Weekly Musing: The Critic

A large part of being a writer is dealing with criticism both good and bad. It’s not just from professional criticism, but also from fellow writers, beta readers, family and friends, and the general public. We all need that feedback; how else are we supposed to improve? The trick as a writer is to recognize some people are better at doling out criticism than others are as well as learning how to receive criticism.

Too often it is easier to focus on comments about negative aspects of our work. This could range from fixable things like technical errors to character development to clunky dialogue to more subjective comments such as ‘I hate this. You have no talent. I find this offensive.’

On the flip side is positive criticism. It’s great to hear what we are doing well whether that’s being told our descriptions transport the reader to another world or that our story made someone cry to hearing ‘I loved this! You’re my favorite author. Thank you for writing this.’ It’s this positivity that should fuel our creativity and encourage us to continue with our work.

What should a writer give more weight to? Personally I think it is vital and massively important for a writer to pay more attention to constructive criticism of their work. Deficiencies can be improved or strengths brought out more.

More subjective comments should be taken with a grain of salt if not flat out ignored. Nobody is going to like everything you write, not even your closest family and friends, and to write with that fear in the back of your mind is only going to stifle your creativity. I once read a rough estimate of people who read your work is 1/3 will love it, 1/3 will be indifferent, and 1/3 will hate it. As a reader, I don’t necessarily like everything I read even by my favorite authors.

Unfortunately it seems like it is just too easy for people to tell others what they do wrong or what they hate rather than to be praiseworthy. And it’s too easy for writers to focus a lot of energy on working on what we do wrong that we sort of forget to focus just as much attention on our strengths.

I find this is difficult for me when I’m doing critiques for my writing group. I have to frequently remind myself to comment on passages or sentences I like. At the end of each story I do make an effort to always list what I think were positives. Even if I didn’t like the story I try to be constructive and helpful. Sometimes my reasons are subjective so I know the author can disregard what I say. A lot of times why I don’t like a story is it just didn’t work for me or is lacking something that if present, I might change my mind. Even if the particular piece isn’t well written I never tell the author that. In that case it is a perfect opportunity to really come up with those helpful suggestions for improvement. Writing is hard and is hard work to do well as it requires a lot of practice.

While everyone may be a critic it is crucial to remember how you construct your criticism. Are you being negative for the sake of being a jerk or out of anger or are you critical out of place of hoping the other person improves? If you answer in the affirmative for the former than please, keep your thoughts to yourself. If your comments are the latter, than carry on but don’t forget to let the writer know their strengths.

For writers it is important to keep in mind you ultimately decide what comments you want to keep or chuck. Developing a thick skin takes time and each of us must figure how we choose to deal with those harsh words. Do we yell and scream? Do we throw things? Respond back with a harshly worded diatribe (please don’t do this. Makes an author appear childish.)? Or do we just let it slide off our skin? When we get those words of praise we should celebrate in whatever way feels right but it is important to focus on the positives as well as the negatives.