The Art of Receiving Criticism

My previous two posts discussed the art of providing helpful criticism.  This time, I’ll be discussing the author’s side of the process: How to receive criticism so that you get the most out of it and so that you foster the kind of positive relationships with critics that lead to more useful criticism in the future.

Don’t argue.  This is the most important rule.  Nobody is going to want to critique your work if it will inevitably devolve into an argument.  Worse, once you call the critic’s opinion into question, he or she will inevitably double down and become even more emphatic: if you don’t agree that there might be problems with your work, the critic might go on a crusade to expose every single flaw and how heinous they all are.  I guarantee you that arguing will never change a critic’s mind, and it certainly won’t make him or her view you, and consequently your work, in a more positive light.

Asking questions and providing clarification, however, are both good ideas.  Answer any questions the critic asks (concisely; don’t use it as an opening for a flood of details and bragging) and provide any background information necessary to understand the piece.  If the critic is looking at an excerpt, always say that it’s an excerpt, what part of the work it comes from, and any important information that he or she would have had if he or she had read the piece from the beginning.  Never assume that it will be obvious that it’s the beginning of a longer work, or that these characters have met previously, or whatever.

And, whatever you do, no matter how inept the critic and how caustic the review, do not insult the critic.

Choose your critics carefully. As my previous posts explained, good criticism is a skill and many critics aren’t up to snuff.  Don’t fall for the myth that everyone’s opinion is equally valid: While everyone has the right to like or dislike your work, not everyone has the right to provide you with feedback unless you think that their comments will be helpful.  Sometimes (say, when your work is posted on a public blog) you can’t control who reviews your work, but whenever possible, be choosy about critics.  Submit your work to groups of writers with experience equal to or greater than yours (but not too much greater); less experienced writers will have little to tell you that you don’t already know.  Find critics who like works similar to what you’re attempting to achieve (for instance, if you’re writing a dystopia, a fan of Brave New World may provide useful feedback).  Try to work with critics you’ve had a positive experience with before, or whose criticism you have read or appreciated.

Listen carefully.  Make sure you understand what’s being said.  If you’re not sure or if the critic is being too vague, ask for clarification.  The last thing you want to do is flagellate yourself over something that wasn’t even meant as a criticism–or to ignore something that is the crux of the entire argument.

Don’t use the Pee Wee Herman defense.  That’s “I meant to do that.”  As previously discussed, criticism should not be based on assumptions about the author’s creative process, so whether it was intentional or not isn’t relevant.  If your critic is assuming everything is a mistake in order to cast your work into a bad light, then he or she is a bad critic, but there’s nothing you can do about that.

I often see an assumption among authors that the ideas behind a work are inviolable and can’t be at fault (or, to put the same thing another way, if you meant to do it, it can’t be wrong).  If a cook told you “I made this food taste bad on purpose,” you would say “I don’t care!  It tastes bad and I’m not going to eat it!”  The same goes for writing.  I know an author who has been told countless times that his main character is unlikable, but insists that he’s trying to write the character that way.  He has every right to do so, but he may be trying to create a work that no one will want to read.

Common justifications I hear include “lampshading,” “deconstruction,” “send-up,” “taking an idea and running with it,” something “turned up to eleven,” and anything involving “genre conventions”–plus, of course, “deliberate,” “intentional,” and “that’s the point.”  None of these make a difference.  If you’ve taken a bad idea and run with it, then at the end you’re still going to have a bad idea.  Lampshading is a particularly egregious excuse; many authors seem to think that if they let the reader know that they’ve deliberately done something wrong, then it will no longer be wrong.  Not true.

Don’t assume that the problem is lack of explanation.  This is a subset of “listen carefully.”  When you receive negative feedback, it’s always tempting to assume that your work is fundamentally good, but its goodness was insufficiently communicated.  For instance, you might interpret “the protagonist is a jerk” as “I need to explain more clearly that he is psychologically damaged,” or “this plot is contrived” as “I need to explain the plot better.”  Sometimes communication is the problem, but sometimes the plot really is contrived and explaining it better will only make the failing more clear.

Don’t use the Uwe Boll defense.  That’s “Let’s see YOU do better!”  I see this more often with film and other media that require a more complex skill set; creators with big egos (such as Hollywood hack Uwe Boll) sometimes take umbrage that any random person with a laptop can savage their masterpiece.  But writers, especially popular writers, fall into the same trap, even though they should know better.  The critic is due the same respect as the writer: His or her words should be judged on their own merit, not based on who said them and what else he or she has accomplished.  Additionally, you may shoot yourself in the foot if the critic really has written his or her own novel, screenplay, etc, in which case, by your own admission, you are now beholden to accept his or her criticism.

In its worst incarnations, this attitude can be used to deflect, not just negative reviews, but criticism about any aspect of a work, particularly from disenfranchised groups.  If your work is popular, then people who don’t have any equally popular work representing them have no business requesting anything from you.  Ray Bradbury, who should have known better, espoused this view:

For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water conservationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. If the Chicano intellectuals which to re-cut my “Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” so it shapes “Zoot,” may the belt unravel and the pants fall.It’s a pretty horrifying quote when you think about it.  Think my stories are sexist?  Write your own!  Don’t like that actor in blackface?  Make your own movie!  Question the wisdom of a cartoon instructing children to stick forks into outlets?  Create a rival cartoon and let them battle it out!  No, no amount of success places you above criticism, nor gives you the right to dismiss others’ concerns.

Of course, there are many critics and wannabe critics who simply pan everything anyone else tries to create because they’re incapable of creating things on their own and they aren’t due any respect, but this is still the wrong tack to take.  Consider this real-life exchange between critic Laura Miller and writer Chuck Palahnuik.  What does any reader gain from it?  Nothing but a moment’s sad amusement at watching two adults fighting like children.  Miller doesn’t give any actual evidence to support her negative opinion; Palahnuik offers nothing in his own defense.  It’s a perfect illustration of everything this series encourages you to avoid.

Finally, consider their opinions, but make your own decisions.  This point encompasses two opposite problems: Ignoring criticism and giving it too much weight.  I’ve run into the former a few disappointing times, seeing a later draft of a work and discovering that none of the problems I pointed out have been addressed.  If this is your inclination, take a hard look at yourself and consider whether you really want criticism at all, or whether you are just angling for praise.  Doing the latter is your right, but you will never improve that way.

On the other hand, some writers, particularly less confident ones, may tend to treat a critic’s suggestions as sacrosanct and feel the need to unquestioningly implement all of them.  The criticism is only one person’s opinion and it’s okay to disagree.  Own your work.  It’s yours, and in the end, you get to decide what happens to it.

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