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Does ‘constructive critiques’ really mean raking the artist over the coals?

I am reposting this as it is written at the website. I hope that is an OK thing to do blogging.

Thank you Carolyn Kaufman

I certainly need to read this myself. A non-sensitive writer? (Or artist, musician, actor, etc.) ?   Is there really such an animal?

I hope this helps someone else as much as it helps me.

Handling Critiques Without Getting Defensive

Posted 5/05/2010 09:00:00 AM by Carolyn Kaufman

When I was in high school, I had an art teacher who liked to espouse the importance of “constructive critiques.”  I quickly learned to hate the term, because as far as I could tell, what it really meant was “rake the poor artist over the coals.”

Though in retrospect I have no idea whether I was really being raked over the coals by someone who was emphasizing the critique over the constructive or whether I was just hypersensitive and it felt that way, I do know two things.

First, it’s never easy to have your creative work critiqued.  Few things are as personal as our writing, especially our fiction. We pour our desires and dreams, fears and vulnerabilities into our characters and plot points. It’s hard to share those things with others; it’s even harder to have people react with anything less than mountains of praise.

Second, for better or worse, critiques from trustworthy crit buddies who genuinely want to help us improve are crucial to both our growth and our success as writers. In other words, having problems pointed out is tough, but that’s the only way we’re going to build a great story.  This is even more true if you hope to publish, because both agents and editors will ask you to make (often tough) revisions to polish your story into a salable state.  (And don’t forget about the reviews after your book is published!  You’ll need a thick skin for those!)

Before we go on to how to deal with the actual criticism, let’s get the problem right out there in the open.

1. Take a good hard look at yourself — are you getting defensive and undermining yourself?

A lot (make that A LOT) of people ask for honest and even brutal criticism, but respond defensively when they get it…no matter how it’s given.  How do you know if you’re doing this?  Give yourself a point for each of the following:
  • You respond to the crit buddy’s comments with “But….” and explain why s/he’s wrong.
  • You say (or think) “That’s going to be too much work” and try to make a case for why the changes don’t need to be made.
  • You decide your critique partner just doesn’t understand your brilliance and declare him or her an irredeemable idiot. (Yes, you get a point for this even if you eventually decide maybe the person isn’t an idiot.)
  • You get angry at the critique partner. Check this one twice if you fire back an angry email, text, or phone call.  Check it three times if you’ve lost critique partners this way.
  • If you’ve ever sent a nasty response to a literary agent for any reason following a query, just go ahead and give yourself 20 points.
  • You don’t take other people’s advice…ever.  (Also give yourself a point if you only take advice that tells you how to make something that’s already brilliant better, eschewing advice that targets things that aren’t working.)
  • You make a big deal about how bad you feel about the advice until your crit partner backpedals or tells you s/he was wrong….about any and all negatives.
  • Your crit partner/s used to give you advice that was hard to take, but now it’s all vague, halfhearted, and generically positive.

The more of these you answer yes to, the more defensive you are.  Give yourself a break if you only do one or two of these once in a while — we all feel defensive sometimes.  But the more of these you’re doing on a regular basis, the more defensive you are, and the more you’re probably undermining yourself, your growth, and your ability to reach your writing goals.

2. Decide — honestly — what you really need: praise or growth.

Some writers genuinely need praise and attention from other writers more than they want to grow as an author.  That’s okay.  If what you really need is praise, then focus on communities where the feedback is mostly positive.  You probably won’t grow into someone who’s regularly selling your work, but that may not be what’s most important to you.

Sure, publication is the brass ring, but the more people who read your work, the more you’re opening yourself up to potential negativity.  Because no matter how good you are, there are always going to be people who hate your work…and are happy to tell you so.  So if what you really need is praise, focus on enjoying the writing and getting praise!

If you decide that growth is really what you want most, move on to the next point!

3. Admit to yourself how hard it is to take criticism.  (I know, it sounds like we’re in AA here.)

Often, we try to sweep unpleasant feelings under the carpet to avoid dealing with them.  But experiencing them can help us deal with and get past them.  So go ahead and admit to yourself — and your crit buddies, if you need to — that sometimes it’s hard to take even constructive criticism.  I bet they’ll tell you they feel the same way!

Now that we’ve established the problem, let’s look at how to deal with it.

1. Realize that a critique of your work is not a critique of you.

Like I said above, it can be hard not to take crits personally.  But nobody — and that includes people like, oh,  Stephen King — started out as a brilliant writer.  Yes, some folks (like King) have a definite head start when it comes to raw talent, but everyone needs some work to get it right.

For example, King was determined to get published from the time he was a teen.  He began sending short stories out and, like the rest of us, started racking up rejections.  He put a nail in the wall, and each time he got one, he stuck it on the nail.  Pretty soon the nail fell off the wall and he had to put up a big fat spike instead.  But when he got feedback from an editor or a mentor, he didn’t feel sorry for himself or swear to give up writing — he buckled down and figured out how to be a better writer based on that feedback.

And we all know how that turned out.

So separate critique of your work from a critique of you.

2. Even if you can’t help but take critiques personally, realize that the criticism (and the bad feelings that can accompany it) won’t kill you.

People who choose to pursue clinical or counseling psychology need to be aware of their own biases and the messages they’re sending others verbally and nonverbally.  But when you start grad school, you’re rarely as self-aware as you need to be.  So guess what happens when you get there?  That’s right — they start pointing out every little mannerism, bias, and trait.  Worse, they videotape you so they can point to the behavior and say “That is a problem.”  If you can’t see it, they play it over and over — often in front of a crowd — to force you to acknowledge the problem.

It’s enough to make anyone want to crawl into a corner and curl into a fetal ball.  But you know what?  Even in such a situation, you start to realize that you can survive it.  Eventually, you realize that the fear of taking in constructive criticism is often worse than actually facing it head-on and dealing with it. Sure, you might have some mannerisms or vocal tics that need work, but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a person.

The same thing is true with writing.  You may have a lot of trouble not feeling bad when someone doesn’t like your character or the twists your plot took. You may want to throw everything out the window when someone believes you need a major change to make the story work. But that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you as a person. It just means that your vision isn’t coming through as clearly as you’d hoped.

Still, sometimes we need to feel the sad and frustrated feelings before we can look at things more clearly. So if you need to, go ahead and feel sorry for yourself for a day or two, but then it’s important to pack up your pity party and get down to business.

Criticism can be tough to take, but you CAN take it.  And the more practice you have at taking it gracefully, the better you will get at it.  Promise!

3. Rather than getting overtly defensive, ask questions and find ways to improve clarity.

Now that you know that it’s okay to experience the bad feelings — they won’t kill you — you can have them and then move on.  One of the best ways to move on is to look at places your crit buddies see problems and find out more so you can make good changes.  Try asking questions like:

  • What made this [plot point, character motivation, etc.] confusing?  What would help me make it clearer?
  • Is this a problem you’re seeing consistently through the story/novel?  What skills do I need to hone to correct that problem?  Can you recommend any resources that might help me/have helped you?
  • Could you suggest ways I might fix this problem?  Examples might help me see possibilities.
Remember, the goal in soliciting crits is to make your story better — so follow up on anything that’s unclear!

4. Keep your eye on the goal.

Remember, growth and change are usually difficult.  But if they get you closer to a treasured goal, it’s all worth it!

So…what have I missed?  How do YOU deal with constructive criticism?