Criticism: Friend or Foe?

criticismCriticism can be either helpful or destructive, depending on the state of mind of the critiquer and the writer receiving it.

Writing takes enormous amounts of both self-confidence and humility. You have to think your words are worthwhile, or you’ll never get anywhere with them.  Not necessarily on the first draft, although there are genius writers who can manage this. For most of us lesser mortals, we’re going to have to polish our words until we believe they shine. And then we’re going to need critique, although we won’t always agree with it. Figuring out what we should and should not change is like an art form all on its own.

Taking critique requires humility to really listen to every point given and treat it like a gift. But if you blindly take every suggestion, your story will end up being written by committee, and you’ll lose your unique voice. We all need to develop the judgement to know what to keep and what to discard. But doing so can be far from pleasant.

We did a thread on this at AbsoluteWrite here, and a couple acquaintances gave me permission to quote them. Dorothy Winsor said, “I used to teach tech writing, and what we found was that in order to improve their writing, the students had to do three things: 1. Notice that something was wrong, 2. Correctly identify what it was, and 3. Know how to fix it.

criticism_zpsec9b255e“For me, noticing that something is wrong results in anxiety. It makes me crazy, so I try to ignore my discomfort. But that’s counter-productive because it means I can’t fix anything. So I’ve had to learn to treasure my anxiety, which sucks.

“The issue then becomes timing the anxiety because if it’s bad enough, it will keep me from writing. Also, I draft with a different part of my brain than I edit with, so I have to turn off editing, or try to, while I’m drafting. That’s why I try to leave critiquing until I have a full draft. Then the anxiety is useful. Painful, but useful.”

And J.J. deBenedictus reminds us that it’s important to keep in mind the purpose behind the criticism. “All your fears relate to what others will think of you. Meanwhile, the one thing that makes you happy is what you think of yourself for taking concrete steps toward your dream.

“This is common and a surprisingly toxic pitfall many people fall into. They’ve done studies on this. When a person focuses on internal, personal reasons for attempting to reach a goal, they generally reach their full potential. When they focus on how others will perceive them, however, they tend to feel anxiety and not perform as well, even though they’re still very invested in attaining the best outcome.

“Just remember: You are not writing for those hypothetical judge-y people you fear.

someone is wrong cartoon“You’re writing because this is something you want to do with your life, because you’re proud of your abilities, because you want to be your best, to see how far you can really go.”

The real trick is to learn to look forward to the criticism. Critique given at the writing stage is usually meant to be helpful. I know when I do one, I’m hoping that the writer will find something in my suggestions that can help him/her polish their work. If they can help me improve my stories in turn before I release them into the big, bad world, they’ll be doing me a favor when the reviews come in.

Concerning those, we all hope we won’t get one-star review on our books. However, since even Shakespeare and Tolkien got them, we have to learn to suck them up as part-and-parcel of being a writer. Learn from them if possible, DON’T engage with the reviewer, even if they’re wrong and you don’t think they even read your book, then move on.

Embrace the criticism if you can, or at least accept it, and keep writing. The alternative is dying with your stories untold, and that’s too heavy a price to pay.

Avid writer and reader, especially of fantasy. Learning about social networking and always interested in honing my writing skills. Contact me at cathleentownsend.com.

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