Sunday, May 25, 2014

Learning to Accept Criticism

Learning to accept criticism is a part of our job as writers—perhaps one of the hardest parts of the job—but few of us are comfortable hearing criticism of our work and often misinterpret it.

Rather than accepting as a gift the heartfelt comments of a reader who may point out serious or not-so-serious problems in a narrative, we often bristle and choose to dismiss the comments as irrelevant or, worse, hoping against hope that the reader misread a passage or a chapter or the entire work.

All of us who write know it’s hard to listen to criticism, even in the form of general observations.  We are as close to the manuscript under review as we are to our own skin. All of the words, the images, the scenes and sentences and pages that have added up over weeks and months are part of our psyche. They’ve emerged from our pens and computer keyboards with painstaking effort, a daily outpouring of sweat and blood and tears. That’s why it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to view our own work in a neutral, unbiased way.

But, as most writers come to realize, it’s in our best interest, and in the best interest of our story, to listen to criticism rather than ignore it.  Whether accurate or inaccurate, critical observations are a helpful way for us to gauge the true shape of our story. Any criticism offers insights because it helps us better evaluate how a reader responds to our work.

Criticism is actually another tool in our toolbox. It’s like a magnifying glass that can identify and enlarge a manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses so that we can see what we have done more clearly, and then revise accordingly.  

Listening closely to one reader’s opinion of the story gives us a rare opportunity to measure our expectations for the story against the expectations of a reader that were or were not satisfied.

A reader’s comments can help us pinpoint whether the character evokes—or fails to evoke—a response, if the plot slows to a crawl or races over an important part of the story. These kinds of comments can help us recalibrate our aim so that the next time we shoot an arrow into the air its arc is more likely to hit the bull’s eye.

Listening to criticism—and accepting it—isn’t easy for most of us. But the more that we write and share our work, the more essential a tool it becomes to measure progress on our manuscripts, to gauge where we think we are and where we really are.

If we want to write, we must learn to accept criticism without letting it throw us off balance. Our readers are trying to help us, and, rather than interpret their comments as attempts to derail us, we might thank them for offering us a way to stay focused and on track.

In the end, we may find criticism helps us discover the key to our story in a place where we least expected to uncover it, so we can tell the story that we’d hoped to tell when we first started writing it.

For more on listening to and accepting criticism, visit:


Susan L Lipson said...

I would add to that, Bruce, that while we ought to accept the gift of time, perspective, and thoughtful consideration offered by critical readers, we must also not jump to make changes based on every critique without stepping back to consider first the stance and tastes of the editor, as well as whether the critique echoes the concerns and/or suggestions of other readers. Some critiques reflect taste, not objective observations of quality. I learned the hard way, by making changes based on advice from an overbearing agent whom I paid to critique my opening chapters at a conference--an agent who did NOT end up taking on my work anyway--that the restructuring she suggested to fit a specific target audience actually resulted in the omission of the very parts that the next agent, who IS seriously considering my work right now, felt was missing from the story! The agent currently considering my work was NOT paid to critique it, by the way; she provided 8 pages of notes based on sincere interest in my story and a desire to work with me to enhance its salability. I was relieved to add these elements back into my manuscript, and now it feels like my story again. I hope that she'll agree and add me to her client list. But in the meantime, I have learned to CONSIDER, but NOT ACCEPT, criticism unless it resonates with me and echoes the suggestions of other readers.

Bruce Black said...

Many thanks, Susan, for the extremely helpful distinction and for sharing your experiences with different readers. Good luck with the agent currently considering your work!