Accepting Criticism

Listening to and learning from criticism in regards to your written work is a big challenge for many people. Even experienced authors struggle with it time and time again. After all, no one wants to be told that there’s something wrong with the story they’ve been working on for forever, or the novel that they think just might be the next best-seller. It’s perfectly understandable, of course. Your writing is, in it’s very essence, an extension of you, the author. You put long hours into it, pour your heart and soul into the characters, maybe do a great deal of research for the setting, and put it all together with that “divine spark” of inspiration that got you going in the first place. Your creativity is a reflection of you, usually. Therefore, it’s only natural that no one really wants to be told that there’s something wrong with their “darling.” No one wants to hear that a piece of dialogue he or she is particularly proud of really doesn’t work in that context, that the clever plot twist was actually rather obvious from the start, or that a certain character is dull and doesn’t really do much for the story. Yes, criticism is hard to listen to, and it’s even harder to not automatically go on the defensive about your work and ignore all the suggestions and hints others give you. However, criticism is one of the most invaluable tools for an author to have, and should be used wisely and gratefully.

This quote from Elbert Hubbard really says it all.

So, why is criticism important? The most obvious answer is that it helps you see the flaws in your own work. Most of us at some point¬†or another tend to look at our newly written stories as absolutely perfect and amazing and in no need of change. That’s why we need other people to look with an unbiased eye at what we’ve written, and point out the parts that don’t work. Someone who wasn’t intimately involved with the writing of the story, and who doesn’t view the plot, dialogue, and characters with the same “motherly” eye that you do will be able to recognize and candidly inform you of the sticky areas. They’re not going to have the same attachment to everything in the work that you do, and they’ll be the ones who can show you what parts you need to fix. Another, smaller, reason criticism is important is that it helps with humility. Good writers tend to develop big egos, and that arrogance often leaks out into their writing (don’t even get me started on John Grisham), which can be really annoying. Critiques show authors that they are not infallible, and that they do indeed have things that can be improved on in their own work. It’s good to have a critic bruise your authorly ego now and then…it’ll keep you from thinking that everything you write is absolutely perfect, and it’ll actually help you approach your work with a more realistic eye (I know this from experience).

Listen to these people.

Now we need to talk about actually listening to the criticism. The human tendency is to just zone out when someone starts to point out flaws in our work, and that really won’t help you at all. Start off by approaching it with an open mind. When you ask someone to read your work, expect to get positive and negative feedback on it. Pay close attention to the negative…if you’re doing something right, you don’t have to worry about fixing it. It might help if you constantly remind yourself that your reader is trying to help you make your story better. If you give them a hard copy of your work, consider asking them to make notes in the margins, cross out words that don’t belong, and write down questions. If you don’t want them to write on it, then listen to them give an oral critique, and take notes on it. Taking notes reinforces the issues you need to work on, as well as being a rather effective means of preventing you from zoning out. Ask the reviewer detailed questions about why something didn’t work for them, and suggestions they have for improving it. Remember that the reviewer is trying to help you, and remember that your work is not infallible. You are a flawed human being, so your writing will be too. But the flaws can be fixed, remember that.

Not going to lie, your critics might sometimes sound like these guys.

Finally, applying the criticism. Let me give you a piece of cautionary advice: take everything with a grain of salt. Just because someone says you need to change something and you should change it to this or that DOES NOT mean that that’s what you should do. No one can tell you exactly how to run your own story. The job of the person giving the critique is to draw your attention to problematic areas and maybe give you some ideas that you can work off of. So, start by looking at the broader areas the reviewer(s) had a problem with. Plot, cast of characters, main events, etc. Take care of those issues first, as those will be the most problematic. After that, look at the more technical details (for example, why does one character say this when he said the opposite five pages ago?). You will often find that these are resolved almost completely when the broader issues are fixed, but not always. Go through the list of problem areas, fix them, then read the story again and maybe tweak it some more. You may discover more problem areas (or why something wasn’t working) Then give it back to your reviewer and ask them to see if everything has been resolved. The more you work at accepting and learning from critiques of your work, the easier it’ll be. And remember, criticism is your friend, not your enemy. It will help you become a better writer, and help turn your work into the perfect story you want it to be.

Write What You… Part 3: Write What You Write

It's true, don't fight criticism - it's good for you.

So, we’ve talked about writing what you know (because, you know…you know it – ūüėČ I love bad puns), and writing what you are. The last step in finding your voice that I can help you with in making sure that what you write is yours. ¬†One of the worst pieces of criticism that I have ever received was contained in the phrase, ‘I don’t like it, it’s not the way I would write the story.’ This was a reply that I got on a story I wrote a few years ago and sent out to several friends. ¬†Don’t get me wrong, the story was not incredible, and will not see the light of publication without some significant revisions, so this is not me saying ‘my story was perfect, blah, blah, blah.’ However, you can only successfully write the way you write. ¬†It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you will never be able to write like anyone but you. ¬†You can grow your writing, expand the scope and breadth of the way you write, but what you write is still going to be written the way you write it. ¬†This really should be obvious, but for some reason most new authors (including myself) miss it – some for longer than others. ¬†The reviewer who gave me this criticism did not provide anything that could help me to improve the story or improve my writing. ¬†Instead the reviewer just said ‘you write the wrong way’ (for you editors and reviewers out there this is one of the worst things that you can say to an author. ¬†Be critical, but keep your criticism constructive. ¬†Remember that you’re job is to help the author make the story better.)

I use this example to say that the way you write is the way you write. ¬†If you have a dry, sardonic style then don’t try to write something that is all fluffy bunnies…you’ll fail. ¬†If you have a fluffy bunny style, then don’t try to write something that is dry and sardonic…again, you’ll fail. ¬†This is not to say that an author can only write one style – some authors can only write one style, some authors can write many styles – but that you shouldn’t let someone else tell you that the way you write is wrong. ¬†Authors have many different styles, and they all have readers that appreciate that style. ¬†J.R.R. Tolkien was very straightforward in his writing, Steven Erikson is much more verbose. ¬†Glen Cook’s writing is simple, gritty, and…I think chewy is a good word to describe it, but don’t ask me exactly what I mean by that because I’m not sure that I can explain. ¬†David Eddings, on the other hand, is much more complicated.

Hehehehe...your shoes are mine..hehehe.

There is no wrong style of writing (however you might need to develop more skill in the mechanics of your writing), you can be dry, wet, short, circular, verbose, gritty, happy, sarcastic, etc. ¬†The key is that it is yours. ¬†Remember that you can’t write like anyone else. ¬†For the longest time I wanted to be able to write like H.P. Lovecraft, or like Stephen King, or even like my friend Melissa (who writes for Lantern Hollow Press), because they are writers that I admire, and they can all do things with their writing that I can’t. However, I can’t write like them any more than they can write like me. ¬†Any one of them might be a better writer than I am, but none of them writes in a better style than I do. ¬†This is because style is not better or worse, just different.

Listen to your reviewers, your friends, and your editors. ¬†They can give you some great advice that will really improve your writing. ¬†Let them help you grow and develop the way you write, but don’t let them convince you that the way you write is bad. ¬†Don’t let them change the way you write. ¬†It’s a fine line, and sometimes it’s hard for people on both sides to tell the difference, but you need to figure out where this line is for you, and then you need to live on it. ¬†Take as much criticism as you can, it will make you better, but you have to know when to accept something, and when to shove it off to the side.