Why writers need negative criticism – Part 2

Negative criticism can destroy a writing career.

Negative criticism can either improve a writer's skills, or destroy her forever.

In my previous post about negative criticism, I outlined the six stages of reaction I went through when I received the most biting criticism in my life. In this post I want to explore the different possible reactions and factors that writers need to be aware of in order to make the most out of any negative criticism they come across.

There are basically two main reactions to negative criticism, with many variations and degrees:

1. Rejection

2. Acceptance (It can either take a healthy form of a learning experience, or a deadly form of destroying a writer’s confidence so completely that she never writes another word again.)

Before getting into the various factors a writer needs to consider when evaluating negative criticism, let’s first consider this: what would happen to you as a writer if you never received any negative criticism?

I, for one, don’t believe that there is any writer in the world who doesn’t need to improve their writing. And any writer who believes otherwise is seriously deluded. No matter how great a writer is, no matter how acclaimed or best-selling, every writer needs a good editor/agent/critique partner(s) who can tell him what’s working with a piece of writing, and what’s not working.

How else are you supposed to improve if all you hear is: ‘That’s great!”, “I loved it!”? The simple — and to me, obvious — answer is: you don’t.

Now on to the various factors that need to be taken into consideration when receiving negative criticism, and which can determine how you react:

1. How was the criticism given?

Was it supportive? That is, did the person giving the critique seem to want you to improve, or did it seem as if she was just out to cut you down? Were there any positive remarks?

I always make it a point to highlight any positive areas in a piece of writing before I say what I thought needed work, even if it means I just acknowledge the effort a writer has exerted, or the bravery she’s shown by submitting her work to be critiqued, or a phrase I liked, or an idea that has potential.

I also make the effort to be as sincere in my enthusiasm as I am in my criticism. One of the most depressing things is hearing an unenthusiastic “Yeah, it’s nice, but…” Hearing that makes me discredit everything that comes out of the person’s mouth. Make me feel good first. Make me feel safe. Give me a cushion to fall on before you punch me.

2. Who gave the criticism?

Is that person, in your opinion, qualified? That is, do you trust them to be objective and to want you to improve? When you consider this factor, you have to be careful not to allow your resistance to, or rejection of the criticism affect this opinion. This means that just because the person criticized your writing, don’t ignore it by saying to yourself, “What does he know anyway?”

Generally speaking, friends don’t make good critique partners. There’s simply too much history and emotions and stakes involved to allow for either a fair critique or a fair reception of that critique. The best thing to do is to search for a critique partner with whom you are not emotionally involved. You can always become friends with your critique partner (it’s almost inevitable), but when your friends become your critique partners, your friendship can suffer.

Leave the ego-boosting to your friends, instead. Make sure they’ll support you and encourage you to continue when you do get cut down.That’s what friends are for, after all.

3. What was your emotional state beforehand?

Were you in a foul mood before you opened that email that tore your writing to shreds? If you were, then you probably hit the roof. I hardly think that you swallowed your pride and tearfully started revising your work.

If you were depressed before you received the criticism, you’ll probably feel suicidal after reading it.

You have to be aware of your feelings before receiving the criticism so you can evaluate your reaction and the criticism fairly.

4. Does it make sense?

The validity of a critique can be relative and can’t be measured without an argument being made for it. How do you decide whether this makes sense or not? The best thing to do is try to distance yourself from both the critique as well as your own writing.

And if the criticism suggests removing a line or changing something, try it. Implement the change and reread your work. Does it sound better? Did removing that beautifully crafted sentence leave a gaping hole in your writing, or did it tighten it?

And now, over to you. What other factors do you believe affect the reception of negative criticism?

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8 Comments

Filed under writing, Writing related

8 responses to “Why writers need negative criticism – Part 2

  1. I’m a doctor and a writer. You get plenty of criticism in both. As long as people don’t try to shoot me or sue me, circumstances I’ve avoided so far, I try to learn from it and move on.

    I don’t worry about it either. I’ve got a fine wife and two children, and there is music to be played. Life is too sweet to get all riled up.

    Besides, I always say writing isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s a lot more serious than that.

    Dr. B, author, “The Mandolin Case”

  2. I’m not sure if I commented on the first in your series on writers and criticism, but it was great food for thought. I think how I react has a lot to do with my confidence in the piece, and mood before I read it, too. I find I learn a lot more from real criticism – not just stuff that makes me feel better and good about the piece – when it is instructive and something I can take action on, rather than subjective feedback.

    Thanks for this, Marwa!

  3. Marwa Elnaggar

    @ Dr. B, Thanks for dropping by. “I always say writing isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s a lot more serious than that.” I love that!

    @Rose: Real criticism is a fine art, and people who are good at it are blessings.

  4. I’d add the very reason why we write. We have to look inside and figure out why we’re writing. Is it to feel important, get famous and receive praise, or is it to let things out and feel free? And if it’s the latter, how much does it matter to you whether your words have moved across and fallen the way you wanted them to on people’s ears?

    As much as simply getting it out has its own feeling of relief, in the long run it frustrates when you find you’ve been talking to yourself. It really matters whether you get it out the right way, and for that, negative criticism will always come in handy and be very much needed and well received.

    • Marwa Elnaggar

      I think the most valuable criticism does two things: 1. Tell me what I’m doing right and why it works (this isn’t just a pat on the back, but it’s also to help me make the most of my strengths), 2. Tell me what I’m doing wrong, why it doesn’t work, and suggestions on how to make it work.
      Sometimes it can be a very simple comment that gives me a heightened awareness about a certain aspect of writing that I wasn’t too bothered with in the past, but makes all the difference.

      P.S. Welcome back from the Himalayas, Arwa 🙂

  5. Yosra

    I found what you said here very interesting. I’m sorry I just got to read it now, I had the link open since you posted it, imagine!

    I was checking my attitude and others’ as I read the aspects you wrote. It helps me become a better critic and evaluate the criticism I get. I’m afraid one gets little serious criticism. I rely on myself to a great extent for that part 🙂

    Honestly, I think I used to be a terrible critic. I hope I’m getting better with time. Thanks for sharing the very interesting and well written thoughts ya Marwa!

    • Marwa Elnaggar

      Yosra – I’ve found through personal experience that you do get better with time. That is, if you keep on writing, critiquing, and receiving critiques. You start noticing what’s important and what isn’t, what works and what doesn’t. It’s also good to read about the craft of both writing and critiquing.

  6. Pingback: Criticism & Creative Endevors « Muse Ampoule

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