The Unappreciated Art of Receiving Criticism

Giving critique on anything is easy.

Giving coherent, insightful critique can be difficult: that’s why people can make a career out of being a critic.  It’s easy to say whether or not you like something, but saying why in a meaningful way can be fairly convoluted.

Receiving critique, though, is damn near impossible.

 

The Critique-ee Spectrum

In my experience, the receivers of criticism come in two extremes.

On one hand, you have The Artiste, who takes any criticism as an attack on himself as a person and insists detractors “simply do not understand his art“.  On the other, you have the Masochist, who tries to please everyone and takes every piece of advice as gospel.  She also takes criticism as an attack on herself as a person: where the Artiste has decided no one has good taste but himself, the Masochist assumes everyone on the planet knows better than she does.

The extremes both have good points: no one will ever know your writing as well as you do, but you as a writer cannot see your work as a reader would.  They are both understandably invested in their work (how can you not be?), and take criticism like an arrow to the heart.

They are both terrible at receiving criticism.

 

Take it Easy

The first (and hardest) part of getting everything you need out of critique is this: separate yourself from  your work.  Some writers (and artists) have an easier time of this than others.  If you’re in it for the money, writing a formula book with no connection to the artistry of it, this probably isn’t a problem for you.  If you’re in it for a personal reason (for the love of writing, to express  your own experiences, to tell the world your message) you probably know what I’m talking about.

It’s hard.

The thing is, anyone who’s reading your work clearly cares about it enough to put in the time.  This is true of professionals and friends alike: if you have someone giving you enough criticism to break your heart, they’re putting in a lot of time and effort for the sole purpose of making it better.

Keeping that in mind as you read makes it a lot easier to remember that they’re talking about your work, not about you.  Establishing a conscious baseline of trust and respect makes it a lot harder to forget that there is trust and respect there.  Which makes it a lot easier to read feedback with an open mind.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to accept everything everyone tells you.

 

Take it Seriously

The second thing to keep in mind: all criticism has merit.  This does not mean that you need to take all feedback as legitimate or necessary.  It just means that you can get something out of everything.

Real-life example from a friend of mine: she wrote a story about a young gay man, and, in a writing workshop, was told she clearly did not understand the “gay lifestyle” based on this story.  She and her girlfriend were more than a little amused by this remark.  It sounds inane and completely useless– the type of advice you should completely throw out, right?

But if someone who lived the “gay lifestyle” didn’t understand something that my friend was trying to portray, it meant something was unclear.

This is what you can get out of misguided criticism: find out where the person was misguided.  Find out where your writing was unclear, or where it was confusing, or what vital part they skimmed over.  Fix that.

 

In Short…. 

The steps to understanding your feedback go like this.

First, establish a baseline of respect: understand that someone who doesn’t have an interest in your writing won’t put in the effort to provide you with detailed feedback.

Second, try to remove yourself from your art: you and your writing are two distinct and separate things.  A person can like one and not the other. (This goes both ways, actually. I love Ender’s Game and cannot stand Orson Scott Card.  Similarly, there are many people who I love dearly that cannot write worth a damn.)

Third, judge what criticism to take up front. What is actually relevant to your story? What’s going to help you grow as a writer?

And finally, look at the criticism you discarded.  Where did the readers misstep? What did they overlook? What did they not understand? How can you make those things clearer?

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