What About the Criticism You Really Should Listen To?

A few weeks ago, I posted here about my struggle not to obsess over one piece of critical feedback about my novel, an obsession that almost prevented me from being able to process all the good things I was hearing. The person who criticized it, I reasoned, must be the only person telling the truth.  Anyone who said they liked it was obviously hiding something.

Your comments were so thoughtful and encouraging, and truly helped me find my footing again. Thank you. At the end of the post, however, I promised a part two in my meditation on getting critical feedback. So here it is.

As I wrote before, I was fascinated (and comforted) to discover that human beings are actually wired to put more emphasis on the negative and the threatening, a legacy of our time as prey, and an ancient form of self-defense. This wiring often does result in the kind of distortion I described, preventing us from having a balanced, accurate view of the feedback we are getting from the world around us. But it can have another self-sabotaging effect. What about our ability, as important as training ourselves to hear and absorb praise, to hear and absorb criticism that we really should listen to?

It is hugely to the credit of this wonderful community that, in response to my last post, nobody said, "You know Kamy, did you ever consider that the woman who had a problem with your book just might have a point?" That would have been a totally sucky thing to say. But the truth is that my reaction to the criticism was so strong, causing me to recoil into my shell like a box turtle on a gravel road (see helpful illustration above), that I couldn't slow down and consider this question very reasonably. Instead I got defensive, told my friends what happened, and sat back and smiled with appreciation as they assured me that my critic was, in a word, an idiot.

I'd like to say that in this particular case, that's true. (Ha!) But it isn't. The critic in question is someone whose judgement I respect. I may not agree, in the end, with her assessment, but it was well worth listening to and considering carefully. And the fact is that none of us will never get to where we need to go as writers if we do not learn to manage our visceral response to criticism, not just by dismissing it as coming from "the haters," but by taking a deep breath, suppressing our "flight" reflex, and using the criticism -- the good criticism anyway, and of course part of our work is to learn to know the difference -- to listen, assess, and learn, recognizing its power as invaluable ammunition in the good fight of getting better. No pain, no gain. It's as simple as that.

You could make an argument, of course, that it's a uniquely awful kind of pain. A strained calf muscle is one thing. Exposing your writing to others' opinions is like standing on a table naked and listening while people critique your backfat. Except it's worse, because you probably know whether you have backfat or not before you get up on that table. When it comes to our own writing it is much easier to be blindsided. We often don't see what others are able to see, and being shown flaws that we (at first) have no idea how to fix, and did not even know were there in the first place, is devastating, and can be humiliating, too. As hard as it is, however, if we don't find a way to take criticism and use it to improve our work, it's fairly safe to say we will never be any good.

This isn't to say that a lot of criticism isn't suspect, off-base, or just plain wrong. (It's worth remembering that the same can be said of a lot of praise.) What I'm really talking about, of course, is the art of discernment -- striking that difficult balance between trust and faith in your own judgment with a willingness to truly consider and benefit from the opinions of others. Clearly it's an art I haven't fully mastered yet.

But I'm going to keep working on it. 

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Comment by Carol Brodtrick on November 14, 2013 at 10:46am

Sometimes I think writers are the most courageous group of people ever made. Who else puts cherished work out there for anyone to love, hate, pick apart or ridicule? And who else accepts that, in order to become a better writer, one has to sift through both adulation and rejection and look for the critiques that matter. 

I have several friends I trust as "readers" of my manuscripts. When I'm looking for affirmation, I give my work to one in particular. (She loves everything I give her, and her praise makes me feel so good.) Then I get real and ask the others for a critique. Sometimes their honesty hurts, but it always makes me think. 

Thank you, Kamy, for this post.It reaffirms the value of opinion, but, more important, it stresses the fact that the writer is still in charge, and must decide which points will make a manuscript better. 

Comment by Ann H Barlow on October 25, 2013 at 2:55am

It took me some time to get the message, but now I see criticism as a plus. I still get annoyed at the people who I feel are just tearing people's work apart for the sake of it, whoever the author may be.

However, lots of wonderful people have given me some very good advice and I am very thankful that they took the time to point out various weaknesses to me.

Comment by Mark Hughes on October 7, 2013 at 10:38am

Writing, as I see it, is verbal, face-to-face communication, taken to at least a few powers of ten. We all know how easy it is to be misunderstood in our short and sweet (or not so) conversations, and those issues that may cloud our attempts to console, chide, instruct, or request multiply exponentially in the monologue that is a short story, much less a novel. Just as we need feedback to realize our spoken sentence has been misinterpreted, so too we need it with the written word.

The big problem, it seems to me, is distinguishing between our mistakes in communication (our blindness regarding them) and the problems people have with what we're saying - meaning their issues. Perhaps experience in life and writing give us the chance to develop some expertise in this all-important skill, though I must admit I'm still blind-sided (apt metaphor?) when someone I'm speaking with lets me know that my message was received in a way completely different than I intended. And I don't mean only when talking to my wife...

Lastly, I have a friend who's never been able to make it through To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm very glad I know this person as it gives me perspective on the plain fact that even stories that time has proven to be great, those approaching the "Pachelbel Canon in D" level of appreciation, can be unpalatable to some.

Comment by Christina Miller on October 5, 2013 at 7:46am

 

"And the fact is that none of us will never get to where we need to go as writers............"

 

 I see what appears to be a double negative within a very important sentence, but I'm open to being wrong.

 

 

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on October 2, 2013 at 4:38pm

B. Lynn -- you should reach out to Brooke at shewritespress.com, we have GREAT editors there, all of whom Brooke or I have personally vetted, and you can work with one of them without publishing with the press.  These are the kinds of editors who could have told me, gently, that the sentence you quoted so generously was, well, too long. :)

Comment by B. Lynn Goodwin on October 2, 2013 at 3:12pm

You nailed it when you said, "And the fact is that none of us will never get to where we need to go as writers if we do not learn to manage our visceral response to criticism, not just by dismissing it as coming from "the haters," but by taking a deep breath, suppressing our "flight" reflex, and using the criticism -- the good criticism anyway, and of course part of our work is to learn to know the difference -- to listen, assess, and learn, recognizing its power as invaluable ammunition in the good fight of getting better. No pain, no gain. It's as simple as that."

I'm thinking about finding a professional YA author/editor to take a look at the novel I'm almost ready to put out in the world, Talent. If you can recommend someone who gives balanced, insightful criticism suitable for a YA novel, please do. Thanks!

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on October 2, 2013 at 12:31pm

Thanks so much for these responses, everyone.  I love hearing how bravely and gracefully so many of you have learned to take a deep breath, sort out what critical feedback can truly help with your writing, and get to work.  And man, that Hemingway quote. I'm not sure I am facing eternity alone every day, but it's true, it's a lonely endeavor and there isn't a way around it.  By the way, I'm going to start asking people to share these posts on Twitter and Facebook if they like them -- it's a great way to reach more potential She Writers to join our community!  There's a button at the bottom that makes it easy, so please, keep it in mind. :)

Comment by Sheryl Sorrentino on October 2, 2013 at 5:09am

Great post--and a message we writers should all take to heart. Through reviews of my latest book (mostly favorable, thus far), I have learned that my pacing is a little slow; my ending a bit abrupt; and my main character not always likeable. This last thing was deliberate, but during the course of my many edits, I had managed to silence that little critical voice inside warning me about the first two points.

Next time around, I will be more mindful. Reader reviews really can help us get better at what we do, especially the ones that are balanced and constructive. Using those reviews as "teachable moments" is by far more important, I think, than "counting stars."

Comment by Kirsten Weiss on October 1, 2013 at 5:06pm

Funny timing! Yesterday I accidentally (I try to avoid reviews) read a review of my book on Amazon that complained my heroine wasn't as strong or focused as in the first book in the series. My first reaction was something along the lines of: "wrong, you terrible person!" But I happen to be editing my next book in the series and with that criticism in mind, realized I was in danger of making my heroine not as strong or focused as she used to be and made the appropriate revisions. There's definitely such a thing as "bad" criticism - some people just won't like your work because it's not to their taste, or they're plain wrong. But sometimes... Yeah. They're right.

Comment by Olga Godim on October 1, 2013 at 3:52pm

Great post, Kamy. It resonates. I have a funny story about criticism too. When I first started writing, I didn't even know what it was: a short story, a novel, or just a sketch. I wrote... something and asked my son (he was 18 then) to read it. He did, poor guy, and then very politely he said to me: "Mom, I don't think you know what you're doing."

I was upset. I told him that he didn't understand my writing, I told him how good my hero was, I explained a lot, and he didn't argue. Later that day, when my first protective urges about my story wore off, I started thinking clearly. And I realized that he was right, and I didn't know what I was doing. That was when I decided to learn how to write. I got a bunch of textbooks on writing and signed up for classes. It was a good, constructive criticism, and I'm grateful to him for his honesty. 

Some criticism helps. It's still painful to absorb, but if it's offered without malice, we can learn a lot from it.

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