When it comes to writing – or any art – criticism is part of the package. For those new to their craft or unused to feedback that points out serious flaws in their work, it can be hard to listen to readers rip apart the result of hours at the keyboard.
Hearing favorite scenes picked apart and adored characters disparaged never becomes truly easy. However, changing the way you approach criticism can turn it into an asset instead of letting it discourage you.
Believe it or not, carefully considering even the harshest critiques is crucial to building a successful writing practice. Learning how to separate your emotions, ineffective feedback, and useful information from attentive readers can help you avoid feeling beaten down and instead take your latest project to the next level.
To help get you started, I’ll lay out some key ways criticism can benefit your writing. Then I’ll give you some pointers for weeding out bad criticism and applying valuable feedback to improve your work. Time to dive in.
Why Criticism Is Vital for Writers (And Other Artists)
You could keep your work to yourself and never show it to anyone else. However, doing so would cause you to miss out on the opportunity to get fresh eyes on your writing. When you’re holed up for weeks, months, or even years with a piece, you become blind to its flaws. Chances are you haven’t written the perfect essay or story in seclusion, so you’ll need to find readers if you want to avoid plateauing.
One way to do this is by participating in writing workshops. These groups of writers gather together to exchange their work and give one another constructive criticism. One of their purported benefits is that workshops replicate the experience of sending your work off to an editor or agent.
If you ever hope to become a published author, this is invaluable. When you send your work out, you usually don’t have the opportunity to defend it. In a workshop setting, you can listen in on how other skilled readers and writers perceive your work so that you can improve it before putting it in front of an editor or agent.
Plus, your readers may present you with new ideas you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. This happened to me when I was working on my M.F.A. at Northwestern. During a workshop our instructor suggested that I print out my essay, cut it up into paragraphs, then lay them out and rearrange them to try different structures.
I was skeptical at first. I liked my essay as it was. When I went back to work on it some months later, though, I took my instructor’s advice. Looking at my piece chopped up into strips of paper on my living room floor, I realized that it had untapped potential I never would have noticed if I hadn’t shared it in my workshop.
How to Identify Bad Criticism
Although there are many ways feedback can help improve your writing, that’s only the case if it’s constructive. There is such a thing as bad criticism, and recognizing it is key. You don’t want to apply misguided advice to your writing.
There are a few signs that might indicate a piece of feedback isn’t useful. For starters, any comments that are personal digs at you should be ignored. You can’t always control who you share a workshop with, especially when it comes to university classes or community groups.
If they’re petty enough, people you don’t get along with might take the opportunity to put you down. This is especially applicable in creative nonfiction, when you may be writing about yourself and events from your life. Judgement against your character has nothing to with your writing.
In other cases, your group may not be the right audience for your work. An unfortunately common example of this is when readers are bothered by writing that crosses languages or cultures. If a readers says they don’t like your work because certain elements are outside their experience, that doesn’t mean you should whitewash it to fit their preferred narrative.
Finally, steer away from surface-level criticism. Comments like, “It was good” don’t tell you anything. It’s not even clear whether someone who feeds this statement back actually read your work!
Instead, focus on feedback that is supported by evidence in your text. If someone can tell you why they feel some element of your piece isn’t working, they’re more likely to be a valuable reader with advice you can put to use.
How to Take and Use Constructive Criticism (6 Key Tips)
Most people – myself included – don’t naturally welcome criticism with open arms. It takes practice to become accustomed to the emotions that come along with having your work poked and prodded.
Going into a workshop or other critique environment mindfully and aware that feedback may prove valuable can help. Keep these tips in mind next time you find yourself in such a position.
1. View Feedback as an Opportunity to Improve
As far as I know, there aren’t any writers who want their work to be just okay. It’s counterintuitive to pour hours into a story, essay, or entire book in hopes that it will be mediocre.
We all want our writing to be that best that it can be. I’m not saying you have to shoot for the Nobel Prize in Literature every time you put pen to paper. However, I would bet that you at least want to do justice to the story you’re trying to tell. You probably want to successfully communicate with your readers.
Try approaching feedback as a step towards that goal. It may not be an entirely pleasant step, but we all have to push through some less-than-desirable situations in order to get where we ultimately want to go.
2. Check Your Ego
If you’re trying to use your workshop or writing group as an opportunity to peacock, you’re going to be disappointed. I speak from experience when I say this.
There is nothing quite like walking into a room full of people thinking they all agree your story is a masterpiece, only to find out they didn’t get it. And not in an, “I was trying to explore the human condition and they didn’t see the deeper meaning” way. It was more of a, “No one was even really sure what the plot was” situation.
Submitting your work for critique is a lesson in relinquishing control. It’s a lesson in humility. Before you ever hand over that stack of paper or hit send on that email with your piece attached, check your ego.
3. Ask Clarifying Questions
Some workshops have a “silent author” policy. This is a leftover practice from some of the earliest critique groups. It can be very useful in helping to replicate the publishing process.
That said, I’m not a big fan of the silent author, especially when critiquing work that is still fresh. Some of the most productive workshops I’ve participated in were the ones in which I could ask questions and explain my goals for the piece.
If you do get the chance to ask questions about the feedback you received, take advantage of it. Ideally, have a couple of problem spots in mind going in so that you can draw your readers’ attention to them and ask for help.
If readers say they’re confused by something, hear them out, then explain what you were trying to do. They may have feedback that will help you fine tune your work to achieve your desired effect.
4. Remember That Writing Is Rewriting
Earnest Hemingway said, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” He was, unfortunately, correct. A good writer never feels like their job is done. There’s always something they can improve – a way to tweak the dialogue to feel more realistic, an adjustment to make the scene flow more smoothly.
When I first started out, I didn’t think anything I wrote needed more than two drafts. I wanted to write the story, get a few pointers, and make a couple of edits. I wanted to be “finished.” I was in a hurry.
If you’re just trying to get through critique so you can call your work done, you won’t make the most of your feedback. Constructive criticism should make you think, help you see your writing in a new light. Remind yourself that the work is never really done, and that feedback is part of the writing process – not the end of it.
5. Don’t Treat It Like a Prescription
Here’s another mistake of mine you can learn from. In the first workshops I attended, I would take notes on my classmates’ feedback and come up with a list of corrections they had suggested. Then, when I was reworking my piece, I would treat those notes like a checklist.
I went through and marked each item off and thought that made my writing better. In some ways it might have, but in other ways it probably didn’t. I wasn’t actually trying to fix the problems with the piece – I was simply catering to my classmates’ specific opinions.
An undergraduate teacher and mentor of mine once mentioned that criticism doesn’t have to be prescriptive. You don’t have agree with everything your readers say, and you don’t have to address problem spots in the ways they suggest.
Every edit, every rewrite, should be in service to the story. If you’re always writing to please one or a few people, you’ll have a hard time crafting a resonant piece. Everyone likes different things and there’s not a single way to be right.
6. Keep In Mind that Changes Don’t Have to Be Permanent
Let me go back to an experience of mine that I mentioned earlier. When my professor told me to cut up my essay and move the scenes around to play with the structure, I was reluctant. I put it off for a while. Then I realized I had nothing to lose by giving it a try.
The beauty of writing on a computer is that it’s so easy to save different versions of your work. If you’re not sure whether a piece of feedback will really improve your story, save the original draft in a separate file, then give it a whirl. If you hate it, you’ll still have the earlier draft.
You might as well test drive your readers’ suggestions. In some cases, you may even find that while they’re not a good fit for the piece you’re working on, you can use them in other projects. You’ll never know for sure unless you give it a chance.
Taking criticism is no doubt difficult. Trying to write successfully without ever showing your work to anyone else, however, isn’t the answer. We all need readers who will show us our flaws, spark new ideas, and prepare us for publication.
If you’re finding it hard to make use of the feedback you’ve received, keep these tips in mind:
- View feedback as an opportunity to improve.
- Check your ego.
- Ask clarifying questions.
- Remember that writing is rewriting.
- Don’t treat it like a prescription.
- Keep in mind that changes don’t have to be permanent.
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