Every writer has to face criticism at one point or another during his or her career. But badly timed or misguided criticism can hurt a creative project more than you might imagine. So, what should you look out for when asking for criticism? And how do you make sure that the criticism you’ll receive is actually constructive?
What to look out for when asking for criticism
Everyone who has asked for some form of criticism in the past will be familiar with the problems that come along with it. Even though in some cases you might not understand how and why things went wrong.
Over the years, I’ve developed some “criteria” which allow me to ask for criticism purposefully.
Criticism respecting the moment
Unfortunately, the most common mistake I’ve observed is ignoring the right moment for good criticism. In the past, I often grew (wrongfully) angry, because I (unconsciously) asked for specific criticism too early.
That’s also why I am no great fan of writing camps or support groups for authors who present the day’s work every evening. I think it’s fundamentally wrong to ask for criticism permanently. You see, in most cases, that criticism will come too early.
Why is that a problem, you ask? Basically, it’s pretty logical.
Let’s say, …
- … you write an essay
- … you’re working on your first novel
- … you’ve just finished your job application
- … you’re sending a love poem to your fair lady.
It doesn’t matter. In those early stages, you’re usually still searching for an overall structure or inspiration. You don’t care about spelling or punctuation just yet, and you’re using meaningful marginal comments such as, “Look up! Urgent!”, or “What was that guy’s name again?”.
You’re still in the “orientation stage.” You’re not even close to your text’s final form, even your topic is not sufficiently defined, you’re missing definitions and sub-chapters.
Now, imagine being in that situation and asking a distant acquaintance for his or her opinion, just when he stops by for a cup of coffee and cares to look into it somewhat out of politeness than genuine interest.
His – maybe well-intended – criticism will be far too general. Or he means especially well and criticizes your spelling in the most minute detail before you haven’t even thought about finishing your second draft.
How do I ask for criticism the right way?
Be aware that you need different kinds of criticism at different moments. At the beginning of your project, you might still be defining or marking out your topic, later you might be working on your outline or on your novel’s plot, on your style or spelling.
So, when you ask for criticism, guide it beforehand by giving some hints. Ask only for purposeful criticism on the partial aspect you’re currently working on.
Usually, it’s too late for criticism on outlines or plot when you’re almost finished working on your layout.
This approach requires, however, that you ask for criticism over and over again during your entire project; sometimes the same, sometimes different people.
If you ask the same person for advice, once at the beginning and once at the end, you won’t have lived in your own world of thought, but you also shouldn’t be expecting any wonders. And with that, we arrive at the next suggestion.
Ask the right person(s)
Often enough, it’s hard to find the right critic for your undertaking.
A good critic (not only in the professional sense) can judge himself well enough to know what his criticism should be about at any given time. So, you’ll have to prove some insight into human nature (or at least bring along experience) when picking your critics.
Critics can become a problem for your work, when…
… they misjudge their own skills
Sometimes, these are the very same people who offer said criticism. If you give over your text to your neighbor who has “an eye for layout” or who is “quite good at writing,” and if he simply misses your mistakes, that won’t help your cause.
It may be a well-intended offer, but in those cases, you’re better off searching for professional help.
… they don’t have a “filter.”
Sometimes, individual comments are simply inappropriate and not desirable.
Not everybody has a sense for that, and especially “creative” projects can suffer from that tremendously in their early stages. It doesn’t matter whether you want to earn money or go public with that project.
Just one wrongly placed comment – even an ironic one – can let you doubt for days. Think of all the people who “pushed” you with comments like this:
“And why are you doing this exactly?”
“I didn’t even know you care about stuff like that.”
“And who is going to read this?”
Often enough, these questions and comments are as general as personal while they’re neglecting the actual content.
… they see their responsibility everywhere
Before every proofreading cooperation, I usually ask whether I should look out for a particular pet peeve. “Well, everything, I guess,” is typically the answer.
And that’s fine for those looking for a proofreader. If your proofreader offers “a little bit of everything,” however, he or she is probably not the best candidate. But let’s assume that you’ve given him or her some pointers.
Sometimes, even the best “manual” doesn’t help. You’ve asked someone to proofread and to just take care of syntax and punctuation.
Perhaps other friends are taking care of content and logic, or you’re at that point when other aspects of your work become relevant. Doesn’t matter.
If your “grammar proofreader” floods your document with comment bubbles on word and topic choice, that will neither help you nor will you go out of the proofreading with a good feeling.
Even worse, the other person will still feel that he or she has done you a huge favor. You can’t really anticipate this problem if you’re not acquainted with each other.
So, either you can draw on tried and tested proofreaders from your past, or you readjust after these candidates stand out. Superfluous comments will rather slow you down than help you. Don’t allow these people to thrust themselves upon you.
… they bring in their own opinion too strongly or too little
Not everything can be judged objectively; sometimes, you need a strong opinion. In those cases, you’ll need a critic who can communicate his or her idea. Other situations call for a less objective judgment call.
It’s hard to bring in your personal taste into a grammatical discussion unless you’re Walt Whitman.
So this, again, requires inside into human nature. Some friends and even family members will feel uncomfortable to voice their criticism towards you; others might be able to do so in a purposeful and nuanced manner.
You, on the other hand, should also ask yourself, which points you don’t want to discuss at all. Where don’t you want to give way?
If I know that I’ll be using a black-and-white camera for my series of pictures, criticism on the advantages of the color film won’t lead too far, will it? Exceptions confirm the rule, of course, but you get the gist.
Just ask yourself, where you want to bring in other people’s opinions and where you want to stick with your own. Then choose the right people to give you that input. Don’t pick a supporter first and then think about what he or she might do for you and your project.
… they don’t support you personally
This part tends to be more or less important, depending on the context. When proofreading your interpunction, it’s sufficient to do so objectively and without comment. It doesn’t need a big discussion.
However, especially in those phases when you’re still uncertain yourself, when you don’t know where the road may take you, or what you individually see in your topic, a personal relationship with your critic is imperative.
That doesn’t mean this criticism will be objectively correct. It only means that your individual support through friends or family should ensure that you realize your idea at all.
Once you found your rhythm, you can even cope with declining publishers (and understand that it’s not about you as a person).
… they don’t see themselves as a critic
The worst kind of critic is the one criticizing you only inside your own head, without them being aware of it.
Sometimes, you’re just not in the mood for irony, or you read a bit more into innocent comments than usual. Especially when you’re still in that “orientation phase” and are still doubting parts of your own project.
Everybody has those bad days, that’s completely normal.
If you’ve caught one of those, you stand in front of your so-called masterpiece of the last days in a mixture of anger and sadness.
“What was I thinking?”
That will be the perfect moment for your friend to call you and to rejoice over his accomplishments of the day. The nerve of it! To ask you how it’s going… So, yes… There goes your motivation.
Observe yourself! Try not to read ill intent into harmless comments. Especially when you are getting accustomed to new work routines and when you’re impatient of the starting phase. It stands to reason that you smell ill intent where help and support are actually awaiting you.
It doesn’t matter whether that friend calls you every week to ask how you’re doing; it doesn’t matter that you met your goals each and every time during the last five days.
What’s important is you’re unhappy today, and your so-called friend really spells it out for you. May desperate writer devilkins poke him with pens and pencils for all eternity!
But before you get defensive or – even worse – attack the asking friend, take a step back. Ask yourself what the question aims at and why you feel the way you do.
Your friend cannot know that you had a rough day at the library because all the books you wanted to borrow were already taken. He just wants to ask you how you are. And you have to take good care of your inner circle.
So, next time you feel that anger boiling up inside, that rage with yourself, your indecisiveness, discontent, or small details, reflect on it first.
Nobody knows your work as well as you do.
Unfortunately, that means that nobody knows its flaws as well as you do.
Your friend’s question doesn’t even need to aim at an actual (felt) flaw. Sometimes, a harmless, general question is all it takes.
If you notice that your friend doesn’t mean any harm (after said objective look at the situation), but you still need to voice your lamentations about the world’s torment and agony, he will have an open ear for you; but don’t take your anger out on him.
How you should deal with criticism
Many people have a hard time taking even constructive criticism. They identify so much with their own piece, their text, their work that they see themselves under fire.
But that reaction is over-the-top most of the time. A healthy attitude towards critics will help you to realize your ideas and even find new relationships.
Always thank your critics!
Quite often, this goes against your gut feeling. But if you think about it, it’s appropriate. There are constructive, destructive, and maybe sarcastic critics, right?
To thank constructive critics should be obvious.
First off, that critic devoted his time to you and your work. He helped you to develop, or he shared his internal process with you.
Be thankful, and you’ll win a friend that can tell you his opinion in the future. Priceless.
But why should you thank destructive critics? Well, their criticism is less helpful, granted, but as we discussed before – that is not always entirely their fault.
Sometimes, they overshoot, sometimes you just didn’t give them any pointers, sometimes the criticism was poorly timed.
Still, this critic, this human being gave you and your work his time. And if his negative judgment was personally motivated and you’ll still thank him – guess what? Next time, it might be positive. Yours sincerely, Kharma!
Now that’s all fine and dandy, but why on God’s green Earth should I thank those sadists and sarcastic critics, or even listen to them, for that matter?
Well, there’s a fine line between irony and sarcasm, and then again between those and sadism. And no, you don’t have to thank someone who stamps all over your work.
But no matter whether the criticism is constructive, destructive, or even sarcastically motivated – your critic gains the upper hand.
For now, he or she has the last word, and his or her opinion follows on yours. So if you want to restore the balance and react appropriately, you are back in charge. You take away the criticism’s potential to get to you on a personal level.
Why do speakers pick up the previous speaker’s lines? Why do satire magazine’s publish their hate mail? It allows them to take a stand and to present the situation in the proper light.
Nobody says you have to give an eye for an eye.
If you scream after a snappy critic like a whiny child, that will hardly help your cause. But it can’t hurt the critic to bring some reality into the equation, or – if appropriate – fire back with a pinch of irony.
Or – and I know this idea is totally nuts: Ask him how you can help. You’ll be amazed how many of your harshest critics will back-pedal and maybe even turn into your customers.
However, don’t dwell on minute expressions within comments forever, after even your critic forgot them.
Try to assess whether you can really take away something – just something! – from that criticism, whether it has some real core. Perhaps that criticism turns into a delightful argument.
Try not to react aggressively and to see the motive behind the criticism.
Yes, some people just want to attack you. Simple as that. But some just don’t own a “filter.” So be polite, cunning, and only take the criticism out of these interactions that you actually need. Leave the rest.
That’s my two cents on dealing with criticism. How do you cope with it?