Thoughts on Criticism

Writers compose in a vacuum. The voices they hear are in their heads. Imagination has benefits, both for mental health and creative purposes. According to neuroscientists, people have “default networks” in their brains that become active (and are exercised) when they drift into the realm of imagination. In addition, the act of storytelling allows an exploration of compelling new adventures without risk.

The risk comes later—when others read what you’ve written.

If you accept the premise that your work is imperfect and can be improved, you will accomplish that goal by facing criticism—”the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work” (thank you, Mr. Google).

“The dread of criticism is the death of genius.” ~William Gilmore Simms

Wondering how to accept and, in turn, offer that kind of analysis? I’ll first point out the obvious:

  • Critics give opinions. Opinions can be wrong. Criticism is not a final verdict.
  • Your rough draft always needs work. By letting others spot possible flaws, you are crafting a better piece.
  • You can choose to incorporate (or ignore) criticism according to your judgement.

Sounds like a win-win, right? If you think a suggestion is good, your manuscript will benefit. If you don’t, you can ignore it. Why, then, are people afraid to show their work?

  • Your work is a window into your soul. Criticism may feel like a personal attack.
  • If you have a good grasp of craft, and you worked hard on something, a casual dismissal or misreading can waste your time.
  • You might have imagined your own brilliance. Criticism can dampen such lofty expectations.

Psychologists offer the most compelling reason for the fear of criticism. Research shows that it takes five positive events to make up for the psychological effect of just one negative event. Simply put, even well-intentioned criticism can sting and weigh you down.

Enter, now, the abattoir of the literary soul—the critique group. (Tongue in cheek here, people!)

I belong to two such groups. You might ask why I submit to twice the normal amount of slicing and dicing, and the answer is simple. I want to improve my stories, each of which go past twelve or more sets of eyes on their way to a working draft.

“Don’t let compliments get to your head and don’t let criticism get to your heart.” ~Lysa TerKeurst

Here are some of the tangible benefits of critique groups:

  • Writers (who are also, presumably, readers) know a lot about story and craft. Their suggestions will help your manuscript.
  • Writers write. They share your writer’s journey. Something as solitary as writing deserves a support group.
  • Critique groups are an excellent way to recharge with your fellow human beings.

But what about the potentially negative aspects of criticism? How do you armor yourself before showing your writing to others? Here are some suggestions you can apply:

  • Focus on improving your manuscript (not on gathering accolades). With that focused goal, you can remind yourself why you’re taking those slings and arrows.
  • Be careful who gets to criticize you. Not everyone is worth listening to. If there’s a member of the group that is more intent on “hot takes” than your benefit, you can safely ignore them.
  • Embrace a split decision. On occasion, a debate will break out over something that happens in my story. The critique group members argue about my characters as if they were real people. (That, in case you don’t recognize it, is a win.)

“There’s only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” ~Aristotle

I hope I’ve convinced you about the need for criticism on the way to improving your manuscript. I want to leave you with some ideas on how to “give and get” within a critique group:

  • When you’re being critiqued, don’t talk. Listen. You’ll learn more. That stance will work later on, when you’re published (unless you plan to contact each of your readers and argue with them).
  • When critiquing another writer’s work, begin with something positive, something you liked. Every piece has something good to mention. Then, mention a thing or two to improve. Be specific and offer possible solutions. The goal is to improve a writer’s work.
  • Attend to the writer’s needs by taking each piece on its needs and merits. Beginners and more experienced writers need different things. Different genres have distinct expectations. Just as every manuscript is different, every critique should be unique.
  • If bad mechanics detract from a piece, it’s worth mentioning. Quickly.
  • Be brief. The critique is about improving the writer’s work. It’s not about creative critiquing. Wear a watch and time yourself.
  • Strive to be kind and honest.

I’ve made slaughterhouse jokes. There is, of course, the other kind of critique group, where unicorns poop gumdrops and everything you write is brilliant. Don’t bother. They won’t help you make your writing better. Your mean writer friends? They might.

[Note: This blog was adapted from my blog post for Writing Heights Writers Association (WHWA) from June of 2022.]

About Brian C. Kaufman

Author, educator, cook. Given a tilt of fate, that might have been lead guitarist, pro wrestler, radio evangelist. You never know.
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