By Monique van den Berg
“I am an artist. The critic is my nemesis.”
Have you ever heard this internal dialogue? Well, you’re not alone. We writers exist within a paradox. Our egos tell us we’re brilliant, yet one word from a critic can convince us (at least temporarily) that we’re worthless. Criticism strikes at us where we’re most vulnerable: the place inside ourselves where our creativity lives. And as a result, even criticism designed to be constructive can be hard to take.
Yet there is a reason to take criticism. If you want to improve your writing, there’s few other ways to go about it. I will concede that you can improve by reading other writers, and writing tremendous amounts on a regular basis, but that still doesn’t give you what a good critique gives you: an objective opinion. A look through fresh eyes. The trick is in separating the grain from the chaff: realizing which criticisms are worthwhile, and which should be disregarded.
It is tempting to listen to the negative opinions of others, and discredit their positive opinions as mere “politeness.” I used to do this all the time. In fact, one of the earliest pieces of criticism I got was in the form of a rejection letter for a poem called “Above The Timber Line.” The note on my manuscript read:
Above the Timber Line shows real genius. Why decorate genius with dimestore adjectives?
This stung. I ignored the part about the genius since obviously he was just being polite. How could he insult my precious adjectives? How could he attack words like “hollow” and “shiny” that I just liked the sound of? I threw the paper in a desk drawer and tried to ignore it. But it wasn’t that easy to forget the words. What if he was right?
It took me a while, but I started re-evaluating my own use of adjectives. I found that I had been making what I now think is the number one mistake of amateur poets: using adjectives that are weak, overused, or superfluous. Once I stripped away the dimestore adjectives, I did get a little closer to genius. My new attitude towards criticism had taken root.
It was years before I really became sanguine about the whole process. Eventually, I realized that the visceral, emotional reaction will always be there, but it can be mitigated—you can make criticism work for you. The following 10 guidelines will help.
- Not everyone will like your writing. Not everyone shares your taste, your school of thought or your perspective. Your talent is not erased or diminished just because this person or that person doesn’t like the way you write. They may like you, but they can’t critique you, because they don’t share your vision. Just move on to someone who does.
- Beware of ulterior motives. Most people will reflexively try to lead you away from your own style and into theirs. Be wary. Although some people are conceited enough to think that their way is the only way, for most people this is unconscious and subtle. It’s a side effect of trying to set aside bias and evaluate a work on its own merits. This is hard to do, and it’s common to slip up.
If you are considering someone’s suggestions for your writing, remember that they are ultimately subjective. Always make sure that what they are suggesting is true to the text and to your own style.
- Nothing you write is all bad. You should never listen to a critique that doesn’t say at least one positive thing about your work. A review that is 100% negative is either unfair or offered by someone with their own agenda. There is at least positive element to any work of art, and if your critic doesn’t bother to seek it out, they aren’t worth your time.
- There’s always one asshole. In any creative writing workshop, you’ll find this person. You will learn to see the signs. He or she has a lot of talent, a respectable number of publication credits and an ego the size of Delaware. You may be tempted to respect them; after all, they do have talent and attitude. They are accustomed to inspiring awe in unpublished newcomers like yourself. Don’t fall for it.
In my second poetry workshop, The Asshole was a supremely irritating graduate student who rarely had anything good to say. When he did dole out the occasional favorable remark, he acted like he was bestowing a royal favor. And he loved to say pretentious things like, “The penultimate line of your penultimate stanza requires a certain panache that is lacking in this piece’s current iteration.” Blech.
- Quid pro quo. Part of getting helpful criticism is dispensing it to others. Don’t be condescending (as I once was) of the people that you think have less talent, experience and skill than you do. We all start somewhere.
Yes, offering criticism is a skill, and the only way to develop this skill is through practice. Always start off by listing the good points of a piece, then list the weaker points. Offer concrete solutions to the problems you see. The more specific you are, the better. Figure out what you find the most helpful in a critique and offer the same kind of input to your peers. In the long run, this skill will serve you well.
- Build up your defenses. Don’t seek out criticism until you are ready to hear it. At first, your writing will be extremely close to your heart. Nurture the writing that makes you feel like this, but don’t show it to anyone. If anyone suggests that you change it, you’ll probably feel like they are proposing plastic surgery on your newborn infant. This may well discourage you from giving birth to any more poems.
First, find friends who will lob (figurative) softballs at you. Once you can take their mild suggestions in stride, you may be ready to move on. Do you suspect that your writing has weaknesses that they are hesitant to point out? Time to move on to colleagues, acquaintances and workshops.
- Value honesty. It is an increasingly rare commodity. People may be afraid to tell you the blunt truth for fear that you’ll become antagonistic towards them, dislike them or attack their work out of spite. Other people are simply too polite to tell you their negative opinions, no matter how much they sugar coat them.
One day, you will find someone who seems to “get” what you are trying to say and who genuinely appreciates your work, but isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re off your game. You will often agree with them, whether their comments are positive or negative. Hang on to this person. A good critic is worth their weight in gold.
- Only submit early drafts. If you have a work that in your mind is “finished” or that you’re particularly attached to, it’s probably too late to have it critiqued. This applies especially to pieces you have put a lot of work into. If you’ve spent an hour fine tuning every word, you’re going to take criticism a lot harder. You will stubbornly resist changing a single syllable. On the other hand, if you’ve just casually tossed off a first draft, it’s quite easy to carve it up with impunity.
I know your inclination is to impress the people in your workshop. Trust me, if you tinker with you’re your writing too much before submitting it, you’ll reach a critical mass point where suggestions for change become utterly futile.
This also applies to older works. When I read some of my earliest poems, I fully recognize how I could improve them, but there’s no way I would even try. A lot of them made me the writer I am today. I can’t stand on the top floor of a building and dig the foundation out from under me, now can I?
- Be as objective as possible. Don’t ever expect criticism to be easy. It will sting at times, no question about it. The trick is being to set aside your wounded pride and try and be objective anyway. Evaluate each suggestion carefully. Your responses will range from, “Oh, wow! Why didn’t I think of that before!” to “How come nobody gets my message—is it really that well hidden?” or “That bastard doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Before implementing or discarding any suggestion, give it careful consideration. If you’re equally willing to accept or refute someone’s suggestion, you stand the best chance of getting all you can from the input of others.
- The writing is yours. Never, never give other people’s opinions more weight than you do your own. No matter how much you respect someone, you should never give up ownership of your own words and ideas.
First of all, even the best critic can be wrong. Music teachers told Mozart he couldn’t play. English teachers told Stephen King he couldn’t write. Don’t take everything so much to heart that you ignore your own inner voice.
Also, don’t waste your time trying to convince critics that their opinions are wrong. Just thank them politely and don’t act on their words. If you feel that you have to get everyone “on your side” then you’re missing the point.
Secondly, even if the critic is right, so what? There’s no rule that says you must take X or Y piece of advice, even if you know intellectually that it is good advice. Even if everyone you know and everyone you ask hates something you’ve written, it doesn’t mean you can’t love it. Just don’t expect to get it published.
There’s no magic formula that will make criticism an easy medicine to take. But believe it or not, it is good for you. And with the right outlook, you can begin to see criticism as a welcome, desirable, and necessary part of the creative process. Good luck.
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Monique van den Berg runs a poetry workshop online. You can find it at http://www.onelist.com/subscribe/surreality