How Do You Take Criticism?
by Ryan Lanz (originally posted on ryanlanz.com)
An author can’t get away from criticism, no matter the level of talent. How do you cope with it? And is there a way for it to be beneficial to you?
It seems that writers take criticism more strongly to heart than others. I’ve thought about why that is. It’s probably because writers pour a lot of their personal selves into their words, making it feel like the criticism is directed at them personally, rather than at the product. Think about how you’ve handled situations like that in the past.
Year ago, I hosted a series called Under the Microscope, where people submit the beginning portion of their story for critique. I’ve always made the attempt to make all comments constructive and thoughtful, although initially I worried that some would be defensive about their work.
To my delight, every single writer who has submitted has been wonderful to work with and took it as critique and not criticism. What made the difference? I imagine it might have something to do with the balance of critique and compliments, along with the effort to leave the sharp edges out of the comments. I do want to make mention that the followers of this blog who have commented on the UtM posts did an amazing job of also being equally as constructive. Do we cringe at others who criticize our writing simply because they don’t do the aforementioned things?
Here are some tips for when you do receive criticism:
Listen to what they’re saying
Even with the harshest critics, there usually is at least one thing you can learn. The trouble is, the person makes it so hard to “hear” that one thing because they’re being so offensive with their delivery.
In a professional screening of a movie, sometimes they’ll have the director and writer sit behind a glass while observing the audience as they watch the recently completed movie. When the audience doesn’t laugh at a particular joke, I’m sure it must bother the writer who created it. The writer, after all, thought it was brilliant. All of the staff found it hilarious in production, but it fell flat when raw audiences watched it.
Now, the writer theoretically could turn off the projector, stomp out in front of the crowd and explain why they should all be laughing. Let’s pretend that everyone in the audience realized their mistake and now see where he was coming from. Still, nobody is laughing. And likely they won’t if they ever saw the same movie again. In the end, the new perspective didn’t matter. The joke still didn’t land.
The only hope is to learn why the critic didn’t appreciate it, which can turn out to be valuable once you sift through the critic’s often poor communication style. Some of the best advice I’ve heard concerning my own writing came disguised as something I originally bristled at. In fact, there’s one item that I initially rejected completely, but now is something I implement regularly.
Try not to get offended
This is hard for a lot of people. The best thing to keep in mind is that the critic is always right…concerning his/her own experience. It’s a waste of time to explain why you started the book with a dream sequence or why you have every character’s name starting with the same letter. The reader who gave you criticism already doesn’t like your book. Big deal. Since you’ve already “lost,” the best thing you can do is learn why that person didn’t like it, then you tuck it in the back of your mind for later.
Give all criticism a grain of salt
Typically, I never give any criticism much credence unless I’ve heard the same thing from different people. Usually, if something is worth considering, then other people will catch it too. There are exceptions to this, of course, but one of the worst things you can do is launch into a complete overhaul of your book because one person didn’t like…something, only to find out that it was just in that one person’s mind.
Realize the critics are sometimes right
Sometimes we do misspell words, forget that the protagonist’s eyes are green, or switch city names. It’s possible to admit to ourselves that our critics could be right without letting the air out of our sail. If you can figure out the balance between accepting critique and not letting it get you down personally, then you’ll learn at an incredible rate.
Delay the reaction
Often, you won’t be reacting or responding at all, such as to Amazon comments, but sometimes you do have responses that need to be given. Any amount of delay is good, even if it’s just a quick count to ten. That’ll give the emotions a chance to dull so that your logical thinking can take over again. Remember, they’re not commenting on you personally, just your work.
Build yourself back up
If you hear criticism that really gets you down, here is a wonderful way to bounce back. Hop onto Amazon and look up a book from your favorite author. Pick an author that you think is out-of-this-world good, and anyone who doesn’t like this author is crazy. Now, read the reviews and comments. I’ll bet good money that you’ll still find fierce criticism.
I did this recently with The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. This is my personal opinion, but all of the books in that series are fantastic. In so many ways the series is near perfect to me, yet there are pages of comments from people who hated the book.
The point is, even your literary idol will still have haters. So, if your idol still has critics, how do you think you’re going to get by without any? That, right there, gave me a lot of hope.
It’s the dirty little secret that without criticism and critique, most of us wouldn’t be as good of writers as we are. The best way to sharpen a blade is through friction. Metal is only purified through heat.
Once you find a way to shield your emotions from the situation, your writing will gain a boost. Of course, I would want it to be tactfully phrased, but I would rather hear something I’m blatantly missing, rather than wait years longer for success in a writing career.
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.