Coping with Criticism

Hearing your work criticised can be vile. Here's how to philosophise your way through it.

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Waterboarding’s a funfair compared to hearing your writing criticised. You slave to create and perfect your tiny word babies, set them free to skip about the globe; then some oik rips into them, and you wish they’d taken a phial of acid to your face instead. Their judgement throbs incessant and inescapable under your skin, ruthless as an abscess.

Even worse if you use your writing to explore some tender secret truth about yourself. Criticism of semi-autobiographical work is near impossible not to take personally. When doing my MA in creative writing, hearing criticism of my work was certainly the hardest part of the whole two years, and this on a course where you had to read Cloud Atlas. I couldn’t hear a word of praise, so obsessively did I dwell on the tiny tweaks my comrades in suffering suggested; I was so sensitive to any perceived slight that having a dozen writers sit about ripping my soul to shreds seemed beyond human endurance. I’d crawl straight from seminars into the bar and sob gently into my pint that I was hopeless and useless and might as well give it all up. What a colossal bore I must have been.

But that was 12 years ago, and age breeds indifference; I’m a lot better at hearing criticism now, thank God. Indeed, on good days I can even relish the opportunity to be philosophical about it. Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned in the intervening decade.

First. Do you care what the critical person thinks? Do they know what they’re talking about? Are you sure? If it’s a random on twitter there’s every chance they’re an idiot. Even if it’s another writer you mustn’t discount the possibility they might be an idiot. So, do you value their opinion? Suppose you do. Next: is what they say true? Read your work back with a critical, impassive eye. Pretend it was written by a stranger. This gets easier with practise. If their criticism isn’t valid, why be upset by it? And – this is the harder bit – if their criticism is valid, why be upset by it? Chap on twitter pointed out recently that I have a flabby belly. Well, I have. That’s just true. Well spotted, say I. (He also pointed out that I could be his gran. That seemed less likely to be true, for physiological reasons as well as his appalling grasp of grammar, so this insight I felt safe to ignore). And if a chap points out that my plotting tends to the minimalist, occasionally even borderline holey – well, that’s true too. It makes as much sense getting upset by that as the fact the sun rises each day.

People who are aware of their own faults don’t get offended discussing them. They get amused.

But if someone whose opinion you respect does point out some genuine flaws in your work, about which you were blissfully unaware – the odd two dimensional character, clunky dialogue, plot development that doesn’t feel authentic, some boring description that feels like padding – then that’s very useful. Yes, it is. If you want to improve, to write as successfully as lies within your power, that’s exactly the sort of information you need. Novels, like marriages, often require an impassive outsider to identify their flaws. The author is often too closely aligned with their creation to admit to any short-comings, the way the besotted lover cannot see their partner oft inclines to tedium, drinks heavily and smells slightly odd.

Moreover, in the examples given the critic clearly believes the creative work is capable of improvement, worthy of further time and thought. If it were simply terrible they would say “That’s lovely!” with a bright, brave grimace, or “let’s not discuss this further – let’s line the hamster’s cage with it, then maybe you could take up knitting?” No. They believe it worth your trouble. That’s a good thing. Make the changes they suggest and see if it reads better to you. If it does, you’ve learnt something valuable: buy your critic a beer. If it doesn’t, feel insufferably smug, and revert to your original draft. You are writing to please yourself, after all. Art will never be created by pandering to the public.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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