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.