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Making Bitter into Sweet: Learning to Take Criticism

Putting ourselves out there as writers is hard. The eternal dilemma of most writers is that what we write is often personal, private, and close to the heart, and yet, the very nature of writing is that it meant to be read by others, and we cannot keep it to ourselves forever.  We write alone, but we can’t become accomplished writers without the help of others. But, when we’ve poured our souls into a story, when it comes time to offer it up for critique, it can feel a bit like opening ourselves up for a knife through the heart.

By now you’re probably thinking yeah yeah, I know. If I don’t get critiques I’ll never get better. And that is true, of course, but reader, you have probably heard this before, and it probably hasn’t helped, otherwise you wouldn’t be stewing over that negative comment or getting teary-eyed because someone said your characters were flat. So instead, I’m not going to tell you that you need to take criticism, I’m going to tell you how to take criticism.

Criticism is never easy to receive, but in my nearly forty years on this earth, I’ve heard a lot of it. New writers, or those who have only recently started showing their work to others, take heart in this: criticism becomes easier to take the more you hear it. My own critique partner, Bruce, told me, “When I first started selling articles, I could brood for days on a negative comment. Now, an hour later, and I’ve forgotten it.” Taking that first step is always the hardest, but it gets easier and easier with time. I used to be deathly afraid of flying, not a good fear for someone who lived overseas to have. So, I researched how to get over this fear, and overwhelmingly, the advice was this: fly. So fly I did, and while, I still feel that prickle of fear at takeoff, I get over it quickly enough, and I book flights without a second thought, whereas before I would routinely take the train to avoid flying. Opening yourself up for critiquing is a bit the same. Once you start, the easier it becomes. Now, I actually look forward to posting new work for my critique partners, and while I might feel that tiny prickle of anxiety, it is overridden by the knowledge that my work has gotten better because I took their advice.

Here is the second secret to taking criticism: you don’t have to take it. Remember, your writing is your own, and if you don’t agree with the critique, then you thank the giver and move on. Now, this is said with the caveat that you certainly should not disregard every bit of criticism given, not if you actually want to improve your writing, and the caveat too, that if you hear a certain critique from multiple sources, its probably a valid critique. However, even valid critiques are critiques that you can disregard if they don’t sit right with you as the writer. Ultimately you have the final say. Remember this though: sometimes the hardest criticisms to hear are the ones that your work needs the most. Sometimes we don’t want to hear certain critiques because we know that fixing those issues will be a monumental task. For instance, I knew deep down that my main character was lacking something, but I avoided the issue, telling myself I would resolve the issue in revision. It was only through a conversation with my critique partner Bruce, that I realized exactly what was lacking. The result meant a rather large rewrite, but the new version is undoubtedly superior to the first. If you find yourself particularly resistant to a certain criticism, ask yourself why. What is it about this critique that makes it hurt so much?

Which leads me to this: everyone gets bad reviews, because no one’s writing is perfect. Next time you’re feeling down over a harsh critique, go to Goodreads or Amazon and look at the one star reviews for your favorite book. Believe me, there will be at least a few, and those are fully formed books that have been through editing and revision and probably a few rewrites as well before assuming their final form. No one writes a perfect first draft, and even final drafts will have their detractors. It doesn’t mean the detractors are wrong, but it means that for every hater, there’s bound to be a fan. Find your fans, and make them your critiquers. My critique partners are two of my biggest fans. They love my book, and that’s why they want me to make it better. They want to see it succeed. The best critiques will come from people who genuinely enjoy your work, not people who are reading it out of a sense of duty. Critiques are easier to take too when you’re absolutely certain that they’re coming from a place of love. I know how much my critique partners believe in my work, which is why I don’t flinch when they give me notes.

And here too, is the upside of learning to take criticism well: writing is a lonely process, and it is only made lonelier if you isolate yourself and refuse to share your work with others. While being critiqued can be scary, and tough critiques can hurt, ultimately, if you find good partners, you will gain your biggest cheerleaders. You will gain people who can share with you the ups and downs of the writing process, with whom you can share ideas, who are more than willing to listen to your late night “so hear me out, but what if I …” conjectures. While these sorts of people are hard to find, they’ll be the first people you tell when you finally sign with an agent or land that publication deal, and they’ll be the people you thank first in your acknowledgements, because you know the book wouldn’t be half the book it is without their help. Criticism is hard to take, sure, but the people who take the time to give it, to give honest, thoughtful, and constructive criticism, are giving you a valuable gift. Learn to take it gratefully and graciously, just as you would any gift given with love, even the ones you plan to return the next day.

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