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.
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).
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.
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.