You’ve put your heart and soul into your work. You’ve slaved over the words for hours, days, maybe even weeks. It’s as good as you can make it. You send your message out into the world and the feedback starts. Some people will love it, some will not. That’s reality, and it sucks. No one likes to know their work has been judged and found wanting. That said, it’s not the end of the world, or your writing career, either.
How you respond to the inevitable criticism of your work will define how quickly you grow, and ultimately, how far you go, as a writer. Contrary to popular belief (mostly irrational fear, at that), criticism is not bad. Here are five of my best tips on how to turn criticism into fertilizer for your writing.
Know Your Critic
Everyone’s a critic these days. Because of the availability of instant feedback and the personal internet soapbox, unsolicited opinions are ubiquitous. Not everyone is a qualified critic, though, and that is the crucial difference with regard to your work. People will spout their opinion and rate your work because they can, not because their review is valuable. Their input may not be informed, accurate, or even warranted. There is also growing evidence to support the notion that when faced with the opportunity to rate something, be it a restaurant, a new car, or your novel, people will feel compelled to report at least one negative thing about it, if not more. The operational principle behind this behavior is “nothing is completely perfect.” While true, that does not, by itself, make their critique accurate or necessary, especially with regard to something as subjective as art.
This phenomenon is seen all the time on Facebook and Yelp. Examine your Facebook feed and consider whether the opinions put forth by your friends on any substantive topic are informed opinions given what you know about their background, education, and life experience. Most people are just regurgitating what they have read or heard, or giving their raw, irrational reaction without thinking about the issue at hand. Check out your local restaurant reviews on Yelp. Look at your top three favorite restaurants and see if the reviews are accurate. Don’t worry, they’re not.
When it comes to negative critiques of your work you need to apply the same critical eye to your reviewer as you should apply to Facebook posts and Yelp reviews. If it’s some internet troll on your blog who uses the handle “bigpoppaGrump” you can safely ignore their input. You do not need to worry about the next four ways to handle criticism because what they have to say about your work is invalid. If, however, it’s your editor at a well-known magazine or publishing house, you should give them your undivided attention! In other words, the authority of your reviewer matters. Do not give authority to those who have not earned it. That’s right – you give the authority to the reviewer, though people will constantly attempt to usurp it from you. Only you can decide who has the right to criticize your work.
Start With the Assumption The Critique is Accurate
I know this tip may alarm you, but stay with me. This is a powerful technique. Assuming you have given your reviewer authority to criticize your work, starting with the assumption the critique is accurate puts you in the best mindset to make your writing better. By doing so, you are consciously willing to admit that you have made mistakes and want to rectify them. If you approach criticism from the standpoint that it is always inaccurate or unfair, you close your mind to the possibility of being wrong. It is then up to the reviewer to convince you of your work’s shortcomings – a difficult task to say the least!
Do yourself a favor. Listen to what your critic has to say. Think about it objectively. Put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine why they are giving you the negative feedback. The chances are good the negative feedback you receive is valid. You may not choose to wholly incorporate their suggestions, but you may get some good advice that makes your work better. Be brave enough to put your emotions aside for a bit and listen with an open mind.
Use Comparison to Validate Questionable Critique
Assuming you have given authority to your reviewer, and assuming you have considered the critique from the standpoint that it is correct, if you still doubt the validity of the criticism, compare it to something similar. Doing so puts it in context. This is important because anything in isolation can be misunderstood, misconstrued, and seem wrong and out of place.
Consider an example from science fiction. Let’s pretend that your work involves spaceships that are engaged in an epic battle with alien forces. You have chosen to arm your fictional ships with energy weapons, kinetic energy projectiles, and guided missiles. This seems like pretty standard fare for a space war. Then your reviewer comes along and claims your use of guided missiles is unrealistic and breaks his suspension of disbelief because he knows that guided missiles will not work in the vacuum of space. He concludes his review by dismissing your work as amateurish and unworthy of anyone’s time.
Does the reviewer have your authority? We’ll assume he does for this example. Have you considered his remarks from the standpoint that he may be correct? Again, we will assume you have, and you still believe that the idea of guided missiles works in a space war, despite what he says. Now you need to compare your use of these fictional weapons to other sources you have seen. In our example, you would compare your use of guided missiles to Heinlein, or Hubbard, or any other science fiction writer who has stories about space wars. You would likely find the use of guided missiles in a vacuum is a well-accepted convention in the genre. Are there legitimate technical inconsistencies that exist with using such an object in a vacuum? Of course, there are. In this case, however, they are not so incongruent with reality as to be out of the realm of possibility. Because of this, perhaps you dismiss the critique. If the lack of comparative confirmation were more substantial, perhaps you would give it more attention. Understand?
Try It On For Size
You are now on the other side of the criticism coin. You are starting to think there may be some validity to the review and you need to consider either incorporating the suggestions into your work or making changes in future works based on it. It’s time to try it on and see if it fits. Open up your editor and change your work to be in line with the critic’s suggestions. Don’t worry, you can change it back later! Now read it objectively. Is it better? It may or may not be. That’s for you to decide. Regardless, you are now taking the criticism the best way and using it if it’s helpful and ignoring it otherwise. There is no good or bad criticism now.
To be thankful for the receipt of criticism is an odd concept to get your head around. It amounts to being happy when people tell you how poor your work. It seems illogical but it’s not. It’s the key to becoming great.
To be clear, you should not be thankful for the negative feedback. It may or may not be useful to you. You are thankful for the engagement. Someone has felt compelled, for legitimate or illegitimate reasons, to use their time to talk to you about your work. By itself, that is worth celebrating. It is incredibly difficult to build an audience. Have gratitude for their effort whether or not you choose to accept their critique. Thank them when they knock on your door and want to make you better.
The main takeaway from these five points can be distilled into three sentences. If someone is worth listening to, listen to them. Then make up your own mind whether or not you want to use what they tell you. Be happy people are reading your work no matter what they say about it.