Most of us who have decided to venture into the writing world, have feared at one point in time, the critique.
Let me explain how it feels to those of you unfamiliar. You pour yourself into a piece of writing for weeks, months, or even a year and you finally believe this is it, you are ready for someone to read it. You give them ‘the precious‘ and you wait…and wait, all the while you have bitten your nails down to stubs, pulled your hair out by the roots and taken in neither water nor food (or binged on food and alcohol; we are writers after all). Then, they give it back and they begin to tell you how they feel. Nothing prepares you for the heat of the poker piercing your chest, or for that moment when your heart is ripped out via your throat and then crushed right before your eyes. Your brain melts on hearing any negative words and for many moments you wished that you could go back in time to before you were born; where you were safe in the womb. At least, there, no one was telling you that your word use was adolescent at best, that your character development was lacking, or you had an extra full stop on the third page.
You may think this is an exaggeration, but ask any writer who has taken that leap of faith and gotten an opinion from someone. This shit hurts. But, I am here today to tell you that you can survive it. In fact, you can survive some of the most brutal of critiques by just keeping a number of things in mind:
- Consider the source: Yes, your favourite Aunt B devours books by the second, but is she really the best person to critique a work of fiction? Not discounting the reader perspective at all, but you may gain some of your best comments from someone who judges/writes/edits in your genre. Aunt B may love romance novels but she knows jack shit about fantasy; she just wants to see someone fall in love at the end. Now, as it stands, contest judges, writing professors, fellow writers, published authors and agents are probably your best bet for writing gems but know that at the end of it all they are still expressing their opinion. Unless of course, it is a direct comment to particular elements of a genre that you are lacking, then it is simply an opinion. Take it as it is, take the good and leave the bad.
- Is it a critique or is the person being mean-spirited? Critique (verb): evaluate (a theory or practice) in a detailed and analytical way. If you find that someone is coming at you with too many statements that sound personal and have no backing in fact, nor do they make suggestions on how to rectify the issue, then this person is just being mean-spirited. Here is a perfect example: Critique: ‘Hey, I read your work and this is what I think, overall, it is a great piece, but you may need to focus on aspects of character development a bit more. The Sally character felt flat for me and I could not feel her pain.” Mean-spirited criticism: ‘Hey, I read your work and I didn’t like it. I think it is written badly and it is nothing like how my favourite author does it.” See the difference? The first person had something helpful to offer; the second person – you need to get far away from them.
- Utilise your support systems: We all have a family member (or three), or a friend (or four), that supports the hell out of our writing career. Seek comfort in these constant cheerleaders who will get you back on track and not let you give up on your dream.
- Consider the delivery: Is what was said truly incorrect and unhelpful? Most of the time the problem we have with critiques is not necessarily what was said, but how it was said. Learn how to separate and…
- Move on: Sometimes you just need some time. To deal with a particularly painful critique, sometimes you just need to put it down and walk away. Cry if you need to, drink, eat; but come back and face it. I remember how I felt the first time I got back the most recent manuscript that I am working on for my MFA. It felt like the ultimate gut punch. I had to put it down, I had to walk away from it and basically ignore it for some weeks because all I saw was red whenever I looked at the comments. After the time away I was able to positively look at the comments and glean the wheat from the chaff and rock on.
Criticism/critique of your work hurts like a mofo; but we all need to go through it if we want to come out better in the end. Only you know the true vision for your work, so take the good (discard the bad) and be open to suggestions that are truly helpful. Do not let a critique make you feel less than. Do not let a critique make you give up hope in your writing. Even if you never get on to the New York Times Bestseller list, if writing is a part of who you are, then never stop.