No matter what you do in life, at some stage you are bound to find yourself on the receiving end of criticism. Whether it’s at work, at home, at school or at play, someone will find fault with what you’re doing. Of course, if you’re a writer, you have to actively solicit such criticism in order to a) find out why your work either isn’t being accepted, or isn’t selling, and b) improve your work in more general terms.
Personally, I dislike the distinction drawn between constructive and deconstructive criticism – whichever way you slice it, it’s still criticism. I prefer the word “feedback”. Someone is still pointing out the weak areas, or things they feel I should change, etc., but psychologically it makes a big difference. Criticism makes me hear “You’re rubbish! Give up now! This work is so flawed, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”, while feedback makes me hear the actual comments of the reader.
If you’ve never tried it, it’s quite a simple concept and very useful. Choose a handful of your closest writer friends, and ask them nicely if they’d like to read a particular piece for you. Specify if you want them to catch typos, poor grammar etc., or if you just want comments on the work as a whole. Maybe you want them to pay special attention to dialogue, scene transitions, or plot holes. Make sure they know you will do the same for them – good beta reading partnerships depend on give and take! Once you get the work back, read their comments, and decide which you agree with, and which you don’t. If you feel changes are necessary, then by all means make them.
I do feel that it helps if your beta readers know you, since they’re likely to already be aware of your writing style, and you’re more likely to trust their judgement. After all, writers can’t ever be subjective enough to experience their work as a reader would, so we have to trust those people who read our work to tell us how it comes across to them. Cinema has been employing test audiences for years, and we all know about the concept of the pilot show in television, so why should writers miss out on a useful tool to improve their work?
But how should you deal with criticism or feedback? Whether you’ve asked for it explicitly (as in you’ve handed your work to beta readers) or you’ve put a story on your blog in the hope of getting comments, then learning how to use the feedback, or shrug off the criticism, is a key skill. Here are my top five things to bear in mind when the Criticism Critter comes a-callin’.
1) Learn How to Listen
This person is approaching your work as a reader. They don’t have access to the vast well of back story, character insight and so on that you have. If readers find the story confusing, then that isn’t their problem, it’s yours, and you need to listen to what they’re saying in order to revise the story until they understand it the way you do. A writer’s job is to communicate the story – it isn’t the reader’s job to figure out what they think the writer might be trying to say. So put your ego to one side and listen, really listen, to what they’re saying.
2) No Need to Make Every Suggested Change
Re-read the particular passage or sentence that the reader has flagged up, and then read their comment. Now you’ve put some distance between yourself and the work, can you see where they’re coming from? If you can, then by all means make the change – you may read their comment and wonder why you were so blind you didn’t see the problem area yourself. If you don’t agree, leave it until later and move on. You can always come back and double-check later. If you still don’t agree, then leave your work as it is.
3) Separate the Wheat from the Chaff
You can’t please every person all of the time, so don’t worry if you don’t please 100% of your readers. If you send your story to ten people, and nine people love it, then don’t rewrite your work to suit the one who doesn’t. Accept that the work might not be to their personal taste. Don’t disregard their comments entirely since they might have still raised some useful points, but don’t over-edit the work to try to please everyone. If you, and the majority of your readers, are happy with it, then it’s done.
4) Get a Second Opinion
There’s nothing stopping you asking a friend to read over any comments you’ve received from others. I’ve had comments in the past that I just couldn’t agree with, only to show writer friends who couldn’t understand the comments either. Other people may be able to put the comments into context, give their own opinions, or massage a dented ego. Power Tool said it best when they said that two heads are better than one.
5) Criticism is Only an Opinion
This stuff isn’t cast in stone. No one’s opinion is. While you need to pay attention in the first place to check your reader isn’t telling you something fundamental, and you need to weight that comment up against other comments you’ve received, you don’t need to use it as an absolute truth. If you don’t agree with it, or you don’t think the comment is valid, then you’re perfectly entitled to completely ignore it. Just don’t do it with every piece of feedback you get, or it makes asking for it a waste of time.
What about you? Have you got any particular strategies for coping with criticism? Please share them in the comments below!