Monday, September 15, 2014

Accepting Criticism

Photo courtesy of graur razva ionut on
There is something that I regret to this day, and it has to do with criticism.

I’ve written about our good pal criticism before. I said that it was important—crucial, even—and the only way to improve oneself as a writer.  I also mentioned that it can hurt sometimes. Today, I’m going to talk about how to accept criticism—by telling you how I didn’t.

Once upon a time, I was sixteen.  I had been laboring with some enthusiasm on a fantasy novel.  Since my dad loves fantasy, I asked him to read it and tell me what he thought.

What I wanted: For him to look at me, eyes glowing with pride, as he lovingly declared, “That’s awesome, honey!”

What I got: A document, marked up with red text.  My dad was asking all these questions about why the characters were acting certain ways, and pointing out a lot of things that didn’t make sense to him.

What I did: Screamed at him. I don’t know all that I said to him, but there was a lot of anger inside of me.  I cried, yelled, and just generally pitched a fit.

The thing is, my dad’s critique wasn’t even that harsh. In fact, if he gave me that kind of criticism today, I’d give him a huge hug.  They were really important, really useful things.  What I did to my dad that day was the equivalent of screaming at him for giving me diamonds when I wanted cubic zirconium.

I wanted something cheap and fake.  He gave me something expensive and valuable.

And I threw it in his face.

It’s something I’ll never forget.  While my dad still offers his assistance to me today, I always wonder—does that experience cause him to hold back the most important, crucial advice he could be giving me now? In a way, I tainted the critiquing relationship.  Because he’s my dad, we were able to rebuild it (at least as far as I know).  But you might not be so lucky with other people.

The thing is, if you want a pat on the back without any criticism at all, don’t show your story to anyone.  Not even your best friend.  Because if you’re not ready to hear it, and your friend says it, you could have serious problems.  I’m not telling you not to show your work to your friends.  I’m saying that if you do, there is the chance that they might offer feedback which you don’t like.  If you’re not ready for that, keep your work to yourself. 

However, if you submit your work to anyone for any kind of evaluation, there are two words you should keep in mind.  They are the most important words you should remember in this situation:

Thank you.

Say it, and mean it.  No matter what they’ve said to you—good, bad, or indifferent. Thank them. They gave some of their valuable time to you, for the sole purpose of helping you.  They deserve to be thanked. If your feelings are hurt, don’t lash out at the person who critiqued you.  If you feel like you need to cry or rant, or whatever, hold it in for now.  For now, say, “Thank you.”

Thank you.

Then, remove yourself from the situation.  When you are alone or with someone you can trust, cry it out, vent, rant—do whatever you need to do.  Deal with your hurt that way. Do not post it on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog.  Deal with your hurt in private, then give it a couple days.  After a while, look back at the critique with fresh eyes.  You’ll probably find that there is at least something you can take away from the criticism. 

I’ll give you a more recent example.  Earlier this year, I asked a very opinionated individual to evaluate the first chapter of my novel, which had been rejected by a publisher.  He tore it to pieces, saying things like how halfway through reading it, he wished he hadn’t agreed to read the whole thing. He pointed out that he didn’t care about the characters because he didn’t know who to root for, etc.

Immediately, I sent him an email politely and sincerely thanking him for his time and critique.

I was furious.  Oh, I was fuming.  Livid.  Seething.  I couldn’t see past the bit about wishing he didn’t have to finish it.  It was a seriously unfair comment and very impolite.  So, I went to my husband and vented to him.  I called my friend and vented to her. I cried into my pillow.  But I did not yell at him, retaliate against his harsh words with harsh words of my own.  I didn’t blog or tweet or post on Facebook.  (This is actually the first mention I have made of it in a public forum, months after the fact.)

A couple of days later I looked at the criticism again.

Beneath all of his snarky language was some of the most pure, glittering gold I have ever seen.  He was right.  He was right, darn it.  I don’t think he was right about everything, but with certain very important things, he hit the nail on the head.  Because of what he told me, I have a better chance of hooking the attention of publishers and winning the hearts of readers.

It would have been better if he’d been a little nicer about it, but I do not regret asking for his opinion, no matter how mad I was at the time.  Because I was polite to him, chances are he will be willing to help me in the future, should I desire to ask him again.  Harsh and honest is his style—sort of a writer’s version of Gordon Ramsay.  My preferred style, both in giving and receiving criticism, is nice and honest.  But I cannot, and never will, deny that his critique was a wonderful gift—even if it was a little hard to swallow.

You know what?  Even if that guy was truly mean and spiteful, I still would have thanked him.  If anyone is mean to you for any reason, just look them in the eye and say, “Thank you.”  They won’t know what hit them.  (This is a useful life skill I learned after working around 9 years in customer service.)  The best way to repay meanness is with kindness and courtesy. Trust me on this—bullies will be absolutely flummoxed by it.

When you get a critique, you don’t have to accept every part of it.  For example, someone might tell you never to use contractions.  This is a good rule in academic writing, but it isn’t always the case in informal writing and prose. You can choose to disregard that criticism.  However, if somebody tells you that your characters are unrealistic, you would do well to pay attention to that and try to understand why he or she thinks that.  It could really improve your story. 

As a writer, real, honest criticism is the most valuable gift you can be given.  Don’t make the same mistake I did when I was 16—you don’t want to live with that regret on your shoulders.  If you already have, then find that person and apologize to them. 

It’s never too late to say, "Thank you." 

Thanks, Dad. 

What makes accepting criticism the most difficult for you?  Have you ever gotten mad at someone who offered you a writing critique?  What sorts of things do you do to deal with any frustration you may have over being criticized? Share your thoughts or personal story in the comments. 

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1 comment:

  1. When I first started writing, I took any criticism of my work as a direct attack on myself. You can imagine how well that tended to go. I feel that I've gotten much better about accepting criticism by now, though, what with all the peer-editing we did in middle school Honors English. In fact, I almost wish my friends weren't so accommodating! They're so sweet and supportive that I can't find an editor who'll critique me even a little harshly among them. One would think they'd love to root out some flaws in the work of the girl who's always correcting their conventions. I suppose it shows what a nice group of girls I hang out with, but I'm really beginning to see how badly I need someone to edit me.