Saturday, May 9, 2015

Toughen Up, Buttercup: A Guide to Surviving Constructive Criticism

At some point in your writing journey, if you are lucky, you will be exposed to that wonderful, terrifying, terrible process known as critique. It may come from a teacher or professor. It may arrive in the guise of an in-person or online writing group. It may even turn up as feedback from an editor or a beta reader. But mark my words, if you write long enough and are serious about sharing your work with other readers, eventually it will occur, leaving you alone to decide how to best respond.

What you do next is crucial. Your response to criticism (that you asked for, by the way) will determine:

1. How much or how little you will learn about the craft of writing

2. To what extent your writing may improve

3. Whether or not people will willingly continue working with you

As a writer, the first thing you need to do ask yourself some very important questions. (BE TRUTHFUL, you will only be lying to yourself.)

1. Do I want other people to read what I have written?

2. Do I feel confident that I am presenting the best work I am capable of producing?

3. Am I ready to hear people talk about my writing in ways that may not be flattering?

4. Can my ego take criticism without me becoming: a) angry, b) violent, c) depressed, or d) suicidal?

Did you answer “no” to one or more of these questions? Stop right here! You are not ready for constructive criticism. You are looking for someone to ride in on a unicorn and blow glittery rainbows up your ass. I suggest giving your work to your mom or best friend or someone else who believes everything you do is brilliant and perfect. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT share your work with strangers. You are not prepared.

Did you answer “yes” to all these questions? Fantastic! You are ready for constructive criticism.

Now that you are seriously primed to share your work with others, the most significant information I can share with you is this – 99% of the people who will offer you advice are truly trying to help you be a better writer. The other 1%? Well, the other 1% are trolls and bullies who only feel better about their own shortcomings as writers, and possibly as human beings, when they are tearing someone else down. Don’t sweat that one percent, you will quickly learn who they are and you can ignore them completely.

I mean, technically, you are free to ignore anyone and everyone. You are the creator of your work, and as such, it is your choice whether or not to listen to what other people have to say. However, I would recommend at least entertaining the ideas and suggestions that come your way. They are only trying to help after all.

Now, I obviously can’t speak for everyone out there. I can only speak from my personal experience in both giving and receiving critiques, but I can tell you that I am certainly not going to be easier on a stranger than I am on the 13-19-year-olds I work with on a regular basis. In fact, I know quite a few adult writers who could take a lesson from these young writers. They crave critique. They beg for it. They want to learn. They want to improve. Most of all, they want to write and share their writing with others.

So, in the spirit of these fearless future novelists, playwrights, poets, journalists, and artists, here is my advice for learning to survive constructive criticism.

Your writing is not you.

Don’t get butt-hurt over what people say to you about your writing. People are not attacking you. These stories are your babies. Believe me, I get it, but have you forgotten question #4 already? Oh, yes, I was totally serious when I asked it. If you are going to survive, you had better develop a thick skin – the sooner, the better.

People are not going to sugarcoat things for you.

Don’t expect people to couch their criticism in kindness.
Again, I’m not your mom or your best friend or even your biggest fan. I’m not here to feed your fragile ego. I will NEVER be unnecessarily rude, but I have shit to do. When I am working with a piece, it has my absolute and undivided attention. However, I have other manuscripts and stories to read, reviews to write, and projects of my own to work on. Keeping feedback concise (which can sometimes seem curt) can simply be a necessity.

When the going gets tough, buckle down and work harder.

Don’t quit just because a piece was received poorly by someone or even by a whole bunch of someones. Writers don’t quit. They just don’t. Are you a writer? Then, you can’t be a quitter. Instead, realize that not everything you write will be a hit with everyone who reads it. Do you believe in the story you are trying to tell? Then, keep working on it. If not, then scrap it and write something else. Nothing you have written is time wasted. It all becomes part of the learning process. KEEP WRITING!

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

The first draft of your first story is probably not going to be very good. It is quite possible that it will suck. Writing improves over time. In fact, time and experience is the only way it improves. Revision is your friend. Embrace it. Even the most talented writers rewrite and revise. And then you know what they do? They revise and rewrite some more. Hemingway rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. 39 times! Do you think you are more brilliant and talented than Hemingway? Perhaps you should think again.

Edit your work before you give it to someone to read.

GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION MATTER! They matter to the entire literate world. I cannot stress this enough! See Question #2 above for further clarification. I am not your editor – not that I won’t point out a misspelling or tense shift from time to time, but that is not my primary goal. If I have to struggle to read what you have written, I will not be reading it. If I wanted to be an editor, I would make a job of it. Nobody has time to try to translate your writing and critique it. Don’t be that person.

Remember that no one is perfect.

We are all biased by our personal preferences. This is as true for readers as it is for writers. I do my best to reveal my own personal biases when I critique, but not everyone does. Just be aware that sometimes a suggestion may come your way based purely on a person’s preference for or aversion to a particular genre, style, or form.

Listen to what people have to say.

When someone has taken the time and trouble to read and comment on what you have written, the least you can do is listen to what they have to say. I approach each and every critique first as a reader, then as a writer. Many of the critiques I offer deal with aspects I would like to see as a reader – better character development, clarification of story points through addition or revision, reduction of extraneous information, and developing better dialogue are the most common. Critique partners and beta readers take their roles seriously. They want your end product to be the absolute best it can be, so pay attention to their opinions and advice.

BUT, take everything with a grain of salt.

Always remember, you have the final say in your work. There is no question you will be given advice that will be invaluable to your growth as a writer. However, there will also be suggestions that just seem to miss the mark. If there is something you love, keep it and move on.

If you choose to follow these suggestions (as always it is ultimately your choice), then you will be well on your way to becoming a better writer. But, regardless of your choice, good luck and happy writing to you all!

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