wins all the sweetie-pie awards
1. The best defense is no defense
A writer’s first instinct is to defend against any kind of criticism, especially when it touches on one of our darlings. Hands off my darlings, creep!
When we defend, however, we shut our ears and/or eyes. We close off the passages through which helpful information must pass. Not only that, we also make those providing the useful information hesitant to share any more of it.
Do you want to waste your time and energy carefully reading and dissecting someone’s work if they won’t even listen to the results?
No. Neither do I.
I know it’s difficult, seemingly impossible at times, but SHUT YOUR MOUTH. You still may be arguing in your head but at the very least you won’t annoy the person delivering the information and risk losing a valuable asset.
The more your practice this one action—
SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
–the easier it will get and the more likely you will be to develop real listening skills.
Which leads me to my next thought…
2. Hearing is not listening. Reading is not learning.
Have you ever watched someone nod and say “mm, hm” while you’re talking, all the while knowing that they are not listening to a word you’re saying? Sure, they can hear the sounds you’re making but they’re not absorbing any of the information. They’re not listening.
Learning is a conscious act. It requires us to focus and digest what we hear and read. Most of us are poor listeners at the best of times but when we’re listening to criticism?
La la la, I can’t hear you.
The next step after shutting your mouth is opening your mind. For this, you will need to actively read and listen to critiques.
Start small. Focus on consciously and actively listening or reading for a set amount of time. Repeat short summaries of the information in your head, or jot them down, as you read or listen.
- The reader finds this chapter too slow.
- The reader is confused by the number of characters speaking in this scene.
- The reader doesn’t think the protagonist’s motivation is plausible.
Attach no judgment to the summaries. The second you start thinking, “She’s totally wrong, I need that ten page prologue!” you have stopped listening.
3. This is a partnership
Yes, some people are petty and evil, and some people take pleasure it criticizing other people’s work because they are vampires who want to suck every ounce of joy from the universe, but don’t start from that assumption.
Most people who take the time to critique your work want to help you. They want you to write a better story, novel, or poem. They want to see you succeed. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. Some will be kinder than others, but that doesn’t mean the bluntly delivered critique is offered with any less love than the gentle one that comes with cookies, soft pillows, and optional on-top-of-clothes snuggling.
The more you engage with readers willing to offer you feedback, the more you will be able to filter out the aforementioned vampires and build a core group of writing partners. Which sounds very corporate now that I see it in print. Hm…
Writing posse? Writing league? Writing clan?
Whatever. Just stop looking at those people as the enemy. Skim through the acknowledgments of any best selling novel and you are bound to read many heartfelt thanks to the books’ editors. Professional, successful writers understand the concept of partnership and know how much they owe to the folks who tell them, “No, that’s just not working.”
4. Drill, baby, drill!
Something I find that softens the blow of a critique is to get involved and ask questions. It’s easy, it can be crazy helpful, and it shows your Writing Comrades(?) that you value their work.
For example, if the person giving you feedback says that she finds your protagonist’s motivation implausible, ask why. Then go further. Toss out some what ifs.
“What if I gave him a pet elephant in the first chapter? What if the elephant was blind because he was abused by a circus clown? Would that make my hero launching missiles at the traveling circus more plausible?”
Whenever possible, I love turning critiques into brain storming sessions. I’ve gotten some fantastic ideas this way and you’d be amazed how helpful an objective viewpoint can be.
Focus on drilling down from the general to the specific. “Chapter 11 was really slow” is not nearly as helpful as, “All that back story in Chapter 11 took me out of the moment, and then there was a page of exposition about the blind elephant the hero had as a pet, which didn’t do anything to move the story forward and covered the same ground as Chapter 1.” Drill, drill, drill.
5. Your writing is not you
The thing about making art is that you have to shove your hand into your chest and rip out your heart and squeeze its juices onto your creation, which is painful and messy and probably unsanitary. Next, you hand the thing with your heart juice all over it to someone else and if that someone else doesn’t love it then, in a weird way, they are saying they don’t love you. You are not loved. You are a loser and should crawl in your hole and live off dryer lint for the rest of your pathetic and talentless life!
Except that’s all bullshit. You know that, right?
Making art—in this case some form of writing—requires all that heart squeezing business but once the thing is made it is, simply, a thing. It is not you. It is an object.
A table maker may put his heart and soul into making a table but if the table only has three legs, well, it doesn’t mean the table maker is a loser, it means he has to go back and figure out how to put on a fourth leg. The table is an object. Objects can be fixed.
A manuscript is also an object. Objects can be _________.
Or maybe they can’t be fixed. It happens. In that case, you have to learn your lessons and start over again from scratch. That sucks but that’s how you learn to make tables that don’t fall over.
Start thinking of your finished drafts as objects, things that are separate from you. Things that are not you. Tables, perhaps.
6. Time, the great softener
Once upon a time I stumbled across an online writing group that had read and critiqued a short-short story of mine that had placed highly in a Writer’s Digest competition. All the readers in this group hated the story, though I think one commenter said something vaguely nice-ish about it. The worst, however, was a man who not only tore the story to shreds but suggested that the competition was based on votes by peers and that I had clearly only won because I was popular, not because I possessed any talent.
What? I won that competition fair and square! No one voted for me. MY STORY WAS #2 OUT OF ALMOST 8000 ENTRIES! I. HAD. TALENT!!!!
I lost it.
My brain burst out of my head and left my fingers to type blindly on the keyboard. I left an angry reply in the comments of the writer’s forum (two years after the last comment had been made), and even tracked down the man who had ignited my outrage and then posted angry comments on his blog. He replied and publicly apologized for his mistake but my hurt did not subside and I stewed for weeks.
I look back at that incident and cringe. The story was okay but it wasn’t great. It certainly isn’t the story I would want first time readers of my work to seek out. And, yet, thanks to my ragey outpouring and demands for internet justice, if you Googled my name the link to that critique forum would come up on the first page. For years. Blerg.
Hit-me-in-the-head-with-a-hammer lesson learned. If something someone says or writes about your work makes you angry, wait a minimum of forty-eight hours before responding. Go punch an inanimate object. Take a twenty mile walk. Uphill. Buy a voodoo doll. Write a short story about a stupid critic who gets eaten by zombie llamas. In other words… WAIT.
The more time that passes, the less a bad review or critique will hurt. This is particularly important if you’re aiming for a long professional career. Throwing a tantrum endears you to no one, will more than likely make people not take you seriously, and may draw attention to something that’s better off left to disappear into the ether.
Put down the keyboard. Put your hands in the air. Back away.
7. It gets better
The first negative feedback you get on your writing will hurt. You may cry. You may vow to never write again. You may burn your work. (Just make sure it’s a printed copy and not the work on your laptop or tablet).
These reactions are normal. You are not alone. Say it out loud: I AM NOT ALONE.
Pout and cry and drink too many martinis but don’t give up.
You will recover. You will write again. You will dig that story out of the fireplace, dust off the ashes, and start working on fixing your mistakes. The more you do this, the more good comments you will hear about your writing and the less bad comments will sting when they come.
I know you don’t want to believe it but, if you tough it out, one day you’ll be thankful for all those jerks who pointed out that your table only had three legs.
Remember to thank them.
Until next time, I hope this finds you happy, healthy, and lovin’ life!
In no particular order, I owe a huge debt to the following people who have taken the time to read my work and offer feedback, (Apologies to anyone I forget, it’s not intentional).
If my table has four legs now, I owe it to…
Helmi Braches (who also urged me to learn how to copy edit my own work as much as possible), Sue McIntyre (AKA MomPoet), Michael Kerr, Gale Parchoma, all the other members of the Shoreline Writers Society whose names have slipped my aging memory, Chris Bennett (who took time out of a very busy life to read some of my earliest and roughest stories), Terri Myers, Megan McLeod, Pat and Joyce Roney, Michael Skog (to whom I owe sooooo many reciprocal critiques it’s not even funny), Nancy Whelan (best mom-in-law ever), Liz Meyer, John Labbe, Ruth-Ann Quarles (AKA Mom II and one of my biggest cheerleaders), Brian D’Eon, Ross Klatte, Sandra Hartline, Morty Mint, Johann von Winternitz,Diana Cole, Margaret Hornby, Deb Macatumpag (wherever you are, thank you), Andy Rogers, Anne DeGrace, Jennifer Craig, Vangie Bergum, Rita Moir, Sarah Butler, Verna Relkoff, Sharmaine Grey, Darcey Lutz, Steve Thornton (who taught me more about copy and line editing than I can ever hope to remember), Deborah O’Keefe, and of course my long-suffering patron of the arts, Fred Perron, who must read my work and comment whether he wants to or not.
I refuse to critique this post. It’s how I roll.
Insightful, as always, Mr. Barber.
This is bang-on, Kristene. We miss you at Shoreline!
Thanks Sue, I miss you guys too!