Criticism should build up, not beat down
When a writer receives feedback on their work they want to feel affirmed. They want to feel all warm and fuzzy inside and be told that one day, they might just win the Booker, or the Pulitzer or even just a writing competition in their local rag. But often, this does not happen. Instead, criticism can end up being a bit soul destroying. This is because the feedback often given is not constructive. It is in fact, rude.
In case you are unsure of what rude feedback looks like, here are some examples:
“I think your story is ****”
“You are obviously new to writing”
“This really doesn’t work for me”
“I couldn’t get past page 1”
“Sorry about all the red pen, the rewriting, the new title, my name on the top...”
“I’m not sure you could call this literary fiction, but maybe it could go in one of those women’s magazines…”
Don’t get me wrong, it is good to be honest when giving criticism, but there are just better ways of saying things. For example:
“I didn’t enjoy this submission as much as your last one, but there are some lovely moments, for example...”
“I don’t read fantasy fiction, so I’d like to hear what other people think who are familiar with this genre”
“There are some lovely descriptions, for example... but in section 2, I think there are a few too many adjectives and this gets in the way of the plot”
Criticism, when given badly can totally destroy a writer’s confidence, but criticism when given well, can make their writing flourish. I was once in a workshop where everyone pinpointed the same thing saying it didn’t quite work. When eleven people are criticising the same thing, they are probably right. Similarly when eleven people say something works well, they are also probably right. This is the kind of criticism that can improve and enhance your writing. It can also give you the motivation, confidence and drive to keep going.
Receiving criticism well is also important. With all the creative energy, imagination and time that goes into the writing, it is sometimes difficult for writers to detach themselves from their work. Writers can take negative comments personally and react in a defensive, argumentative way. Or they might sit quietly, trying not to cry. I have been guilty of at least one of these things. Now, in a workshop situation, I often write down questions and comments from others as they are given. This creates physical distance from my work and the person who is giving the criticism.
Knowing who to listen to and who to ignore is also key when listening to criticism. There are people I know who really understand what I am trying to do and strive to improve my work in the best possible way. They have helped me bring to life a lot of my work. But then there are others who speak utter nonsense and should be ignored - professionals included. I once entered a short story into a competition which was about four women meeting up a couple of years after university. I asked for written feedback. The feedback I received was that the story was not realistic as women in their twenties do not drink tea out of teapots. Being a woman in my twenties I know that women do drink tea out of teapots. Especially in groups. I was also told that young people cannot feel ‘old and worn out.’ Right. After a few moments of feeling indignant, I realised that the only way to react to this feedback was to laugh. I then made a note not to ask for her opinion again.
For years, I was afraid of opening myself up to criticism. I wanted to protect myself and my writing from others, but all this did was inhibit my work from getting any better. With criticism my writing has improved and so has the volume of the work I have done. I have also learned a lot from the writing of others.
If you’re a writer and not getting critical feedback on your work, then I would encourage you to join a writer’s group or find a writing ‘buddy’. There are a lot of lovely writers out there. But do watch out for those aggressive types who might relish tearing your work to shreds. They are easy to spot - they are the ones with overly large heads who find it difficult to get through the door.
Please feel free to leave comments on this blog below, but if you do make sure the comments are constructive!
Cartoon courtesy of Tom Fishburne