Responding To Criticism

Oh, this is one of the ‘fun’ bits of writing that should come with a warning. How do you deal with criticism?

Firstly to use an apt cliché, writing is a school of hard knocks. It’s true. You’ve written something, you’re sure you’ve perfected it, and then some person comes and insensitively points out all the things you’ve done wrong. It’s not nice, and there is no softening it. The first time you receive criticism like this, you might cry. You’re very likely to discount it, to push it out of your mind.

So how do you cope with it? We all know that criticism is ultimately good for us as it helps us improve in the long-term, but that doesn’t make you feel any better at the time.

I think the first thing to set straight is your mental attitude. Realise that the reason criticism affects you so is because you care about what you do. You take pride in it, and you’ve worked hard. You haven’t produced some half-baked attempt and tried to wing it. Once you’ve seen the feedback, don’t dwell on it. Try to take your mind off it, go and unwind. It never helps to undertake something when you’re upset. So recognise how you are feeling and don’t do anything until your emotions are in check. Only then will you be able to respond positively and logically.

When reading through criticism, you need to determine what stance the person has taken. Is it feedback, or is it criticism? I was misleading you with the last sentence, because feedback and criticism are the same thing, except we interpret criticism as negative.

Feedback, criticism or critique should mean to you anything that is measured, positive or constructive. It might point out your mistakes, but it should do so in a way that is not a personal attack on you, or treats your work in a derogatory fashion. It should give advice and point out flaws, but don’t mistake honesty as an attack on you. It never helps to read sugar-coated feedback, and sometimes things just have to be said as they are.

But what about the negative, the feedback that clearly is written with no intention to help you? I’ve got a word for that. Rubbish. You laugh, and you leave it. Why? Sometimes it’s clear that the person has no idea what they’re talking about. Other times, it’s blindingly obvious that they’re just trying to hurt and insult you. It’s perfectly legitimate to write some people off – don’t feel obliged to take into consideration everything everyone says.

Now, what do you do with the feedback that you haven’t thrown in the bin? Read it carefully, read it slowly. Be logical and objective. Remember, if this person has taken time to point out the problems in your writing, they want to help you. But what if they aren’t using the critique sandwich? Start with the good points, then move into the problems, and then finish with what was liked. What if it’s just all about the problems?

Well, I’m that type of critic. It’s not because I want to belittle the writer, make them feel bad, imply that there is nothing they did well or even try to impose my own authority upon them. It’s simply because when I read critically, I spend my time writing on what can be done better, not what is already done well. If you’re strapped for time, you probably will do this.

This is a small tangent, but it’s something I think both writers and critics should understand. Sometimes  when you’re giving feedback, you just don’t have anything negative to say. Stop the presses, that’s something a good critic should never do right? Wrong. There is no shame in standing up and saying to someone “you know I’m sitting here reading through your work and I can’t find anything wrong“. In fact, I was asked to beta-read a story for a friend this summer, and while I had a slight pick at the first chapter, I’m waiting until he is online again before I tell him that he doesn’t need me to critique it. It’s good. It doesn’t make you a bad critic. It doesn’t mean you weren’t being critical enough. I believe it makes you more legitimate in your feedback by saying this, instead of proceeding to talk about non-existent problems.

Let’s get back to the main point then. How do you cope with feedback? To summarise, you leave it, you get yourself in order. You then read it carefully. You decide whether the feedback is legitimate or not. Then you act on it.

You should never, never, respond to feedback when you first receive it. You’ll be emotional, you won’t think straight. You’ll misinterpret, and you could go to the nuclear option. That is, you could delete your entire work and say you’ll start again.

Never delete anything you write – that is the cardinal sin as far as I’m concerned. You have the ability to re-draft as many times as you want. So don’t got and delete your work – because all you’re doing is reinforcing negative emotions about your writing and destroying any progress you’ve made.

Deleting an re-writing is not progress. It is not re-drafting. It is undoing the progress you’ve made. It is quite literally, trying to write something perfect from scratch. I need not tell you how silly that is.

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12 thoughts on “Responding To Criticism

  1. I always welcome good criticism. To me, if that person took the time out and wrote something to me (obviously not an attack) than their intentions are good.

    I used to delete my work all the time until I took a college-level English class (lol).

    1. Great, best way to go!

      Oh dear! It’s always best to keep everything you do just so you have all your work there. You might not think a piece of work is great at present, but you’ll probably find that you’ll be able to do it justice in the future.

      1. Don’t I know it. I spend a long time mulling over my English essays trying to find the right word for this and the right word for that, then I over-thought it and started out brand new. Only now I realize how important revising is.

  2. “Never delete anything you write – that is the cardinal sin as far as I’m concerned. You have the ability to re-draft as many times as you want. So don’t got and delete your work – because all you’re doing is reinforcing negative emotions about your writing and destroying any progress you’ve made.”

    Just an idle thought… C.S. Lewis’ description prominent fellow member of the Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien, is particularly interesting. J.R.R. Tolkien was a virtual perfectionist when it came to all things Middle Earth. Because of this “flaw,” Lewis and the other Inklings were frustrated when it came time to review the progress of The Hobbit and elements of Lord of the Rings. As Lewis described it in a 1959 letter:

    “No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.”

    I’m not the biggest Tolkien fan, but it’s a safe bet that if I was half as popular I would not mind… Perhaps sometimes, for some odd people, the negative emotions–those ‘dark nights of the soul’–add to the final product. Maya Angelou does something similar. Her jaunts to the motel produce quite a few pages of writing but, according to her, the vast majority gets thrown into a box or a trashcan.

    When there is a discussion about criticism I always hear Nabokov, “If I am told I am a poor poet, I smile; but if I am told I am a poor scholar, I reach for my heaviest dictionary.” Sometimes he’s reduced it to simply ‘If someone criticizes my art that their problem, but if they criticize my scholarship I reach for a dictionary.”

    1. I’m always somewhat sceptical when others give examples of what various writers have done – just a personal quirk. The problem is, and I freely admit it, that every writer has to find out what works for them. It may have worked for Angelou and Tolkien, but at the end of the day you’re not them. The only thing we can do is find what works for ourselves. I think it’s fair to say how pointless my own post is considering the previous line advocates doing what works for you and you alone. Still, I stand by not deleting work, even if it’s simply because these days we can easily store files if you use a word-processor. From a personal standpoint, I edit by revising, adding layer upon layer in each draft. Yes, bits get cut from the original document, entire sections get deleted too, but I don’t delete the file or try to start from scratch. Nothing is more tedious than trying to rewrite something. On another level, I think it’s partly a cultural side-effect of the writer construct that there is a all or nothing, perfectionist attitude to writing. To some extent we still have a romantic genius attitude when it comes to writers, the perception is that writers produce the work perfectly first time, or not at all.

  3. What an excellent post! And so very true. I especially love your point about telling someone you couldn’t find anything wrong. I’m sure a lot of writers and authors have had similar thoughts about feedback and critique. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you! I do think it’s very important to stress that there is no shame in saying there’s nothing wrong with something. I’ve seen to many critics prattle on about things that are negligible because they think they always must find something wrong.

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