Creative people can get quite attached to the talking people in their heads. This is perfectly acceptable, in fact it’s bloody brilliant, but there comes a time when you have to let go. As both a High School English teacher and a writer, I liken watching people deal with criticism of their writing to Parent/Teacher night.
There are parents that are on your side, willing to accept your professional opinion and help their child improve. Then there are the ‘No way, the golden sun shines out of my wee Timmy’s Arse’ type. Their child sits smugly watching, knowing he’s going to get away with it, knowing that when I give him a detention Mummy’s going call up and excuse him from it.
I get pissed off and frustrated, yes. But that’s all I can do really. The fact is wee Timmy’s not going to improve.
I am a member of a fantastic workshop website where you give criticisms of other members writing and can put your own work up for others to criticise too. I find it incredibly useful. Getting feedback on my work is wonderful, but reading other writer’s works with a critical eye is immeasurably good for my own creative endeavours. It helps me look at my own stuff with a better eye, a slightly more objective one. I wrote before about my love of rejections. This is a little similar in a way. I have learned to swallow down unpalatable opinions on my stories and better yet- do something about them!
I went through a process to get to this point. Let’s put it this way, I don’t think the sun shines out of my wee Timmy’s arse. I think hellfire comes out of it. I’m ridiculously bad at taking positive criticism. I automatically disbelieve it and think people are just being nice. And when it comes to bad criticism, I take it all as if it were absolute gospel and regularly decide I must be so bad that I should never write again.
Whichever way you think of your wee Timmy, you need to get away from the extremes and come to a sort of balance. Opinions on your work are just that, opinions. Sure the criticism regarding typos and grammar issues are facts. But the other stuff is not, it comprises of the feelings and tastes of the critic and because of that it is invaluable.
Not everybody is going to love your work. You have to just take that on the chin and still be brave enough to keep putting your work out there. Ask for constructive criticism. Not everyone who reviews your stuff will be good at that. Some people will be downright mean and others will barely skim the surface and give you a flimsy response that could be about any story, and clearly shows they didn’t really bother. The more criticism you receive the better you will get at vetting it, realising what is useful and should be taken on board and what is not useful and should be discarded.
On the workshop, I tend to post a story up after I’ve finished it and let the reviews pile up for a while without looking at them. When I feel sufficiently removed from the story (meaning I am not stuck staring at one tree and can see I’m in a forest) I open the reviews and read them. I love when readers highlight parts they did not understand or that jarred with them, for then I have an idea of what I need to do when I sit down to redraft. In the same way, I now try to let the complimentary criticism sink in too. This is especially so when my reviewer tells me what they liked and why they liked it.
I now make sure that when I review other people’s work I always give my reasons so that they know I am not just throwing in something that sounds nice in order to make myself feel like I’m being truly constructive. No matter how terrible you think the work you are reading is, you can ALWAYS find something good. Look for it. Do not make it up. I do this when I mark my pupil’s work in a teaching capacity too. Kids know that you are following the star and two wishes code. One good thing, and two areas for improvement. I learned not to fake the star.
So these are my thoughts on dealing with criticism, both the giving and receiving of it. Tell me below how you feel about it. What advice would you give to those scared to put their out at workshops and writer groups?