Criticism is supposed to be beneficial, it’s supposed to help you grow, but sometimes it’s just a knife attack, plain and simple. Some of the worst offenders are disguised as friends, sometimes they are relatives. They claim to be helping you – smile, smile (stab, stab).
How can you tell? How can you tell if a critic is being honest or being spiteful? How can you tell if they care about your progress or have a hidden agenda?
There are ways to tell, but first you have to stop yourself from responding automatically.
Writers are sensitive beings. For the most part, we are introverts. We put our souls onto paper, we pour our hearts into words… and then, when we think it’s good enough, when we’ve fought down our natural shyness and conquered our inner fear of being found wanting, we show the world. The whole point of our existence is to share those precious words, we are driven to do it.
But one voice of criticism and we’re straight back to looking within, searching out our inner ‘failure’, blaming ourselves – and never seeing what’s really there. We cringe, we duck for cover, we weep into our pillow or get drunk or leap off a bridge.
So, what I’m saying is, don’t do any of those things. Stop. Think. Is there something else going on here when that ‘friend’ claims to have your best interest at heart – smile, smile (stab, stab)?
First thing I ask myself is, is the criticism balanced? Did the person say something like, “Oh, your characterization is so strong, and I love your villain. This is great. Not sure about the sex scene. That first one worked really well, but the second one… can you get more oomph in it? Okay, I couldn’t get into that guy’s head and you lost me on that last dialogue bit. That needs work, but, geez, this is coming along great!”
Or did the person say something like, “Your characters are sh*t, didn’t like it at all.”
If the comments you’re getting contain only bad things with no support at all for the good – warning.
Another thing I ask myself is, is the choice of words controlling? What words are they using? Are they filling you with fear of the future if you should dare try? “The agents won’t touch this, it’s crap.”, “They’ll laugh at you”, “They’ll tear this to pieces”, “Don’t give up your day job.”
Then there is the third question. What is their body language saying? Are they enjoying putting the knife in – smile, smile (stab, stab)?
Sometimes their words are not about your work at all, but about controlling you. Sometimes a ‘friend’ doesn’t want you to change, doesn’t want you ‘different’ or ‘better’ than them, and quite simply doesn’t want you to succeed.
Yes, I’ve had critics exactly like this – people I once thought of as friends. I’m not sad about it, I’m glad I found them out – people who try to block you, to tear you down or to hamper you in any way, are not friends. Those who ARE trying to help will buck you up and encourage you MORE OFTEN than they will point out flaws.
There is genuine helpful criticism out there, but there’s an awful lot of the other sort, too, people who just want to kick the legs out from under you for reasons of their own.
So, before you accept the wounds they give you, before you dive back inside yourself loaded with blame and guilt – take a closer look at those words and their delivery and make a rational decision about their usefulness.
Once you start doing that, it’s amazing how much their damning words lose the power to hurt or control you. Suddenly, you can see through the words – and the person who uttered them – they simply can’t hurt you anymore. It’s not like you’ve developed armor, it’s more like you’ve grown not to need it. You’ve gone from delicate writer and “OMG, they think I suck!” to confident writer and “Oh really, thanks for that.”
It works. I have fun with it now. “Oh my,” I’ll say and try not to laugh. “I’ll look into that.” When they show disappointment because you didn’t burst into tears, you know you’ve scored. What’s more, they start leaving you alone – I haven’t heard from my willful detractors for ages.
Hi Allyson, while I completely agree with you, it could be said that what you advise is easier said than done.
I believe the ability to filter and deal with critisism does come with some ‘life experience’ behind you, read that as maturity/age/experience. I feel that many of our younger writers have failed to progress (until their later years) due to the very thing of which you speak, a lack of self assursance, (something that only maturity will bring) and an over reaction to the naysayers.
Example: How can a 22 year old describe in graphic detail a steaming sex scene without any actual research????? (and show me a normal 22 year old with ‘that’ experience :p)
Hi Artie, 🙂
Now that’s very true and I agree with you about experience. My intention here is to make writers of any age realize that not all criticism is true, and how to spot the difference, at least some of the time. The realization alone can be a great liberator. Read: I wish someone had told me that, way back then.
Skill and writing from experience definitely improves with age. Things I felt pretty smug about back then will see me cringe now. Nevertheless, most of the criticism piled on back then was given for false reasons – and that’s what I’m talking about.
After I posted, I considered the “But what if it’s true” angle. How can you tell? I have people around me I trust and because of that, I listen to everything they say, good or bad (they are usually right). An immature writer would still have strengths and weaknesses, they should still get a balanced opinion. Just as a 22 year old probably can’t write a steaming sex scene, their 22 year old friends and readers won’t know that, and what’s there is probably hot enough for them.
As for laughing off criticism, yes, definitely easier said than done. It takes a bit of backbone and plenty of practice. What I want writers to do is stop automatically taking all criticism aboard without examination. When I look around writers’ blogs, I see a lot of hurting souls out there. Sometimes, realization is enough to take the blinkers off.
The thing about manipulation is, once the manipulator is spotted, their tricks don’t work anymore. It fixes itself almost automatically. So, I’m hoping writers will look at who does the criticizing in their lives, and weigh up whether that’s all these people do. The genuine ones will give praise, too. The genuine ones will also use words carefully chosen not to hurt.
I also know of writers and other creative people who remain vulnerable and hating themselves all their lives – simply because they never had that realization.
Does that clarify things a bit?
Cheers, mate. 🙂
Mmm, i think this is an inner thought. what should i do, i am someone who easily say something, but now i will think deeply first before make words 🙂
Mmmm, i think there will be always “friends” like you mentioned above. i do find easily in work environment. months ago they really gave me a heavy headache, even heavy heartache. But, now I’m trying to take people bad comments about me more easily. i couldn’t change them, i just simply change the way i see them, their bad comment.
My older sister told me once that we didn’t live by their bad comments, we live just because we want to live our life to the fullest. it doesn’t mean now bad comments don’t hurt or affect me, but when it all comes to me, i remember what my sister said or i just sing Mariah Carey’s song “Can’t Take that away from Me” LOL.
Hi Yuna! 🙂
Yes, that is exactly it. Some people are cruel in their words and there can be many reasons which have nothing to do with you, like maybe they had a bad day, or they are angry at something else, or jealous, or spiteful. So many reasons. As you say, you can’t change people, but you can change your own way of looking at things. When you do that, you take control back into your hands and they can’t hurt you the same way anymore.
Your older sister sounds like a wise woman. 🙂
I think so, about all the reasons you’ve mentioned above.
Yes, indeed, we love to share so many things so many thoughts 🙂
Yep, people are a strange mix. It would be worse, maybe, if we were all the same. Right now, they give us lots of surprises. 🙂
Yess, i wouldn’t be fun 🙂
I agree with you completely. There is a reason it’s called constructive criticism. I have met people who actually cared about me and gave the their honest opinion. Yes, it hurts sometimes when people don’t like or approve of your work or actions, but if they have valid reasons backing up their opinions, then I don’t have a problem with it. However, there are also people who just want to shred your work to pieces, without justifications and reasons, and they get pleasure out of giving you one more stab wound. Those I try to ignore now. Unless a person is going to help me make my work better in some way, I don’t want to listen to them.
I am so with you on that. It was a hard and early lesson for me to find that many people I thought of as friends were not. Some relationships are toxic and manipulative and it took quite some time to recognize the signs. I no longer accept games like that in my life.
This is a great post, something that needs to be said as often as possible. I wish I had read this at 18. I loved writing at 18 but frequent, “friends” (stab, stab) were suggesting /I try something else. Here I am, back where I started, doing the writing that flows through my very blood. Whether it’s good or not, writing is something that wants to come out of me, and I was a fool to let anyone talk me out of it. Good on you for passing on this wisdom. It’s something that needs to be said to those just beginning with writing.
I went down the same road, people telling that I was never going to make it with what I wanted to write (and what I DO write – science fiction), so I should give up and follow what’s popular. Often the suggestions included Mills and Boon. Now I’m sure Mills and Boon are great, in their own way, but it’s not me! As for criticism, yes – stab, stab – If I objected, I was told it was good for me and that I’d better get used to it (smirk, smirk).
I think writers are particularly vulnerable to these sort of attacks because they put their souls on the line and are very quick to feel guilt or blame. That makes them an easy and “safe” target because they won’t see the cruelty happening to them, they’ll just believe the words.