Criticism Hurts. Use it Wisely.

I’ve talked before about how to write a good, critical review. But what about when the boot is on the other foot? Receiving a critical review that points out all of your flaws and shortcomings is one of the most ego-bashing, horrible experiences you’ll ever go through.

BUT (and here’s the thing) it’s also one of the best things you could hope for to improve your writing.

We’re all a bit short-sighted when it comes to our own writing. Our stories are our babies. We’ve slaved over the plot, we’ve crafted sentences that are so beautiful you can only sit back and marvel at the sheer incandescent gorgeousness assaulting your eyeballs, we’ve fallen in love with our characters and lived and relived both their triumphs and tragedies all in the attempt to share this amazing gem of a story with the world.

And then someone comes along and pokes holes in your beautiful work. Those bastards!

When you first receive criticism, constructive or otherwise, it hurts. Even if you’re really hoping that criticism will help you improve your technique, people finding flaws with something as personal as your writing hurts in its own special way.

For me, there are five clear stages of receiving constructive criticism.

1.       Denial
Pfft, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re not the all-important author. They’re reading it wrong. Also, I’m awesome in every way and my work is perfect and did I mention that it’s awesome? Because it totally is.

2.       Anger
I put HOURS into this! Did you think that beautiful plot just worked itself out? What about that dialogue?? Banter doesn’t just HAPPEN, you know, there’s blood, sweat and TEARS IN THAT WITTY RETORT! THAT’S A RETORT OF PAIN!

3.       Bargaining
It’s okay. There’s nothing really wrong with my story. It’s just someone who’s just a little confused about some stuff. If I just explain to them where they’re going wrong and how my story is clearly amazing in all ways it’ll all be okay. What? You tell me that the dialogue sounds completely out of place and is killing the mood of the story? Don’t you see? That’s the point. The dialogue is a hint about the deep disconnect the characters have felt since childhood because of (psychobabble)

4.       Depression
Oh GOD. It’s TRUE! I fail! I am a failure as a writer. This… this is ALL AWFUL!! What was I even thinking when I wrote this? Was I Insane? Why did this even make it on to the page? WHY did I think it was ever worth sharing with thinking human beings? No wonder they called it for the crap that it is.

5.       Acceptance
You know… they’re right about this one section. But if I just tweak a few things here and there I think I might be able to fix the issue. My story’s not perfect but neither is anyone else’s. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes as long as I’m willing to recognise and fix my mistakes and as long as I constantly try my best.

I generally get stuck around stage 3 or 4, depending on whether or not I’ve got the ability to contact the person who criticised my work. Only the other day I received a chapter back from my beta with a whole bunch of (perfectly valid) criticism and questions about the chapter. I think I made one correction and to the rest I replied with an extended question and answer session, trying to justify and reason my way through not having to change a thing. I am a serial bargainer.

Of course, if I don’t have the ability to bargain I’ll find the section the critique talks about, read it with new eyes and realise that I am a talentless hack who sounds like she’s bashing her keyboard with her head rather than creating beautiful prose.

It really could go either way and there is no middle ground on that one. But once I’ve gotten over my initial reaction and begun moving through the stages I find that I have a choice in the matter.

There are two important things that are vital to remember when you receive criticism. The first is that you don’t need to take it. Seriously. If someone criticises a part of your story that you, as the writer, believe is not only fine but great in all amazing kinds of ways STICK TO YOUR GUNS. You’re the writer. If you want to write it that way you CAN. If someone else wants to write it a different way they can bloody well write their own story and leave you the hell alone. However (and this is a big however) always be aware that if one person has an issue with something it might not be just them and it might be indicative of a bigger problem (Or it could just be them trying to force you to write like them. It’s a judgement call). And as long as you’re okay with that, that’s okay. Thank them politely for their feedback but tell them that you’re happy with your work as-is.

The second thing is that they might have a point. Recognising that they may have a point requires a bit of critical distance from your work. It requires you to go back and read your story with their criticism in mind while saying ‘Actually… yeah. Having that random unicorn farting rainbows through every second scene wasn’t as hilarious as I thought it would be.’ (The second part of that thought is optional but valid. Random unicorns get old really really fast). Recognising that they might have a point also jumps you past the first three stages of constructive criticism. Whether you choose to do anything about it is what determines if you’re going to fall into depression or move into acceptance.

Knowing that there’s a problem but choosing to fall into depression about how terrible your writing is doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t make you feel better, it doesn’t make your critic feel like they’ve contributed anything and your story still has the same problems it had before. Thanks to your critic, you know there’s a problem now. Go forth and fix it with your mighty pen oh all-knowing and omnipotent author. You have the power. Use it wisely.

Just remember, that no matter what you decide to do about the criticism you receive there is one thing you must always ALWAYS tell your critic. No matter what.

‘Thank you for your feedback’

Practice this phrase.

‘Thank you for your feedback’

Practice that phrase until you can safely say it and type it even while everything in you is screaming for this ignorant and artless critic’s blood.

‘Thank you for your feedback’

Practice it with gritted teeth if you have to.

‘Thank you for your feedback’

Have you got it? Is it burned into your brain? Yes?

Good.

No matter what kind of feedback you get use that phrase. Even if they are the nastiest person in the world and you hate them and everything they stand for use that phrase. If you’re lucky you’ll confuse them with your mega-politeness and they might actually become a decent human being (no guarantees)

No matter whether you intend to use their advice or you intend to trust your own instinct and ignore them, they’ve used some of their time to read your story and to provide you with their opinion on it. Or used some time to creatively insult your life’s work. Either way, thank them for their efforts.

Getting feedback that’s less than positive about your work sucks. But it’s also great. We all have weaknesses as writers and sometimes we really need other people to point them out to us. It helps to make our writing better and it helps to leave our skin a little thicker and better able to cope when things don’t go our way.

P.S. Sorry I didn’t post my promised review about B R Collins’s Gamerunner. I’ve had the flu for the past week and have spent the majority of my time either unconscious or under the influence of awesome flu-killing drugs… while being unconscious (Basically I’ve slept a lot this past week… which is also why this post is a bit late and doesn’t have any illustrations) I’ll be posting it next Monday and then hopefully everything will go back to the normal weekly schedule.

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About Meg Laverick

I can never be found without a cup of tea in my hand or a notebook in my bag. In between university and generally being awesome I read, write and nerd (that's a verb, right?). I also like analysing things that are probably best left alone.
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13 Responses to Criticism Hurts. Use it Wisely.

  1. Karkarshar says:

    This is terrible. Where are the Picture?? I LIVE FOR YOUR PICTURES D:!

    Now thank me for my feedback :3

    bwee hee..
    >.>
    <.<

    • Karkarshar says:

      Also, I had visions of you going through all 5 stages in quick succession. That would be most hilarious. 😛

      • Meg Laverick says:

        Haha I’m sorry. I will give you pictures next week. Promise.

        And you’d be surprised how quickly I do go through the stages XD It must be very weird to watch me go from haughty to angry to depressed beyond all belief in the space of about 5 minutes.

        Also- Thanks for your feedback! 😉

  2. JuliansGIrl says:

    Awesome as usual…

    Usually I skip straight to the depression stage… (however that is usually even before I post) and then once I post, straight to denial! Lol. Oh how twisted.

    I missed the pics, they make me lol, but if you were sick I guess I shall have to forgive you.

    PS: Pls review my latest chap so I can thank you for your review 😛

    • Meg Laverick says:

      lol I normally have a lot of fun in the Anger stage, I think. Some of the most creative insults I’ve ever thought up have been hurled at the computer screen while I’m getting it out of my system. Good times.

      I will, I will. Sorry 🙂

  3. You make several very good points and you make them in such a way that they are really fun to read! My personal favorite, though, and perhaps the hardest to learn is “STICK TO YOUR GUNS” when you know that something *is* right and the best it can be. I had an experience once where I got several reviews where readers didn’t like the characters in my story, and felt that I didn’t give enough detail. I rewrote the story and re-posted it. People liked it better except for my most honest, long term reviewer. He wrote to me and said it nearly made him cry to see how I had ruined what had been my best story yet. He told me that I need to stop trying to please everyone, and trust myself. It was a relief to hear that because I didn’t like the revised story; I felt that a lot of the immediacy and the ‘heat’ had gone out of it with the rewrite. Yes, it was more palatable to casual readers, but it had distressed my most trusted reviewer and made me feel like a hack. It wasn’t worth it, but I had to hear that it was okay to STICK TO MY GUNS from someone I trusted. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Thanks so much for your comment! I’m glad that you agree. Sticking to your guns really is one of the hardest things to learn but it’s really important if you’re going to tell -your- story rather than someone elses.

      Kurt Vonnegut in his rules for writing short stories said ‘Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.’ Every time I read that I firstly get giggles and then am struck by how true it is.

      Did you end up changing your story back to its original form?

  4. Pingback: My Review Process « Aniko Carmean

  5. phoenixandtiger says:

    Wow. This was just the thing I needed to boost my spirits after a really stupid and screwed up presentation in history.
    I think after the concrit I got on IWLY, I basically skipped right through denial, anger, bargaining, and went straight to depression for five minutes before rereading it with fresh eyes – I mean, I think there was always this tiny part of me that felt like I could’ve done way better on the last chapter, but I was just losing my focus and my interest in continuing it. So I think I’m at the acceptance stage now.
    Or maybe I’m just a blockhead and the anger and denial will come in ten more days.
    – phoenixandtiger

    Shameless plug about my new blog: http://willustaywithme.livejournal.com XD

  6. Pingback: Inspiration… « Life Behind The Wall

  7. Lainy Wolf says:

    Yeah, i don’t think anyone is good with criticism. I tend to just hang around at the anger stage with a possible slip into depression. Why is it so hard??

    Naw, i hate being sick. 😦 i’ve been fighting something off for a couple of weeks now. I think its gone although i’m pretty sure its laying dormant somewhere ready to rear its ugly head when exams start. Feel better ❤

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