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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Taking Criticism

I have recently begun asking more often for critiques when entering those competitions that offer them.
I used to be afraid of critiques, even though they are always constructive and helpful. But I have learnt to stop being so cowardly and I welcome them now, taking on board the useful responses and suggestions they provide.
My English teacher for A Level taught us Practical Criticism and one of the things I remember her saying is that the word 'criticism' doesn't just mean pointing out negatives. It means a fair and comprehensive assessment, highlighting all that you have done well, along with those areas which could be improved.
I think I have found it hard to face critiques in the past because of the 'if only' feeling.
'If only I'd worked on that story a bit longer/a bit harder/spotted the less successful moments which, now they've been pointed out, appear obvious.'
But now, after feeling a little annoyed with myself and vowing to try harder in future, I nod sagely at the advice given and return to work on the story with a new sense of purpose.
I really like being asked to do a re-write for a magazine. In fact, I absolutely love those.
First of all, this marvellous feedback is free.
Secondly, the 'if only' problem is averted. This is a chance to actually work on the snags and iron them all out, allowing the possibility (though not, of course, the guarantee) that this story could still be accepted.
My mistakes and weaknesses within that story are aired for me, but without the door to a sale already being closed. That is perfect for someone like me, who can take criticism well enough, provided it is given while I'm still able to seize it and make full use of it.
Having said that, it is still helpful to be given the reason why a story has not succeeded and a rewrite is not being offered. Then I can sink my teeth into it all over again and make lots of changes, usually tearing things out and trimming off the gristle. After all, lots of stories find a home after three or four attempts. Maybe the initial rejection fires a spark that relights and relaunches it.
Being long-or short-listed also helps. It shows that the story, while not placed in the top three or whatever, is still worthy of further work and more outings.
So I feel I can take criticism quite well, as long as it is well-intentioned and can be put to good use. If it saves a story from being set aside or turns a mediocre attempt into a worthwhile read, then I am very happy to listen to advice.
The only time I can't take negative remarks is when people make them directly to me, unsolicited, after a story has been published!
Maybe I'm much too sensitive, but I always work on the basis that if I can't say something positive to the delighted author whose work has successfully reached the printed page, then it's best to say nothing.


  1. The biggest problem is that while much professional criticism is helpful, all critiques boil down to the opinion of ONE person. Some years ago, I sent a (now published) novel to a very well-known critiquing company (which was expensive) and she picked me up on (among other things) a single word. This is an editorial problem, not relevant to the work as a whole. But one thing I woud never, ever do is give my work to friends to read, or look at the work of a friend. This places both parties in an impossible position. One of my best friends once showed me her novel. Never again!

  2. Excellent post, Joanna, and full of writerly wisdom. I think it's essential we can take constructive criticism if it's going to make us better writers and lead to sales. Our writing group is great for offering each other such advice/opinions. But Frances makes a valid point about it being subjective and that's where we need to know what to accept and what to ignore. And you're right - what's the point of adverse criticism after a story is published (just laugh it off if you've been paid for it!).

    I love feedback and now have to give it when judging comps (doing one just now) but I always start with the positive and make sure the writer knows this is only my opinion - and even that is geared to the writer hopefully sending it out eventually. And now I have editors for my novels and I love it - I know they ar eonly trying to get the best from me and my writing and I need that!

  3. It is definitely something that writers have to learn to deal with and benefit from. I usually disagree with everything that is said on first read, read it again a few hours later and think maybe they have a point on some items and then come back to it a few days later and get a lot more out of it.

    But, as the others have said, it is still only one person's opinion so it's finding the balance between having confidence in your own judgement and accepting that the views of others might be valid.

    I have also had published stories criticised unsolicited and in public forums, which I found a little unnecessary and hurtful. However, I consoled myself with the fact that I had been writing for a particular editor/readership and had achieved in that, so the fact that some people wouldn't like it was neither here nor there. Still don't see the point of them doing it though - I don't like all of the stories I read in mags but have never felt the need to tell the author so!

  4. Thank you, Frances. You're so right about not showing work to friends. It is a minefield.

    Thank you, Rosemary. I think it's really helpful to start a critique with the positives. It's much more encouraging that way and the mind is then better prepared to accept the rest.

    Thank you, Bernadette. Leaving it for a while and coming back to it is a good idea. I think we can be more receptive when we give things time to settle and be absorbed. And then we can tackle the improvements in the right frame of mind.

    Thanks to all of you for these really valuable and wise comments.

  5. I can take any amount of criticism from editors, but if it comes unsolicited after publication, I find it very hurtful and it's comforting to know I'm not alone in that.

    I completely agree, if I can't say something positive, I say nothing.

    And to be honest I'm amazed anyone can find anything negative to say to you, Joanna, there is something very special about your writing :-)
    Great post x

  6. Thank you so very much, Teresa. Those are such kind words.

    I really appreciate your comment. It's so good to know I'm not being over-sensitive and that we all feel unwarranted criticism is painful and unnecessary. Thank you. x

  7. Balanced and constructive feedback is fine, if you have asked for it or have submitted your work to an editor for consideration.

    But I have recently come to the painful conclusion that some people want to undermine the happiness and sense of achievement that publication can bring. The problem is with them, not with you or your writing.

  8. That's very wise advice. Thank you, Joanne. It's a shame that not everyone feels they can enjoy sharing the happiness of others. It's hard to imagine what they can gain from that.