The Importance of Being Criticized, and Earnest Too

An important topic of discussion I’ve had with a lot of people in the last six months is that of criticism. How to take it, where to get it, and whose to listen to are all factors when considering the issue of critique and creative input on projects you’re working on. Everyone who has written knows that you have to be prepared to have your stuff reviewed by others and have to get used to taking criticism. The old adage “you can’t please everyone all the time” comes to mind when I think about putting forward work. Yet I keep chasing a problem or two about critiques in my head, such as:

  • When do you put your work up for critique (when it is finished? when you’re in the middle? while you’re working?)
  • Whose opinion counts more, the critique or the authors? Is your work in need of work or are you facing down injection of personal opinion?
  • How do you deal with negative criticism?

The first problem is one I’m running into constantly, and an issue that recently cost me partnerships on a bigger project. I am a writer who does not work well with criticism being laid on the work while I’m writing it. The reviewing process and critique drives me completely out of my work and into the ‘is this going to work/why not/what’s wrong with it’ worry stage too early. In short, it impedes my creative process. This has caused a great deal of issue when working with partners recently, and caused me to become very consternated when being asked to critique in middle of a project we were working on. The resulting friction was a major contributing factor to our partnership being dissolved – I was very uncomfortable with sharing work for review and critique while it was unfinished and was unable to articulate why. I came out of the situation realizing that in this case, sharing for critique for me was still too raw of an issue to do in mid-project, but I also had to acknowledge it doesn’t work that way for everyone. Some people thrive on getting input during the process and find the cooperation involved refreshing. Others find it nerve-wracking (like me).

The process made me consider what it was about review that bothered me, and brought up another issue – namely, the issue of creative control and review as opinion. When putting your work up for review, you are essentially asking creative input from an outside source. You are acknowledging that you respect that source enough to hear them out as a reader who is taking in what you’ve created, and giving you feedback based upon their experience of reading your work. Yet a good number of times, you are going to come up against opinions on your work that ask you to consider changing fundamental elements of your story. At that point, you come to a juncture where you must consider whose ideas you want to incorporate, and whether or not you want to trust your vision for the project alone or go with the outside view of an objective eye.

This is another issue that rubs raw sometimes with authors and certainly with me. Mostly the issue becomes a problem for me because of the idea of personal taste. Sometimes, a critique will point out important plot holes, issues of continuity, and even glaring errors of fact that are important to correct. Grammar and style issues are also important to correct, and can be tagged by a good critique. Yet there also comes times when a reviewer simply objects to some of your material and suggests a change, even arguing that it will improve your work. At that point, it is a question of that person’s opinion versus your own. And it comes back down to ‘you can’t please everyone’. I have found that its difficult sometimes to separate a reviewers personal displeasure and opinion from their critique and for that reason choose very carefully who reviews and critiques my work. Yet I will admit, I’m overly protective of my projects and realize I need to relax a LOT about it. Sometimes a fresh eye with fresh ideas and suggestions can lead you down amazing paths with your work if you have the balls to accept what they are offering over your own concepts. Sometimes, your stuff really just will stink and a new idea can give inspiration. Just beware of people who think that “You know what’s a better idea?” is a good critique technique and just want to input their own framework onto your already existing work. That’s not critique: that’s project hijacking.

And that comes down to the last issue of dealing with negative criticism. It’s always hard to hear that something doesn’t jive, that your characters are flat or your action sequences don’t work. It’s hard to hear that you’re not coming right out of the gate smelling like a Newberry Award or a New York Times Best Seller. The trouble is how to take that kind of input. I’ve found that a good critique is not only based on content but on how the critique is developed. Let’s face it: we all have our inner angry Simon Cowel, ready to rip and shred thru other people’s work with scathing glee. We do it in part because we believe our witty and harsh criticism will ‘be brutally honest’ about ‘how we feel’. The problem is, criticism isn’t about how we feel. It’s about how we see the other work might be improved. And bringing feelings into it makes the situation messy. Keeping that in mind, we also ought to consider the time, effort and difficulty of producing anything creative. For the other person, it’s a labor like bringing offspring into the world. If you’re the kind of person who can walk up to someone else’s newborn infant and say ‘Goddamn, that is an ugly baby! You should go back to the drawing board and try again because it’s face is just… whew, not quite right!’ then you’re not someone I want reviewing my work. Tact is as important as content.

That said, there is something to be said for being too sensitive. And here, I offer up my confession that I speak from experience on this one. Look, the act of creation is an act of passion and giving for some, and it can make an artist feel terrifyingly vulnerable. Putting forward something you have created and saying ‘I hope you like it’ is like stepping out naked and blindfolded onto a firing range… you’re asking in a lot of ways to be hit. Our insecurities hang out all over and when our work is attacked by someone’s negative input or review, we can get defensive. Hell, taking out the we here… I know I get defensive like hell. And yet it’s all part of the process of becoming a better writer.

So how to deal with it well? I’ll be honest – I’ll tell you when I figure it out. But I know that there are some tricks that have helped me. One is finding voices that you trust to not only be fair in their critique but to be fair in their delivery. You don’t want people who are going to kiss your ass, but you want people who will speak truth in a manner respectful to your work and the energy you put into it. (Brutally honest is good, brutal for the sake of brutal is just rude and ineffectual). The second trick is to separate yourself from the work as much as possible, or separate your connection to the work from the critique. If necessary, repeat: “Its not me out there, it’s the words/the art/the song.” And third is a phrase I’ve come to love and try to keep in mind when I’m being pecked at by critique and I’m feeling defensive. “There are no good ideas in a vacuum.” Genius may be the illusive beast we all chase, but the stories of madmen, dreamers and poets locking themselves away and coming out of their caves ages later with fully realized masterpieces is not the way the process works for everyone. More voices enrich a project, so long as you keep your eye on the vision you began with.

These are the lessons I’ve learned so far with critique. I’m working to follow my own rules about dealing with them, though it’s not easy. So I wrote this not only to share, but as a reminder to myself.

So going out there, whoever reads this: beware the naysayers, the so-called experts, the ego-destroyers and the worrywarts. Try to hear the words of those that warn you about marketability and content, about your ideas being too far out, or ‘hey, wouldn’t it be great if…’ But never lose sight of what you set out to do, and if their words don’t jive with your vision, weigh it all as equal and take what works best for you. After all, you’re in the driver’s seat. Trust your instincts and create. The rest will sort itself.

1 Comment

  1. Remember:

    Your number ONE obligation is to WRITE. Do, and seek out, all things that allow you to WRITE. Finish that novel, dammit!

    Things that are bad: anything that keeps you from writing.

    Get used to criticism. Learn to swim in it. Stay calmly afloat in it. Perhaps the “stinging nettle” is your own defensiveness. Give yourself a healthy distance from your work once it’s done. Take all things into consideration. Take a machete to your work, or rather, till it gently with a turn-plow. It’s up to you, because, ultimately, it is YOURS.

    Love,

    a fellow artist

    -Person X

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