This is the skill every writer needs to cultivate ASAP.
Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash
Criticism is hard to take. Can we all just agree on that?
Let?s just get that out of the way now. No one likes it. No one wants to deal with it. Everyone wants to hear that whatever they?ve created ? whether it?s writing or a meal or a baby ? is perfect in every way just how it is.
No revision required.
Yeah. Critique sucks. I?m willing to allow that you can go ahead and believe that your kid is perfect (although even that can get . . . uh . . . problematic as that kid gets older)but in most of life, if you want to improve, you need to learn how to take constructive criticism and learn from it.
Especially when it comes to your writing. Because I don?t know of any other way to really learn how to be a better writer than to have readers who are willing to offer you constructive criticism and then learn how to accept and implement that feedback.
Let?s start by defining constructive criticism.
Plain old criticism means telling someone what?s wrong with their work.
Criticism a noun meaning: the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.
All by itself, criticism can be a little bit willy nilly. It can be helpful, but it can also be hurtful to the point of being used as a weapon. It?s when we add the word ?constructive? that criticism becomes something kind of magical.
According to definitions.net:
Constructive criticism is the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one.
That?s as good a definition as any. Constructive criticism offers both the good and the bad, is valid, and is friendly.
When I work with children, I call it two stars and a wish. They have to offer two good things about another student?s work before they offer negative feedback (or criticism.) That?s not a bad idea for adults either.
Even work that really needs improvement has something about it that can be praised. Trust me on this one. It?s true. There is always something and leading off with that puts the person you?re offering criticism to in the mindset to actually accept that negative feedback.
Constructive criticism is how we get better at whatever it is we?re learning how to do.
That doesn?t make accepting constructive criticism easy.
You knew that already, right?
Just because you get your two stars doesn?t mean that the wish doesn?t bite. I mean ? we all still want to just hear that we have a beautiful baby without any ?buts.?
If the baby in question is a piece of writing, then constructive criticism means that you get to hear what you?ve done well. That matters, because you?ll want to keep doing those things. The ?stars? part isn?t just blowing smoke up your butt.
Really, you need to pay attention to what people enjoy as much as to what people are struggling with. If you keep hearing that your dialogue is really well done or that readers think you?re doing a great job with a certain character, don?t brush that off.
I can?t tell you how often I hear students say that they think the people critiquing them are just ?being nice.?
So, yeah. Accepting the ?good? half of constructive criticism is often as difficult to do as accepting the ?bad? half, which we?re going to get to in a minute.
The best thing you can do when you?re receiving feedback is just listen. Take notes. Nod and smile when it?s positive. Say thank you. And take that positive feedback to heart.
It?s important to know what you?re doing well. It really is. Do more of that, please. Compound it like interest.
When you receive negative feedback, resist the urge to argue.
Here?s the thing: If someone is reading our work and offering you feedback, I?m going to assume it?s because you asked them to. Either you?re taking a class or you begged or you traded critiques. Maybe you even paid someone to give you this feedback.
Chances are pretty slim that someone sneaked in and stole your work, read it, and now they?re offering you a bunch of feedback that you didn?t ask for.
If you asked for feedback, your job is to take a deep breath and accept it.
Do not defend your work right now. This isn?t the time. Don?t tell the person who is offering their opinion that they got it all wrong, they didn?t understand what you meant. Don?t go into a long explanation of what you really meant to say in your work or why you can?t show vs. tell in that scene or whatever.
Here?s the other thing: you?re not going to be there to explain things to the vast majority of your readers. The feedback you?re getting right now is invaluable to you. It?s pointing out the confusing bits or the parts that other people don?t fall in love with the way you thought they would.
Please: just take it in. Listen to it. Absorb it.
It?s okay if you disagree with it later. It?s okay if you decide you don?t want to take the advice offered to you. But don?t argue with it. Ask questions. Make sure you understand the feedback you?re being offered. Be open and curious.
Now ? go forth and do something with all that feedback.
This is the important part.
Now that you?ve been given all that constructive criticism, it?s time for you to go out and ? you know ? construct something with it. Use it.
If the feedback was a lot to take, then it can help to let it sit and sink in for a day or two. This is especially true if the ?wish? portion was a whopper. If you were told that your work needs a major overhaul the two stars might have been nice, but that?s still quite a blow.
So let it sink in so that you can examine the advice with fresh eyes. And analyze it.
Is it good feedback? Will it make your story stronger? If it helps, imagine that it?s advice that someone else has to do the work to implement. Because when you?re facing a major revision, ?good enough? starts to sound really, really good.
Make a list of the revisions you?ll have to make. I try pretty hard to be dispassionate here. This isn?t my baby, this is my work. My babies are perfect at birth, but my work gets better with revision.
And then . . . do the work.
Here?s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She?s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.