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September 14, 2010

Critique Week: Making Criticism Work for You

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Are you *gasp* less than perfect?  Hey, it happens.  I know I’m not the only one.

No matter what aspect of our life we’re talking about, whether we’re in search of parenting advice, the secrets to magic tricks, or kicking our writing up a notch, we can read, experiment, and observe to learn new techniques and improve our skills.  But sometimes we need an outside force to provide an epiphany into our strengths and weaknesses.  And those weaknesses?  Those are the easiest areas to improve.

That outside force could be just about anything, but it often comes in the guise of other people: friends or family with insight into which aspects of our life need work.  It would be all too easy to feel defensive and ignore the evidence of our imperfection, but a far better thing is to embrace the criticism and make it work for us.

How to Make Criticism Work for You

  • Step One: Breathe. I’m serious.  Sometimes criticism can feel like a punch to the gut.  Instead of reacting while we’re figuratively doubled-over, take several deep breaths.
  • Step One-and-a-Half: Count. Count to 10, or 100, or better yet, sleep on it before reacting.
  • Step Two: Triage. There are bound to be some aspects of the criticism that make sense to you, others that you highly doubt, and some that you know are flat-out wrong.  Divide and conquer.
  • Step Three: Attack the Easy Stuff. Work on improving those aspects you agree with.
  • Step Four: Analyze the Harder Stuff. Look for some kernel of helpful information in those aspects you disagree with and work on that.
  • Step Five: Repeat Step Four. Yep, even those things you know are flat-out wrong might have some useful tidbit to help you improve.  You won’t know unless you try.

In the writing world, there is a seemingly never-ending line of people ready to critique our work.  For us perfectionists, even our own brains often think our work is crap.  Next come the beta readers who tell us about all the boring parts they skipped.  Then come our critique partners/groups to rip our work apart.  Line.  By.  Line.  With contests or freelance editors, we might even pay someone to tell us all the ways we’re doing it wrong.  If we’re lucky, we’ll get an agent, who loves our work—except for these 20,000 words we have to change.  And if we’re miraculously lucky, an editor at a publisher wants to pay us for our work—as long as we’re willing to change these other 10,000 words.

All that criticism will either tear you apart or make you stronger.  Your choice.  You can accept that you’re not perfect.  Maybe your pillar of knowledge for voice is strong, but your pillar of knowledge for grammar skills is weaker.  Maybe the criticism of your work that feels completely wrong can still point you toward those weaknesses.  Fine, you don’t like their suggestion on how to fix it.  That doesn’t change the fact that something about that section felt “off” to them.  S0 fix it—your way.  If you can make criticism work for you and strengthen all those pillars, your entire story will hold strong so your readers can see the wonderful ending you have planned down the road.

My beta reader and critique partner are awesome in this respect.  They push me to improve my skills beyond what I thought possible.  I recently compared the manuscript I’m currently editing to a version from last year.   Only about 10-20% hadn’t changed.  Most pages had only a handful of words here and there still intact.  I could see all those changes as failures.  Instead, I choose to see them as improvement.  They prove I’ve learned a lot!

What type of criticism is hardest for you to take?  Do you have people you trust to give you good advice?  Does that help you listen to their feedback?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Murphy

Great post!

Actually, I’m pretty good with criticism. It’s not the ‘what’ that you choose to criticize that’s the problem for me – it’s the ‘how’ you do it that matters. I have absolutely NO time for a person who is demeaning – or rough with their comments. (I’m speaking of someone who is invested in teaching/critiquing or helping you in your writing career – and NOT a critic – critic, who’s one job in life is to make people cry 😉 because then, all bets are off).

Very interesting. Fortunately, I have a CP who is respectful and awesome, so I listen to her- and I mull and change and sweat and change and rewrite the darn thing some more!

Murphy

Roni Griffin

Great post! I had to laugh because what you said
“If we’re lucky, we’ll get an agent, who loves our work—except for these 20,000 words we have to change.”
is EXACTLY my situation, down to the number of words I had to change. But really, a good critique is such a gift. I think how a writer handles criticism separates the amateurs from the professionals. Criticism is a necessary part of this business and I think your advice on how to handle it is great. 🙂

Katrina

Really good advice! I’m with Murphy – I can step back from my work and appreciate criticism, as long as it’s delivered in a way that respects me and my word. It definitely doesn’t have to be fawning, but I’ve had feedback from contest judges that was like getting b-slapped by a stranger. Totally rude and classless.

I write professionally, so I totally get that other people’s opinions will help me strengthen my work. I’d prefer constructive criticism to “this is nearly perfect!” because I know darn well it isn’t.

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[…] I’ve been able to make that criticism work for me.  I’ve learned and improved with every piece of criticism I’ve received.  No, that […]

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