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On Criticism

“It's easy to attack and destroy an act of creation. It's a lot more difficult to perform one.” Chuck Palahniuk

On Criticism

Accepting criticism, whether as an art director, a copywriter, a fiction writer, musician, painter, business development executive, marketing manager, or [enter your role here], is a difficult thing for many people to do. It’s not that we don’t want to improve our craft or job performance; it’s simply that criticism hurts.

Criticism points out that which we have either missed the mark on, have gotten wrong, have not worked on enough to have it reach its potential, or, in the worst-case scenario, is criticism that is unwarranted. But we must accept it, or at least listen to it, in the spirit that it is given. We must process constructive criticism if we want to improve who we are and what we do. And for most of us, improving is part of who we are as employees and artists. Or it should be.

Now, ideally, the type of criticism we’re receiving is constructive criticism. Constructive criticism provides us with a positive way to improve upon the endeavor in which we are involved. It provides the context, the perceived issue(s) or problem(s) of what we’re doing and where we’re falling short of expectations, and it does so with concrete examples of how we might go about improving these issues.

Constructive criticism considers the delivery of the criticism (meaning the communication style), offers support to the recipient of the criticism, is specific in terms of how to improve the writing/work product/creative work/performance/management style, etc., and it allows for dialogue and debate.

The goal of providing constructive criticism is to help someone improve something that isn’t working as well as it should; the goal of accepting constructive criticism is to improve what we’re delivering. But criticism, from both sides of the coin, is also to understand the other person’s position in the equation.

As providers of criticism, we should make sure we:

  1. Provide constructive criticism face-to-face.

  2. Offer feedback in a way that is helpful and non-threatening. That is, make sure you balance the positive with the negative, as criticism is often taken as a personal attack.

  3. Be timely with your criticism.

  4. Be specific with your criticism. Offer examples for areas of improvement with examples of how to improve those areas.

  5. Be objective with your criticism.

*There are more things to consider, but the above are a few of the top ones.

As recipients of criticism, we should make sure we:

  1. View constructive criticism as an opportunity to improve.

  2. Listen to all of the criticism before we respond. Don’t take the criticism personally, and don’t interrupt. Try to see it from their eyes first.

  3. Make sure we understand the issue(s) completely, as well as what the expectations are moving forward.

  4. Be gracious with your response(s), and follow through if you believe the points are valid.

  5. Understand that we don’t have to agree with the feedback, but the feedback must be addressed in a professional manner so that a resolution is arrived at between both parties.

Having worked at advertising agencies for years, and having been a writer for even longer, I know how hard it is to accept criticism. As a project manager, I often worked with creatives—art directors, designers, copywriters, and so on—and it was my job to ensure that a certain standard was upheld. That meant I had to offer my constructive criticism on RFPs, RFIs, SOWs, rounds of creative, workflow processes and so on, all before we ever sent anything to our clients.

Not all of the criticism was accepted graciously, but that’ll happen from time to time. Your job is to ensure that you do your best to communicate the criticism as best you can, and as tactfully as you can; the same holds true if you’re the recipient of that criticism.

As a writer of fiction and nonfiction, I'm always learning the craft of writing, but I know what it feels like to have someone say they don’t like my work. “It’s overwritten,” some have told me. “I hate the protagonist,” another might say. “Why would you even write this, it’s pointless,” I’ve heard, to my dismay (this about a piece I wrote for a nonfiction, online publication). Some of the criticism was valid, some of it, in my opinion, debatable. But I had to listen to it and the creatives I provided the criticism to had to listen to it as well. It’s part of the process of working with others to improve whatever goal or product you’re working on.

If you are unable to accept criticism, your job will be that much more difficult, and in many cases, will likely put your job at risk.

Remember, be willing to compromise. Be willing to accept that the criticism might be valid, because constructive criticism is an opportunity. It is a tool to help you improve, and one you don’t want to squander. And it doesn’t matter who provides it—the CEO, a director, or the intern you just onboarded. Listen to it. Process it. Discuss it. But always fail better.

So, what do you do? And what if the criticism being leveled your way isn’t valid in your opinion?

  1. Don’t take criticism personally. Listen to what the criticism is, and discuss it with the person providing it without being defensive.

  2. Ensure that you’re receiving specific examples of why this person or persons believe the criticism is valid, as well as what the proper direction should be, in their opinion(s). This will help avoid future miscommunications and iterations.

  3. Be willing to compromise. Don’t be so rigid in the fact that you’re right when you might actually be wrong. Give the person providing criticism the benefit of the doubt—but hold your ground if you believe in what you’ve done.

  4. Be willing to see things from different perspectives. If you’ve designed a logo, for instance, that you believe captures the client’s requirements, but your colleague(s) thinks it’s off-brand or they disapprove of it for other reasons, try to see it from their perspective. Ask yourself, is it possible they may have a point?

  5. Learn from the criticism that comes your way. Sometimes criticism is valid, and sometimes it isn’t. If it isn’t, argue your point(s) diplomatically and professionally. If it’s a subjective matter, go with your heart, unless you’re at work and someone more senior overrides your recommendation.

“The trouble with most of us is that we'd rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

Norman Vincent Peale

What about taking criticism for something you wrote for pleasure, such as a short story, a novel, or a poem?

The principles for accepting constructive criticism are the same for writers as for anyone else, but with a caveat—creative writing is subjective. Creative writing has no right or wrong, at least not when you’re an experienced writer and understand the fundamentals of writing. But that doesn’t mean that someone providing constructive criticism is wrong, which is something beginning writers often believe.

Writers, even experienced ones, don’t always see the trees for the forest. They become too close to their work, which can lead to tunnel vision. For example, if a novelist has been focused on character, scene, and dialogue, they may, unintentionally, forget to consider plot, setting, or structure. This isn’t to say that they won’t get to it eventually, only that their beta readers or editor(s) are more likely to point out the things they’ve missed, at least in the current draft. The same holds true with the tying up of all the loose ends that may exist within the work.

Constructive criticism in creative writing helps writers understand their writing better. It helps them get the reader’s perspective, which is critical to the enjoyment of the prose, in whatever form that prose is written. I personally prefer the term “feedback” over “criticism,” but we still refer to people who review books as “critics,” so what they’re providing is indeed criticism.

Now, their criticism may be positive or negative; rarely is it neutral. Some writers don’t read what the critics write; others obsess over reviews, in particular the negative ones. I’ll leave it to you as to whether that’s a healthy thing to do.

So, let’s look at constructive criticism simply as feedback. You need feedback to improve your writing. In fiction, a character may not come off as real. A scene may not advance the plot. Dialogue may be stilted. And that’s okay. Take the feedback. Digest it. Figure out if you agree with it, and if you do, make the changes. If you don’t agree with it, don’t. It’s your short story. It’s your novel. You get the final say, and if you don’t want to change something, you don’t have to.

When I was pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Tampa, my thesis was a novel I’d started a decade prior as a short story cycle (a collection of interrelated stories).

The feedback I received at a workshop prior to beginning my graduate studies at Tampa was that the stories should really be a novel. So, I rewrote the stories as a novel. It happened to be about a WWII bomber pilot, so I’d done hundreds, if not over a thousand hours of research, much of which made it into the book. But my thesis adviser told me he thought the war stuff had to go. I was devastated. But rather than push back, I went with his advice.

I rewrote the novel without the war. And he was right—the novel improved. I haven’t gotten it published yet, for other reasons, namely, it’s over 100,000 words, and that’s an issue, at least for publishers. Likely, I’ll have to shorten the novel. But that’s okay, because it’s a novel I’m very proud of, and am willing to work on to get it to where it needs to be.

My point is this: constructive criticism is your friend. It isn’t your enemy. Be willing to accept criticism for what it is—a chance to get better. Don’t be defensive. Some of that criticism will be absurd. It will be off the mark. It will be just plain mean, because there are a lot of jealous writers out there. So be it. Do you. Write the book you want to write. Have your circle of readers. Accept their criticism and keep on trucking. Your writing will thank you for it.

Do you want to receive writing tips, tricks, and publishing news? Yes, I do!

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There is a good chance that, if the person providing criticism has never received the big ugly stick or has such an ego that he's never considered criticism of his work as valid, then he might tell you what is good for his ego and own self-regard, not yours. In my opinion, such toxic judges should be avoided like a plague. Watch the person who is deploying advice and help to another writer. Judge their performance for sensitivity, experience, depth before you ask for their help.

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Agree. There are plenty of writers out there, mostly newbies, who need to learn what constructive criticism is all about. There’s no need for denigrating fellow writers when you can provide value instead.

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