How to Take Criticism

The idea for this post came to me last week when I got a pretty starchy comment on one of my stories.  It happens sometimes.  Actually, I have to say I can think of only two previous occasions when comments have upset me in three years of online publishing, so I suppose I am doing pretty well.  My pals were very supportive, as was my husband.  No sweat, right?

Hmmm.

It got me thinking about how as artists we approach taking criticism.  Art of whatever form is a subjective thing.  Whether we like it or not is a personal matter.  You can’t please all of the people all of the time, as they say.  It is just a fact of artistic life, and we can learn a great deal from it.

The problem with art in general, and writing in particular, is that it is the product of our soul.  That makes it very close to us, an expression of our feelings, of everything we believe in.  And that, in turn, makes it hard not to take criticism personally.  Which is why a negative review can feel like being emotionally disembowelled.  It can be crippling.  It can block us completely, so that we never creatively express ourselves again.  That is why it is so important to know how to deal with it.

It strikes me that there are two types of criticism.

  1. Constructive Criticism.  This is the kind that comes from readers who support your work, who appreciate what an emotional risk it is to put your work out there, and who want to help you to improve.  They give honest, caring feedback.
  2. Rants.  You know this kind of comment.  It is usually about content, not plot, pace, language or technique.  It is usually angry, often vindictive, and actually has nothing to do with your work, and everything to do with the commenter’s personal ‘stuff’.

Constructive criticism comes from a place of empathy and support.  Its aim is to help you along the road to expressing yourself better.  It may seem niggly (you missed a comma out, for instance, or left a typo in) but it is there with positive intent.

Rants are to do with issues that the critic has in their own life.  The first nasty experience I had with this was with my story, ‘Property Of:’.  A reviewer wrote a vicious snarl about how I had depicted the armed forces as being shagging frantically in trenches at every opportunity, and that it was disgusting that I should suggest this, or that Dr Watson could have been involved with a married person.  My (possibly misguided) response was to email the person in question and ask her to expand on her comments.  What I got back was a three page diatribe on the fact that Watson should be whiter-than-white and how dare I criticise the army.

Clearly she had issues surrounding infidelity and the armed forces.

I don’t write for Disney.  I deal with the real shit. Real life.   Real people.  And real people make mistakes and get scared and do weird, unexpected things under pressure.  She had her own reasons for not liking my story.  Fine.  I triggered them.  Okay.  But I am not going to change the whole tenor of what I write to please one person, however hurt they have been.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I love criticsm.  When it is constructive.

In the course of publishing daily episodes of ‘The Case of the Cuddle’, for example, I realised from comments being made that I had left out a whole area of the story between Lestrade and Mycroft.  Without it, their responses to later events made no sense.  If it had not been for those reviewers who were unafraid to ask awkward questions in a supportive way, I would not have noticed the gaping hole in my narrative.  I hacked together an extra two chapters to insert into the story, and fixed the problem.  Bravo critics.  I learnt something.  Thank you.

That is the point of contructive critisicm.  You learn something.  The way to approach any kind of criticism is to ask this question:

What can I learn from this?

So, how do you deal with criticism, nasty or kind?  Here are a few tips:

  • Take a deep breath.  Walk away.  Give yourself some space.  DO NOT immediately fire back a stroppy reply that will only provoke further attack.
  • Work out which kind of criticism is being offered.  Calmly.
  • If this person has been triggered by some issue in your work, accept their right to their emotions, however wrong they are in venting them on you.  Something horrible has clearly happened to them to provoke such an outburst.
  • You don’t necessarily have to email them, or reply at all.  If you are really upset, do not engage.
  • If you write about difficult stuff, things that are likely to trigger strong reactions in your readers, them you should expect rants a bit more often than if you only write fluff.  Be prepared, but DO NOT back off from writing about the tough stuff.  It is only if we talk about these things that we can address them in society and heal the suffering they cause.  You are doing good work.  Keep doing it.
  • If you find yourself reacting strongly to a challenging, or ranting comment, it is worth thinking about why.  Perhaps this review has triggered something for you?  My commenter from last week challenged me about a prejudice I had been kidding myself I didn’t have.  On reflection, I realised not that she had a point, because I stand by the artistic decision I made, but that there was an element of truth in her accusation.  From now on, I will think more carefully about my responses to certain situations and where they come from.  I have learnt from her, and not just in terms of my writing.
  • You do not have to rewrite your work just because someone negatively criticises it, nor should anyone expect you to do so.
  • Think about the reasons why you made the artistic or aesthetic choice you did.  If your choice is rationally defensible, ie there is a better argument than ‘because thats the way I want to do it!’ (accompanied with a stamping of the foot), then let it stand.  If, on reflection, you decide that it could have been done better had you made a different choice, then you can take the criticism on board, and maybe do it different next time.  Make the decision to learn from it.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff.  I find myself getting very gnarly when someone is kind enough to point out where I left a typo in.  Gggggrrrrrrr!  But actually, they are doing me a favour.  Not only are they acting as a free proof reader, they are also helping tackle my Perfectionism, and giving Nigel a good kick in the teeth at the same time!
  • Allow yourself to absorb the helpful comments at your own pace.  Sometimes it can be very challenging to be told your sentence structure is a bit dense, or that your character’s motivation is shaky.  Are you ready, at this point in your development as a writer, to accept this criticism?  If you are, take it on board.  If not, put it aside, and keep doing your best.
  • Don’t trust your first defensive denial.  If the comment is offered sympathetically, with the earnest desire to help, then examine it.
  • As with all criticism, take what feels truthful to you, and leave the rest.  Just let it go.
  • NO ONE has the right to browbeat you, attack you, abuse you, or verbally savage you to the point where you give up writing.  Constructive comments on the work are helpful, personal attacks are not.  Report vicious repeat flamers where necessary.  Bullying is NOT ACCEPTABLE.
  • The internet gives you the opportunity to get free comments on your work in a way that never would have been possible twenty years ago.  It is a huge resource.  People take a great deal of time and effort to read your work.  Thank them for the time they take to respond to it, and choose to learn from what they say, as far as you can.
  • Relax.  No, really.  This is not personal.  Rejoice in the feedback you get.  Why?  because it means you are OUT THERE, being seen, and that, my friend is a HUGE blessing.

No doubt there is a great deal more that I could add.  Taking criticism constructively is something you learn by doing.  It really helps to join a writers group, where you can trust your fellows to offer you helpful feedback on a regular basis, so that you get used to it, and build up your ‘resistance’. (More on writers groups in a future post) In the meantime, I return to the following, which is the best advice I can offer:

Take what feels truthful to you, and leave the rest.

Next Wednesday, I will be writing another article about how to give constructive criticism, so stay tuned!

Happy writing,

EF

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