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Taking Criticism.

Jumping links today, I found this question at Mely's (coffeeandink) blog, which goes, How do you get better at taking criticism? What tricks do you use to make yourself listen?


It's early, you know. Early. This looks like a way to wake myself up.

I've never understood the problem people have with criticism, really. It's not that I think you should ignore editors or people who give you feedback, because it's usually a case by case kind of thing. There are times when you're better off ignoring these people, especially if you have a lot of people giving you feedback. Writing by committee has always been the idiot's way to write, and if you require ten people to tell you how to write, or to make you 'publishable', then maybe you ought not to be bothered writing prose. Take up writing scripts and making films. Yet, with that said, some times you're right to listen to the criticisms you get, because they can point out a really obvious flaw that you missed, open you to a new concept, whatever.

The part I've never understood is where people take it personally, where people get upset, because someone didn't like your work.

The thing about criticism is its not personal. It's not about you. The moment it is about you, if the person giving feedback starts to make judgments about your person, then it's time to lift that finger, call them a cunt, and walk away. They're useless if it's personal. Likewise, if the criticism is about them, same response. You're more likely to get the second than the first, because a lot of bad criticism you'll get are from people who want to remake your work into something that suits either their needs, their own desire to write, or their own politics. Occasionally, you'll get all three. And if it's about you, if they're not able to see the difference between the opinions/attitudes/whatever voiced by a character, and that they don't necessarily reflect you, well, like I said, useless. Good criticism isn't about you. It's about your work.

When your girlfriend, boyfriend, pet, whatever, tells you that you're a bad person, then it is about you. When they say, "I'm leaving you because you're a fucking fascist," then that--that--is about you. They're making a judgment about you. They found the naked pictures of Hitler. You're caught. This is why, when your partner leaves you, or when they say something about you that is damaging, it digs beneath the skin and stays there, because it is about you. They've gotten to know you personally and they've judged you and you know what, they didn't like it.

That's personal.

Someone saying they didn't like your story, that's just opinion.

You temper this opinion by learning not to care, by getting distance between you and your work. Consider this: Do you live in the past? Do you spend all your time sitting round, thinking of that time you won a hundred bucks on the pokies, met that girl/guy, had a few drinks, fucked, then went back home where you found that you'd won lotto? No. You don't spend every day thinking about the past, and a story you have written, it's in the past, and you, if you have any kind desire to write regularly, will be writing something new. Writing of any kind is an experience and, like every experience, if you enjoy it, you're always out looking for the next new experience, and by necessity, you have to leave your old experiences behind. Remember the old experience nicely, sure, but you understand they it is always in the past, that it is done, and that any comments that come back do not reflect upon you anymore, because you finished living that experience. You're on a new one. You've got a bit of objectivity, maybe.

You do that, and criticism is really easy to take. You look, you think, and if the opinions go along with what you're thinking, then good, and if not, toss them.

You'll notice, by the by, how I didn't mention anything about liking criticism.

Everyone would rather nice words, would rather hearing that they're brilliant, though you can't really trust anyone who tells you that last, I reckon. Likewise, viewing this doesn't mean that you have to be confident, or even arrogant in the quality of your work. I like positive thoughts, I like to think positively about my submissions, but the truth is, I expect them to come back rejected, and if published, I expect people to hate the piece. I even have a bit of confidence about my work, in as far as I am confident in my ability to do something, and be reasonably satisfied in my continual growth. If this all seems like a mess of contradictions at the end, well, yeah, of course. How else do you live your life?


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(Deleted comment)
Feb. 17th, 2006 12:17 am (UTC)
I find it especially hard to take criticism that misses the intent of what I'm trying to do in a piece. It's not even so much about whether someone likes or dislikes something, it's whether or not they've tried to understand where the story is coming from, and whether it succeeds or fails on that basis.

i mostly just ignore that kind of criticism. if i get a story that i'm not keyed into the right way, i can usually tell, so i focus on different things, such as craft issues, so they can at least get something out of it.

i'm not much more than a neophyte, really, but i've found that the further you go, the less you want to hear peoples opinions. you just become confident in what you do and you're willing to succeed or fail on that basis.
Feb. 17th, 2006 12:57 am (UTC)
Actually, I have a lot more trouble with compliments than criticism. Criticism I can handle, that's fine. Compliments, unless I'm in a very rare frame of mind, tend to get under my skin and upset me. It's okay for me to have high expectations of myself, but not anyone else.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 17th, 2006 01:45 am (UTC)
Well, I approach all my stories with the assumption that they're broken, and so I expect people to tell me what's wrong with them. Without that sort of feedback, I can't fix them.
Feb. 17th, 2006 01:15 am (UTC)
i like compliments, but i find they're easy to dismiss as people just being nice. still, i like them. especially when people tell me i'm sexy. i like to record people who say that so i can play it back later.
Feb. 17th, 2006 11:21 am (UTC)
Tess, if I ever meet you in person I'll make an effort to slag off your work:)

Feb. 18th, 2006 06:35 am (UTC)
Hey hey hey! This is about feedback 'n critiquing, yah? I don't want to hear about stuff I've published: it's beyond my ability to fix. Don't talk about my writing. In fact, talk about someone else's writing.
Feb. 18th, 2006 10:25 pm (UTC)
Oh okay, that makes more sense then... I thought you meant criticism in general. Yeah, once it's out there, you can't take it back:)

Feb. 17th, 2006 07:06 am (UTC)
I like it; really interesting piece and puts the whole thing in a nutshell!
Feb. 17th, 2006 09:50 am (UTC)
Feb. 17th, 2006 11:27 am (UTC)
I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that usually by the time something's getting critted you've moved on. That's not to say that it can't still be difficult but I think when you're beginning it's often harder to cop criticism because it's criticism of your entire ouvre. The more you publish, and the more you write, the thicker your skin gets, because, like you say, it's in the past. Similarly, gettting rejections is tougher when you're starting out because often you only have two stories you're sending out and you haven't written another in ages, so you've got a lot invested in them:) The more you actually write, the less you are relying on that positive feedback. It's like having more than one party trick.

Feb. 17th, 2006 11:32 am (UTC)
heh. write more, suffer less.

you got a point, of course, but it is worth nothing that as you go on you get a different set of problems. you wanna hit better markets, get more readers--being published is no longer simply enough, if you follow me. so there's new frustrations and things to deal with.
Feb. 18th, 2006 03:15 am (UTC)
It's true that you have to make a distinction between yourself and your work. As a result you also need to be able to recognise that compliments about your work are NOT about you either. I've met a couple of people over the years who haven't been able to make this distinction either, and that leads to plain boorish big-headedness. The other thing I'd say is hey, everyone writes bad stories sometimes. Everyone. Even the illustrious Mr Peek. In fact from what I've heard....( (:)

From the slightly-above-average-intelligence writer
Feb. 18th, 2006 03:55 am (UTC)
are you implying that i've written bad fiction?

heh. i've written some very shocking fiction. i've published it, too. i try not to do it so much these days, but it's out there, stinking the world up. i try to just admit it, really, upfront, and not talk about it. of course, i can still write bad fiction... it's much easier than good fiction, i've found :)
Feb. 19th, 2006 12:59 am (UTC)
I think we all have. Wish it wasn't true, but, hey...But I was really just making fun. I had a couple to get back. (:

In fact, I've been thinking hard about old stories of mine which are unpublished but perfectly...ok. Not great, not terrible, just - ok. To publish or not to publish?

Feb. 19th, 2006 03:52 am (UTC)
way i figure, if you can handle them in print, sure, publish if you can. if not, time to let go. couple of the things i published were old, but okay last year. i didn't mind them being out there. they were solid things. not too embarressing. some people even liked 'em.

it's only when you know they're below any standard you've got you gotta ditch out, i say.
Feb. 18th, 2006 07:48 am (UTC)
Can you tell if a story is written from the heart?

I ask because that's what many writers seem to claim, but I disagree.

A passerby.
Feb. 18th, 2006 09:44 am (UTC)
i think you can tell if someone is passionate or not, yeah. but the whole from the heart thing is probably more difficult, or more if youknow the writer or not, i think.
Feb. 18th, 2006 10:55 pm (UTC)
When I say ‘from the heart,’ I mean, writing for oneself. Passionate is a good word.

My theory is that if a story is written for oneself, he/she needs only to live up to their own expectations and it doesn’t matter what other people think. It doesn’t even matter if the story is published or not. If a person is writing to get published, maybe they’re trying to impress friends, feel good about themselves, make a bit of money, become well known in the community…and when they get a bad review, they’re obviously not achieving those things.

A passerby.
Feb. 19th, 2006 03:56 am (UTC)
If a person is writing to get published, maybe they’re trying to impress friends, feel good about themselves, make a bit of money, become well known in the community…

i dunno. i think they might be some reasons why people publish, or the mix of them, but to suggest that people who only write for themselves won't publish... i think that might be wrong. once a story is complete it's a very different thing that it was when you were writing it. indeed, what you have is an object, and you might as well do something with it in the end, i suppose.

but who knows. it'd vary on author to author, i think.
Feb. 19th, 2006 05:19 am (UTC)
I didn't suggest that at all - that people who write won't publish. I believe that when you write, the first reason is just to write and everything else, like publishing, is secondary. I didn’t say someone writing for oneself shouldn’t or wouldn’t get publish. I said that it doesn’t matter because that wasn’t the reason for writing. The same applies to reviews/criticisms. It shouldn’t matter what people think.

It’s what YOU, the writer, thinks.

A passerby.
Feb. 19th, 2006 11:11 am (UTC)
sometimes you can be blind to the problems in your own work, and that's why critiques from people can help. to completely close yourself off to another's opinions isn't really the way to go, i reckon. you just got to know the line to walk on it.
Feb. 21st, 2006 05:07 am (UTC)
Excellent post. I especially liked this part: "Writing by committee has always been the idiot's way to write." Not that I don't have first readers -- but those are folks whose sanity and taste I trust. It is very easy to take criticism from those kinds.

Now, far as reviews -- I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that a review is more often the reflection of the reviewer than the writer. If they complain that your story wasn't 'fun', you can safely roll your eyes and ignore anything else they say. Same when they suggest that your meditative ghost story would be better if you inserted a bunch of aliens in it. I expect a reviewer to be able to differentiate between a decent story that isn't their cup of tea, and a poor story. Bias disclosure also helps -- I for one don't read many mysteries, which is why I find it hard to evaluate an overall story (although the matters of pacing, dialog, and other technicalities can be discussed regardless of the preference.)

And yeah, obsessing over a published story seems a bit foolish. Although, just like with memories, some are harder to let go of than the others.
Feb. 21st, 2006 05:32 am (UTC)
Not that I don't have first readers -- but those are folks whose sanity and taste I trust. It is very easy to take criticism from those kinds.

yeah, totally. i've got people who read occasionally--though less and less it appears these days, as I'll move a story myself, sit on it for a while and think.

as for stories, they can be difficult to let go, depending on them. but it's part of the deal. i've seen authors hang on to their work and repeatedly defend it after a review, and since in this case it was actually my review, i just find myself thinking, 'let it go, man. it's just an opinion. defending and attacking me like this isn't classy.'

but that's there problem, not mine, y'know?
Feb. 21st, 2006 05:49 am (UTC)
Seconded on less and less comment. There are still stories that are somewhat difficult for me to be objective about -- mostly when I'm trying something new. But there comes a time when one has to lose the training wheels.

'let it go, man. it's just an opinion. defending and attacking me like this isn't classy.'
I'm of two minds on that. I don't think I ever replied to a review (actually, once -- not to a review itself but a description of the story that got some factual science wrong, but that's besdie the point.) However, I've seen some reviews of other people's work that were just so thoughtless and so completely missed the point that it was difficult to resist, and to maintain 'they're entitled to their opinion' attitude. On the other hand, I get irritated when the authors of the stories I reviewed write to me insisting that I 'didn't get it.' No man, I got it, I just didn't like it.

Currently, I think that some opinions are better than others, and if someone publically professes an opinion that is just dumb, they deserve a flogging. Admittedly, it's a bit of a double standard, and it presents a difficulty of evaluating the value of an individual opinion, especially in case of fiction. the reviewer's opinion is more valid if: 1) it is supported by evidence; 2) personal biases are disclosed; 3) the individual offering the opinion demonstrates some familiarity with books beyond the NYT #1 besteseller; 4) a reader who does not share the reviewer's preferences can read the review and decide whether he wants to seek the reviewed work out. It is crude, and I probably failed each of those criteria at least once, but here it is.
Feb. 21st, 2006 06:00 am (UTC)
I'm of two minds on that. I don't think I ever replied to a review (actually, once -- not to a review itself but a description of the story that got some factual science wrong, but that's besdie the point.)

i should have also added that nearly three weeks after the review it isn't classy :)

i don't think it's wrong to pull up reviewers, especially if they've shown themselves to be wrong, and i'm happy to be corrected where i am. but when they are simply personal attacks, you just got to roll your eyes and wonder what they're doing in this game. if you're answer to a bad review is to call the reviewer a fucker, it's not classy, i think. otherwise it's fine, i believe, to pull reviewers up.

not that i've actually done this. i just roll with reviews. if i don't know a person, what do i care if they have something bad to say about my work, is my outlook.
Feb. 22nd, 2006 12:09 am (UTC)
I'm with you, I never understood people taking criticism personally (except where it is criticism about the person, not the writing obviously) for two main reasons:

1) It's my story, but it's not me.
I may not have communicated my story properly, but that's just words, man. I have a lot of distance from what I write. That's helped, in part, by having worked for an organisation where 15 people get to change your words before they see print (I'm lucky if half the words I write make it into the final version...). You learn to stop thinking the rewording is personal except where it is personal, and that's really easy to spot.

2) I actually don't really listen to criticism very much, for my fiction.
I do listen, obviously. I listen to what people are telling me about what they understood the story to be saying, and I match that up with my picture of what I want the story to be saying. Where there's a mismatch, I'll think about how to make it match better.

I don't listen to anything that says "do this to fix it", because ... well, I know my story shape better thn anyone. I'll accept that something isn't working, based on critique, but I usually follow my own internal voice on how to fix it. The more a person "gets" what I'm trying to do, the more closely I will listen to what is or isn't working. But if they don't get it at all, then they're probably just not my reader. (Unless everyone isn't getting it, in which case I've probably miscommunicated badly, and it's time to assess structure and theme)
Feb. 22nd, 2006 12:26 am (UTC)
but my favourite thing to do is to tell people how to fix their story! heh. anyhow, yeah, i do agree with you. if you get a lot of people saying the same thing back, it's time to reassess the structure.

of course, the one way to stop this, is to cut down the people critiquing for you :)
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