How to Take Criticism

criticism
Writers tend to be introverts. Most of us also crave external validation. Add in the fact that naturally shy authors seek approval by submitting deeply personal works for public consumption, and it’s no mystery why many authors–and creative people of all kinds–are averse to criticism.

This aversion to criticism amounts to a fear of failure, which is a detrimental mindset for anyone; not just us creative types. Nobody likes being rejected, but unless you’re putting yourself out there–and make no mistake; as an author, your product is you–and inviting rejection, you won’t get anywhere.

Here’s an uncomfortable fact that writers need to get realistic about if they want to improve as artists: accepting constructive criticism will teach you far more than will living in a hermetically sealed hugbox.

I understand that facing your critics can be an agonizing ordeal, but there are ways to soften the blow. Here’s some advice on how to take criticism.

Know the Difference Between Criticism and Heckling

Criticism itself is a subtle and noble art. Unfortunately, the number of highly opinionated people with internet access far exceeds the number of skilled critics. As a result, most online critics are really hecklers.

In this clip, comedian Jamie Kennedy briefly discusses the difference between a critic and a heckler (he even made a movie about it). Whether you enjoy Kennedy’s humor or not, he has some valid points.

  • Heckling consists of emotion-based, personal insults intended to tear the artist down; usually to inflate the heckler’s ego.
  • Criticism is an honest effort to appraise the strengths and shortcomings of a work. Legitimate critics analyze books, movies, games, etc. based on accepted artistic standards. The aim of criticism is to help the artist improve, thereby improving the state of the art.

You can probably see from the definition of criticism alone how constructive critiques are invaluable resources for improvement. If you don’t know something’s wrong, you can’t fix it. Luckily, a real critic will restrict criticism to your work. Someone making it personal is a heckler who can be safely ignored.

Find a Trusted Critic Whose Style Fits Your Disposition

If you’re still not convinced that criticism is an invaluable tool for creative growth, consider The Lord of the Rings. By all accounts, the early drafts of Tolkien’s beloved masterpiece sucked. Seriously, if he’d had his way, instead of the world’s greatest fantasy epic we’d have gotten a thousand page account of Bilbo’s 111th birthday bash. No orcs, no balrog, not even the titular Dark Lord; just a bunch of hobbits stuffing their faces and telling jokes.

C.S. Lewis single-handedly saved us from that adorable yet tedious fate. His advice to Tolkien that hobbits are only entertaining when they’re doing unhobbitlike things is possibly the greatest piece of criticism ever given. Lewis deserves a Nobel Prize for that alone.

Yet Lewis’ true genius didn’t shine forth in the criticism he gave, but in how he delivered it. Knowing that Tolkien was among the shyest introverts of a notoriously shy and introverted breed–and since both of them were university professors–he framed his criticism of LotR by adopting Tolkien’s conceit that it was a real history and critiquing the “translators” of “The Red Book of Westmarch”.

Whereas Tolkien tended to flee from direct criticism, Lewis found that playing along with his friend’s fantasy was the sugar coating that helped his advice go down. Brandon Rhodes gave an outstanding talk on how Lewis’ mastery of wise and gentle criticism coaxed Tolkien out of his artistic shell. The whole video is well worth any artist or critic’s time.

The takeaway: friends who will tell you the truth about a project you’re emotionally invested in are rarer than pearls. Critics who can tell you that something you made sucks in a way that makes you glad to hear it are more precious than gold. Seek out both, and thank God if you can find one person who fits into both categories.

Sift Your Feedback

Not all critics are created equal. Not all criticism is equally useful. Learning how to sift feedback is just as important as training yourself to seek it out. Here are some reliable methods:

  • Assemble your own group of handpicked beta readers/first critics. As mentioned above, select for people who will tell it like it is without being jerks. This will take time–probably years–and will be an ongoing process.
  • Do not try to implement all feedback. Doing so will undermine your artistic voice and creative freedom. A solid rule of thumb is to take roughly 25% of the advice you get from readers–even your trusted beta readers.
  • Once is a fluke. Twice is coincidence. Three times is proof. Don’t fret if a single, isolated review calls your protagonist one-dimensional. If several critics take issue with your characterization, strongly consider taking action.
  • Your target audience takes precedence over critics who aren’t fans of your particular genre/themes/mood, etc. As a professional writer, pleasing your readers is your job. Treat repeated complaints from your hardcore fans much as you would critiques from your trusted beta readers. Likewise, if you write nuts & bolts hard SF, take a bad review from a self-described super squishy space opera fanboy with a grain of salt.
If They Really Bug You, Don’t Read Bad Reviews
I know of several authors who just plain skip negative reviews of their work. That practice may sound detrimental based on what I’ve said so far, but there’s sound reasoning behind it. Most of those writers already have solid beta readers–many of whom are also professional authors, and they run their work by pro editors.
Besides, someone who posts a one or two star review probably won’t become a fan, even if you improve. Your fans are the folks you want to please, and they’ll usually point out where there’s room for improvement. So you can learn from reading bad reviews, but it’s not mandatory.
I’m really grateful that my readers have given my work pretty high marks. Even those four and five star reviews can be mined for useful criticism, and I’ve learned a lot about my audience’s tastes that way. Thanks to constructive criticism from my beta readers, editors, and fans, I’ve grown as an author and I look forward to improving even more.
To be sure, there’ve been folks who tried my writing and didn’t like it. I’m thankful that they’ve all been super good sports and have explained their distaste in ways that made perfect sense. But even when someone’s decided my work isn’t for him, I’ve benefited when he told me why.
And if this article teaches you nothing else, I’m obligated to leave you with this one, crucial law:
Never, ever, under any circumstances, should you respond to a negative review.
 
As an author, defending yourself against bad reviews makes you look like an amateur, takes time away from writing you get paid for, and if the review is from a heckler, it gives him the grand prize: your attention. If you can’t resist leaping to defend your precious book’s honor, you should definitely stop reading negative reviews altogether.
So that’s what becoming a professional author has taught me about taking criticism. If you’re a working artist, I hope you’ll confidently go and seek out feedback.
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About Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. He chose to pursue a writing career despite formal training in history and theology. His journey toward publication began at the behest of his long-suffering gaming group, who tactfully pointed out that he seemed to enjoy telling stories more than planning and adjudicating games.
  • I just put out a request for beta readers, I currently only have two. Any chance you could send some my way?

  • asterling

    It depends on the book, but some of our books seem to attract complete and total dickwads. For example, I gave away 25 copies of one of Alan Rodgers’ books – a genuine NY Times bestseller, with excellent reviews when it was first published, including raves from Orson Scott Card and Joe Straczynski. Most of those who got the free books haven’t done a review but one complete and total wanker gave it 2 stars and complained about “anachronisms” in the book such as people looking on a computer screen for information and the various “newswire” headlines that are located throughout the book. Alan had updated the book in 2011 or so (he died in 2014) and his brother Scott re-edited it and I also did a little bit of work when formatting it for ePUB. I know it’s a clean, perfect, high quality e-book as far as its formatting goes. But this dick went out of his way to find every single thing he could possibly mention that could be wrong (the book assumes a President would go whack-a-doodle if his wife was visiting Russia and died due to poor medical care – it uses the word RUSSIA). Alan was very politically interested and had a few things he was trying to portray. I think he was pretty creative about how he handled his update. Bottom line: I hate this guy and hate his craptastic attitude and I JUST HATE how people try to tear things down. If I got a free book and didn’t like it very much I would not put a review. I sure as heck wouldn’t do what this weasel did to a dead man.