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Criticism, Ruminations

On Criticism – Part 2

Learning to Take It

Having your work critiqued by a writers’ group is something like voluntarily submitting to an intervention. Everyone tells you they love you (or at least, your efforts), and then proceeds to list everything they think is wrong with you and how you need to change it. Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but when you’re on the receiving end of a particularly rough critique session, it can seem this way.

As I said in the previous post, many writers act as though critiquing a story means they MUST find fault with it, and they spare no effort to see flaws in plot, point of view, tense, tone, theme … you name it, often forgetting to praise what they did like, or more important, to assess the author’s intentions and how well s/he carried them out. (By the way, I’m fortunate to be in a group that really understands writing and criticism, and offers mostly professional critiques that help. The observations in this post are the result of writing group experiences that cover several groups and years.)

I’ve seen many writers crushed as stories they believed were their best work were ripped to shreds. And I’ve seen many of those writers never return to their groups. I don’t have to imagine what they felt, because I experienced the same thing when I was much younger, and I didn’t write creatively again for years.

The usual response to any appeal to be positive in critiques is, “A writer has to have a thick skin,” or “If a person can’t take it, he has no business being a writer.” There’s some truth to those sayings, but remember that for most writers, the craft is very personal, and they have a tendency to take criticism aimed at the writing as attacks on their worth as a person.

Over the years, I’ve developed a few techniques for dealing with criticism. The goal of these is to put some perspective on the practice, so that it can be useful, without being harmful. Keeping these in mind helps me from viewing criticism as an attack on my ability to write.

  1. Consider the Source: Who’s delivering the criticism? How much writing experience does this person have? Has s/he been published? Amateur status doesn’t invalidate criticism, but I’ve found that often vociferous criticism comes from writers with the least publishing experience. The most experienced writers in a group usually restrict their comments to suggestions (rather than absolutes) about how to make the work better.
  2. Does the criticism pertain to literary conventions, or is it based on the critic’s personal taste? Pay close attention to what’s being said. A bad critic will invoke personal opinion without using a source or examples from literature. A good critic will attempt to analyze the author’s craft in relation to his/her intention, as well as back up the opinion with outside references.
  3. Inaccuracies in the Reading: When a critic brings up points in a story that are clearly inaccurate, such as character names or specific events, I tend to tune out the comments. This happens often when the reader disliked the subject, or the particular genre or style of the piece, and had to force him/herself to read the entire text, usually by skimming instead of reading closely. But reading closely to determine the author’s intent and ability to use craft is what critiquing is all about. A critique based on a bad reading is no critique at all. I’d actually prefer a critic to tell me s/he just couldn’t get into the story (although it was extremely well written :-)), and therefore will not offer a critique. I can handle readers disliking the style or subject—what I can’t stand is the sometimes mean-spirited critique that results from that.
  4. What if the group’s criticism is divided? Occasionally members of a group will split as to whether an aspect of a story worked or not. Unless the people who didn’t like it have a strong reasoning for change, I usually look at the plus side. If it worked for some people, it will work for others. Remember, no piece of writing will work for everyone, and it’s senseless to try to make it that way.
  5. A Preponderance of Feeling: But if a strong majority of the reviewers finds the same problem in a story, that’s when a writer should take the criticism seriously.
  6. The Importance of Time in Accepting Criticism: Since I’m going to wait a few weeks or months before attempting the next draft of a story, it gives me time to let the criticism it’s received chip away at the wall of my writing subconscious. I admit (and you can probably tell from these tips) that I don’t yield to much criticism. But I find that over time, the more valid points of criticism linger, and refuse to be dismissed. By then, the protectiveness in which I encase my first drafts softens, and I’m more willing to accept the aspects of the story that need improvement.

About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


3 thoughts on “On Criticism – Part 2

  1. Hi Joe,

    I want to comment on your second point:

    “Does the criticism pertain to literary conventions, or is it based on the critic’s personal taste? Pay close attention to what’s being said. A bad critic will invoke personal opinion often. “I didn’t like,” “I thought,” and similar openings are signs that the critic is exhibiting a personal, not literary, reaction. A good critic will attempt to analyze the author’s craft in relation to his/her intention.”

    I don’t think that phrasing a criticism as personal opinion is necessarily the hallmark of a bad critic. It’s often used to soften the blow of what the critic is about to say.

    For example, I used to be a member of CRITTERS (an online critiquing forum for SF/F/H writiers).

    This is from their page on how to give a diplomatic critique:

    “•Say it’s your opinion. Even if you’re absolutely certain that a comma was misplaced, the author will hear you better if you phrase your point as opinion rather than fact. Yes, you might have been taught in school that “it’s assumed everything you say is your opinion,” but that doesn’t mean that in critiques you shouldn’t remind the author. You should. They’ll hear you better if they don’t feel you’re coming on too strong, and them hearing you is the ultimate idea, right? “

    Posted by cpurcel1 | July 27, 2009, 7:49 PM
  2. That’s a good point. To be honest, I was thinking of critics who are unable to back up their opinions with sources. A better way to have said it would be that it’s more helpful to the writer if the critic bases his/her opinion on sources or examples from literature. I’ll reword the post to make that clear.

    Posted by jpon | July 28, 2009, 2:42 PM
  3. Did you know that the majority of what a teacher writes for feedback on a student’s paper is seldom taken into consideration. In fact, it is better for the teacher to meet face to face with that student and discuss the work. Although it is even better if that student’s work is reviewed by a small amount of peers who work with the student according to a set of previously established and well-understood criteria.

    I’ve been with several groups. Jon joking states that I’ve been party to helping those groups self-destruct. Perhaps he’s correct. I think the problem with those groups were that their members were at very different places in their writing development. And they wanted very different things from the group. Some wanted it to be a social circle where their efforts would be applauded, or at the very most, gently and superficially critiqued. Other group members I’ve known have seen it as an opportunity to be read…that’s it..that’s been their goal–to be read by a group.

    You made a good point about considering the person or people doing the critiquing. I remember joining a group of horror writers (at least at the time I thought they were writers, I later learned they were mostly fans who wanted to do things like scavenger hunts, conventions, and parties). But I recall sitting among them and thinking how nice it was to be among my own, people who would understand my writing and appreciate the genre. Of course, I was wrong about them, but for the moment there was that wonderful sense of belonging that I had never known in any other group.

    Posted by ssternberg | August 12, 2009, 4:59 AM

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