Ever hear “it’s better to give than receive?” Well, in the case of criticism, it’s certainly easier to give than receive. For part two of what turned into a two part post because when have I ever not been long-winded, I’m going to dive into receiving criticism. Because you know what? It kind of sucks, but it’s good for us as individuals and as a community. Like vaccines.
The first cut is the deepest
As a writer, I know it takes a lot to overcome your inner critic and release a piece of writing into the world. So what do you do when you finally think you have something “good enough” and you let it go… only to have your poor darling come back mangled by criticism? Let’s start with what not to do.
First of all, don’t quit. Criticism of your writing isn’t a statement about your worth as a person or a writer, it’s an opportunity to get better at being both those things. (I promise, I’ll talk in a second about criticism not of your writing, how to tell the difference, and maybe I’ll swear a little too.) Criticism does not mean your entire work is worthless and unsalvageable. It means there are some things the reader thought you could have done better. Not being perfect isn’t a reason to stop doing a thing. Who’s perfect?
Second, don’t take it personally. Especially when you’re writing online, there’s very little chance your critic knows you. The only contact they have with you is that piece of writing. So that’s the only thing they’re talking about: the piece of writing. Just like you need some distance when you edit, you need some distance when you read criticism.
Third, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Once you overcome your inner critic, sometimes it’s even easier to overcome outer critics! I’m about to talk about how to tell useful from useless criticism, but unless it’s really egregious, try to approach all criticism from the standpoint that the critic sees something in your writing that you didn’t.
Are you a good witch? Or a bad witch?
While some might argue that just about every iteration of the Oz stories has given Glinda a really easy way to tell if Dorothy’s a good witch, a bad witch, or not a witch at all, distinguishing between useful and useless criticism can be harder. Fortunately, there are a few questions you can ask that will help you narrow it down.
Important note here: just like I don’t generally use “good” and “bad” to describe writing, I don’t use those words to describe criticism, and I think you shouldn’t either, because the way we describe things matters. Language matters. Writing that misses the mark isn’t “bad” – bad is a worth judgment on the whole thing, and most writing has worth at the very least as an act of creation and learning. The writing might be unsuccessful at conveying what the writer intended. It might miss the mark for lyricism, grammar, description, or fall short in any one or many of hundreds of ways. But that doesn’t make it “bad.” Similarly, most criticism is not “bad” – it just may or may not be useful in your learning process. So I’m going to stick to useless and useful to describe criticism, with one notable exception which is coming right up.
Is it about the writing?
I got a comment on a recent essay that said “Femin*zi c*nts like you should be [verbed] until [more verbs]. Heil Hitler. 14/88 [in case Heil Hitler wasn’t clear, I guess?]”
That’s bad criticism. It’s also useless, because it’s about me and not about the essay I’d written. In fact, from the comment you can’t actually tell if the writer read the essay or just hopped over from that handy Reddit link and copy-pasted his standard diatribe. For all I know he has a macro.
In general, feedback that’s about you as a person and not about the writing is pretty useless and you can ignore it and move on with your life (after a quick check of your privacy settings, in some cases). As one writer told me, “critique my writing, not my content (unless the content was offensive in some way and I’m missing it, but like if I’m writing about my kid did this or that, don’t tell me I’m a bad mother and call it concrit.)” As she noted, the one exception is when someone says “In your essay you talked about [thing you did] and [thing you did] was [racist/sexist/classist/unkind].” If when you were writing your essay you didn’t think that you had portrayed yourself that way, you might need to sit with this comment a little while and try to figure out whether the thing you did was inappropriate or whether you described it poorly. In either case, though, you’ve got an opportunity for growth, and that’s useful feedback.
Is it specific?
Okay, so that comment is about the writing. Now, can you figure out what part of the writing? “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” comments aren’t useful criticism unless you can figure out what, specifically, you need to focus on. Of course, not every comment can be “you’ve got a dangling participle in paragraph four, the sentence that reads [sentence] should read [other sentence] unless you mean for the spoon to have hair?” That doesn’t mean you should always discard more general comments, just that they’re not helpful to you unless you can tell what in the writing led the reader to make the comment.
General comments that are helpful might include:
- There are a lot of typos in this essay
- You have a lot of comma splices
- Most sentences are the same length
- Every verb seems to have an adverb paired with it; consider using more specific words
What these statements have in common is that they give you an “in” to what the commenter is talking about. Don’t know what a comma splice is? Not sure about pronoun agreement? Look it up! Then see if you can find it in your writing.
General comments that you can probably ignore include:
- This was long
- I liked this
- Your characters are interesting
- This story is interesting
Yes, even though those last few comments make you feel good, they’re not useful feedback because you don’t know what about the characters or story caught and held the reader’s interest, so you can’t duplicate what you did in later writing. How could these comments have been made useful?
- This was long; it felt like the middle section wandered, and the final paragraph didn’t add much to the story
- I liked this, especially “Women transformed into widows” because it tells you what happened that day without a lot of extra words describing a battle
- Your characters are interesting, particularly Lena. Her voice is very authentically childish (I know, because my daughter is that age)
- This story is interesting in the way it plays the gritty urban setting off of the fairytale plot and characters
See the difference? You still get the compliment, but now you know what you did right! (Folks who are afraid to give constructive criticism, this is still constructive criticism and you should be thinking about helping a writer like this as you write your glowing comments!)
Can you find the thing?
Now that you’ve decided that the comment is about the writing, and it’s specific, what do you do when you just don’t see what the comment is referring to?
Remember what I said above about not assuming the commenter is wrong just because you and they don’t see the same things in your writing. If you’ve gone through your piece five times looking for ‘all those sentence fragments’ or ‘a bunch of extra commas’ and you just don’t see any, that doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t any. It may just mean that you know what you intended to write, and you’re reading that instead of what you actually put on the page (we do this all the time when we self-edit; it’s why beta readers and editors are critical). Or it may mean that you’re not as familiar as the person giving you criticism is with a particular grammatical rule.
This is when it’s really valuable to be part of a community of writers. Rather than posting just your feedback and complaining about how the commenter just doesn’t get your work, find a trusted friend or two in your community. Tell them “I just got some feedback on a story and before I dismiss it I want to know if you can see what the person was talking about because I can’t find it.” Sometimes you just need someone who’s less familiar with the story (or more familiar with the grammatical error) to point the thing out to you. Start with the assumption that nobody would bother to invent an error in your writing just to mess with you, and see where that takes you.
Can isn’t the same as should
That’s a thing my dad told me, I’m pretty sure when I was talking about jumping off the roof, or maybe building a climbing wall on the side of our garage. And it’s a thing that sometimes you have to apply to criticism. See, everyone sees something a little different in writing. Some people want every single sentence to have classic grammatical structure. Others are fine with fragments. Because fragments add emphasis and voice. You know, like I just did there. And not all fragments are. Created equal some make sense to use and others don’t.
See what I mean? So how do you decide whether to use a piece of usable criticism?
Viva la resistance! No, wait.
Often our first instinct when we see criticism is to resist it. We put a lot of work into that essay, poem or story, and we don’t want to hear about our shortcomings. Another reason we resist is that we’re emotionally close to our writing, and sometimes criticism of our writing feels very personal. A third reason is that we’re so used to our own inner critics tearing us down that sometimes instead of reading the plain words of the criticism we read into it instead, adding malice and nuance that just isn’t there.
Here are a few tips I gathered from one of my own writers’ groups on how to overcome our resistance and really hear the criticism we need to hear:
- I had to learn that the critique of a story that was an emotional experience to write was not about my feelings, but about the words on the page. If I am not ready to talk about the words instead of the feelings, it’s not time to share this piece. -MC
- When I get specific criticism that I disagree with, and I’m not sure if I have the emotional distance to assess it, I ask a trusted friend. -LS
- I try to establish the reason I’m asking for critique…like, what’s my goal or what I’m hoping to gain? If I just want someone to tell me they love something, then I need to be clear when I ask for readers that I’m looking for affirmation. If I want eviscerating honesty, I’ll need to make that clear, too. -JC
- When I genuinely feel the criticism comes from a place of not understanding some higher level nuance, I have to remind myself that the criticism/edits are being done with a certain audience in mind and I’m not in control of that. -JK [Ed’s note: then you have to decide if you’re writing for that audience and if you are maybe swallow your pride, know your thing was fine for a different audience, but make the edits anyway. /rbg]
- I think the criticism that hurts the most is when you recognize the truth in it, that it’s deserved. But then if all I do is second-guess myself all day long I sometimes fall into a trap of agreeing with wrong assessments [and beat myself up]. -MC
- When you know you’re likely resisting an edit unreasonably, but it feels very important. Eat a perspective sandwich and decide if it really really matters, and if it still feels that important, instead of dying on that hill, phone a friend to tell you you’re wrong already. -NC
See the common thread, though? Get some distance, ask a friend. Don’t make it about you and your feelings about the writing, when it’s just about the writing. Once you’re sure you’re not resisting unreasonably, you can dig into the criticism and the edits.
Start from the standpoint that you’re gonna use it all in some way, whether that’s now or later. Only discard criticism in a very few cases.
Objection, your Honor. Relevance.
Criticism that isn’t relevant to your work or what you’re trying to do with it can be discarded, even if it’s useful and reasonable criticism. For example, it’s a fair criticism of Ulysses to say that it would be more accessible if James Joyce had stuck to using dictionary words and traditional sentence structure. On the other hand, that wasn’t Joyce’s goal in writing the novel, and it wouldn’t be the work it is had he edited it based on that suggestion.
Look at each piece of criticism and see if it moves your writing closer to or further from your goal. I can’t say this enough: nothing else matters. Your sad feels about your writing don’t matter. Your attachment to your characters or that phrase or the moral at the end? Doesn’t matter. If you want that piece of writing to get as close to what you envisioned for it as possible, you’re going to have to get a little ruthless with yourself.
So you’ve identified the comma splice the critic was talking about, and you really like the way the sentence sounds as-is. Do you use the feedback and change the sentence? Well, what does the comma splice do for you? Does using that structure advance your story, set the rhythm, or clarify the voice in your essay? (Spoilers: while fragments or runons might be effective, comma splices almost never are.) Is there a strong reason to do it your way which outweighs the advantage to the story of doing it the other way round? If not, make the edit, already.
If it’s a closer call, sometimes it’s helpful to look at the source of the criticism. Is this someone whose writing and opinion you respect, or a stranger? Do you see errors in their own writing that undermine your trust in their assessment of yours? Now’s the time to check in with that trusted friend and get a second opinion. If it doesn’t agree with yours, don’t fight. Just make the edit, already.
While you’re checking in with your friend, think about this comment from one of mine: “[E]ven if I don’t agree with the exact feedback someone is giving me, that section of my writing rocked their boat enough for them to comment on it, so I should recognize the choppy waters there.” You don’t have to make the precise edit a critic suggests in order to use the criticism. In fact, a different edit may do better to preserve your work and still fix the problem the critic helped you identify. Your trusted friend/editor/beta can help suggest alternate edits… but make the edit, already.
What about bigger things, like a whole paragraph that “doesn’t add much,” or a description that’s supposedly out of place or a vocabulary word that the reader didn’t know? Check your target: if making that change would make your work more successful with your target audience? Just make the edit already.
I hope you’re starting to see a pattern here. Of course you’re going to run across suggestions that don’t advance your work, too. I’ve gotten feedback that suggested I end a story by showing a particular character’s reaction to an event. The character had died three pages earlier, so I couldn’t do that without reviving her. The story was about her murder. So, no. Making that edit might have made a different, good story, but it wouldn’t have made the story I was trying to write. Still, in most cases… just make the edit already. If not the suggested edit, then a similar edit that fixes the identified problem.
Look, let’s just sit with the unvarnished truth for a minute: you’re probably not important enough to a stranger that they want to waste their time making up random stuff about your writing to critique. If someone’s taken the time to tell you about something they think you’re doing wrong, as much as it sucks, it’s probably healthy to approach the problem from an “if this is wrong, how do I fix it” standpoint rather than a “they must not know what they’re talking about” standpoint. Sometimes you need a little emotional distance or some help from a friend to do that. But as long as the critique is about your writing, rather than about judging you as a person or someone’s obvious emotional reaction to your content, it’s probably useful to you in some way. Even if you don’t decide to use it on that particular piece, the criticism can give you an idea about chronic issues in your writing that you’ll need to look out for in the future.
Or you could just complain about it anonymously online instead while making sure nobody has a chance to evaluate the validity of the critique against your writing, but trust me: it’s not a good look on you. I’ve done it, and it wasn’t a good look on me either. There are better ways to bolster your ego… like writing something that really works.
About the author:
Rowan submitted exactly one piece of microfiction to YeahWrite before being consumed by the editorial darkside. She spent some time working hard as our Submissions Editor before becoming YeahWrite’s Managing Editor in 2016. In real life she’s been at various times an attorney, aerialist, professional knitter, artist, graphic designer (yes, they’re different things), editor, secretary, tailor, and martial artist. It bothers her vaguely that the preceding list isn’t alphabetized, but the Oxford comma makes up for it. She lives in Portlandia with a menagerie which includes at least one other human. She blogs at textwall and CrossKnit.