Criticism doesn’t feel very good. Sometimes it hurts. And it can be difficult to forget, whether it’s a harsh, stinging rebuke from a well-meaning parent or a moment of humiliation perpetrated by a thoughtless teacher or boss.
People don’t usually ask for criticism, instead tending to avoid it whenever possible. I’ve heard people say, “If you do it that way, you’re just opening yourself to criticism.” Who needs to open themselves to criticism? Who needs to hear about something they’ve done wrong?
They say if you want to be a writer, you have to develop a tough skin. It is part of the evolutionary process. Grow thick, leathery armor that will protect and shield you from the howling winds, ravaging storms and lightning sting of criticism with which you will inevitably have to reckon. Not all of it will come from readers, editors, and other writers. A good deal of it will come from yourself.
It’s true that criticism can be painful, but it doesn’t have to be. Bad criticism is vicious and damning and can make a writer question not only the work, but also the person responsible for writing it. On the other hand, good criticism can be uplifting and informative, perhaps the best thing anyone ever did for your writing.
There are two kinds of criticism: constructive and destructive. Whether you are judging your own work or the words of others, when you critique you are using one or both types. I’ll give you one guess as to which is preferred.
Constructive criticism builds. Foundations of plot, frames of conflict, bricks of characterization are built by good, constructive critiques. Conversely, destructive criticism destroys confidence and tears down delicately balanced and often fragile structures. Especially when leveled upon beginning writers, who generally have not had the time and experience necessary to acquire a thickened hide. Whether giving or receiving, there are several elements intrinsic to good criticism. These include: honesty, support, and perspective.
When writers ask for your opinion of their work, be honest. Writers need honesty in criticism. Let them know what you honestly think about where they’ve been unclear, or why that dead cat is in the story, or if that character would really paint her toenails black. Writers need to know these things and are frequently too close to their stories to step back and view them as an objective reader.
Honesty does not mean negativity. Honest criticism will inform and question, not berate or ridicule. We are all trying to communicate as effectively as possible; we are all on the same side. Don’t bludgeon a writer’s work by being honest. Use honesty in critiquing to help the writer make her work better. Use honesty to challenge the writer to make her story as good as it should be. Stories, poems, and writers are made more complete by honest analysis.
Okay, so you’ve been asked to look at a friend’s latest story, which he has told you he believes is good. You agree to give him your honest opinion, and you read the story. Uh-oh. It reads like the worst example of literary tripe you’ve ever laid eyes on. The back of the your shampoo bottle is a better read. Now what? You think of taking the phone off the hook, keeping your house dark, perhaps even taking an impromptu vacation for the remainder of your friend’s life so that you won’t have to hurt him by giving him the honest opinion that you’ve promised. Realizing that you can’t hide forever and you can’t afford the extended vacation, you gather your thoughts as to what you will say about this loathsome antithesis of quality writing. You know that you must be honest. You also know that if you don’t tell him how bad this work is, someone else is going to, and they may not care about your friend’s feelings like you do.
Writers need honesty in critiquing. So be honest. But don’t destroy. Balance your opinion. Give him an umbrella while you rain on his parade. Find as much good in the work as you possibly can, to balance the bad that you can easily detect. It may not be easy, but do it. Don’t pull your punches, but be ready with immediate first aid to quell the bleeding. That first aid may simply be identifying a well-turned phrase, a single clever thought that has potential, or a good word choice.
People who write need support. It’s a lonely pastime, and we need all the inspiration and motivation we can get. The support of a critic can serve as that motivation. Your writer friend will respect your opinion more because you have found something worthy in his work.
Perspective is another important element that writers should get from criticism. Perspective, in this case, is simply someone else’s viewpoint, which is usually more objective than your own. Writers live with their work as they write, processing it through the filter of their personal perceptions and experiences. Ask someone else to filter your work through their perceptions. You’ll find that what strains through their cheesecloth may be very different from what has dripped through your own. Like living with a spouse, a child, or a parent, sometimes you are too close to be able to see how behavior and situations appear to others. This ‘proximity blindness’ can hinder the necessary growth of your fiction or poetry, and impede the progress of your skills as an effective writer.
When seeking perspective from a critique, remember to mention beforehand any problems that you have seen in your manuscript. These problems may include: grammar, tense shifts, poor transitions, inconsistencies in plot, lack of suspense, too much exposition, unnatural dialogue, or anything else that may inhibit the effectiveness of your story, poem or article.
It is always good to get another’s point of view on your work. You may not always agree with the viewpoint presented to you, but that’s okay. Disagreeing with a critique is valuable; it causes you to question why you don’t agree, and questioning your writing is part of the creative process. Getting another perspective helps in other ways, too. Talking with a reader can clarify your thoughts and your focus on a particular piece of writing. Gaining perspective can open a writer to new ideas and open your mind to seeing your work in ways you hadn’t been able to before. A reader’s point of view can give you new insight into your characters and their motivations; it also helps you define and clarify any goals you may have for a particular work. A reader’s outlook will help you as well in that necessary and often difficult process of decision-making, the rewrite.
Criticism is something all writers experience; writing is communication, and we write to have others read our words and (we hope) comprehend what we are trying to say. To measure the understanding we have (or haven’t) achieved, we can ask others to judge our work and give us valuable feedback. Criticism is what we ask for when we show our words to people; criticism is the feedback we give ourselves when we rewrite. By asking for and opening ourselves to critique, we are seeking to improve our craft and fine-tune the antennae of our communication. By criticizing constructively, you are helping a writer achieve his goals.
Don’t shun criticism. Ask for it, welcome it, use it. Remember, criticism is not a reflection on you. It’s a tool. When used properly, it will help your writing and assist you as you work to make your writing as good as it can be.
Originally published in Dream Weaver: A Magazine for Beginning Writers