Unless one chooses to write only for oneself, keeping one’s writing hidden under the house, at the back of the refrigerator behind the leftover chicken vendaloo, or in a Swiss bank’s safety deposit box, criticism is an unavoidable part of the writing craft. And for most writers, this is perhaps the most difficult part of offering our thoughts to the world for the simple reason that writing is such a deeply personal endeavor. Putting our thoughts out there for scrutiny feels as if we’re exposing our minds, if not our souls, and given how fragile we perceive both minds and souls to be, that’s a pretty scary proposition. But I think most of our problem in handling criticism comes about because we let our egos get the best of us and perceive all criticism to be some form of personal attack. By doing so, we miss a golden opportunity to grow as writers.
I think there are three basic types of criticism: personal (yes, I don’t deny it happens), preferential, and practiced.
Quite honestly, personal criticism is not criticism at all. Personal criticism is symptomatic of an unsavory and thinly-veiled emotion, like jealousy or envy. Listen closely to what’s being said. Is the conversation really about your writing? If it isn’t, then you can be pretty sure that the critics’ real problem is that they just don’t like you, and by extrapolation your spouse, your pet, your politics, etc., and that you just happen to be a writer is part of the package they detest. Their criticism is as useless as flattery is empty. Solution: smile, ignore their blathering, ”write them off” — move on!
Preferential criticism is a little harder to define, but quite common. No one likes everything. We all have different tastes and preferences, from food to fashion to writing. In writing this is particularly true of fiction. Some people are enamored with fantasies — others despise them. Some readers really dig stream-of-consciousness pieces — others admit they are simply confused by the structure and avoid the genre. Again, it’s important to listen closely to what’s being said. The person may not be ‘all that into’ what you’re writing about or they may not find your writing style engaging. If it’s the former, there’s little you can do about it. But if it is the latter, an opportunity for growth is presented. Ask what it is about your style that puts them off. For instance, does it have something to do with your use of the first person, your use of adjectives, a lack of clarity, an absence of humor? Then, especially if it is a short piece, experiment with a rewrite taking into consideration the gist of their criticism. You may be surprised at what shows up on the page. You may be delighted — you may be horrified. But you’ll come away with a better sense of how you write and why you write as you do. You might even discover that you are a more flexible writer than you imagined.
The best criticism, of course, is practiced criticism, and by ‘practiced’ I mean from someone who practices the writing craft. Practiced criticism speaks directly to the nuts, bolts, widgets and gizmos of our craft. When a person takes the time to discuss your writing in detail about the details, you need to put your ego aside and take note, because it isn’t about you — it’s an appraisal of how effectively the words you’ve chosen or the order in which they occur express and move forward the subject of your writing. if someone can help you hone your craft, teach you about avoiding passive voice, how to use strong nouns, develop delightful characters and build story arc, listen. They aren’t doing so to bruise your ego — they’re there to assist you in perfecting your craft (and we are all short of perfection).
As writers, we are all enriched by good writing. When criticism comes, set you ego aside, and you will open the door to becoming a better writer.