On Seeking Constructive Criticism (or “Shall I Be Wistful, or Shall I Progress?”)

Hi Folks,

Note: I ran this originally in September 2014, but it was so much fun to write I thought I’d share it again. So here it is. Other than some reparagraphing to make it more lisible, it appears as it was written originally.

I sometimes experience an exchange of emails with a writer who asks for a critique of some writing with the proviso that I understand he or she is highly sensitive. Others ask for a critique with the proviso that I don’t tear their writing “to shreds.”

Okay. That’s fine with me.

First, I don’t tear anyone else’s writing to shreds. I just read it and report on what I find. As for whether a writer is “highly sensitive,” that’s really neither here nor there.

I’m a professional fiction writer and instructor. I will never go out of my way to hurt anyone’s feelings. That isn’t my job, it’s a waste of my time and it isn’t productive.

But neither will I lie to a writer about her writing just to spare her feelings. That isn’t my job either. It’s not only a waste of my time, but it’s counter productive rather than helpful. In fact, it actually harms the writer.

If you come to me with a piece of writing and tell me up front, “Hey, I just wanted to share this with you,” chances are I’ll say “Thank you.” Then I’ll read it when I get time.

After I’ve read it, I’ll thank you again for sharing it with me and probably say something like “Good story.” I won’t say that unless I mean it, but neither will I go into full critique mode and tell you what I believe would upgrade it from good to excellent.

If you approach me with a piece of writing and ask for a sample edit or a critique or my honest opinion, that’s what you’ll get.

I won’t try to tell you what you “have to” do, but I will tell you honestly what I believe would improve your writing and why. (That “why” is what’s missing from most amateur or unprofessional critiques.)

At such times, I automatically assume you asked for a critique so you can take my suggestions under consideration. I don’t expect you to accept them automatically. But I do expect you to decide rationally whether applying them will improve your work.

But what if you approach me with a piece of writing and ask for a critique AFTER pointing out that you’re “highly sensitive” or that you “have very thin skin” and ask me to “please be gentle” or “please don’t rip it to shreds”?

Well, then I will assume what you want is praise, empty or otherwise, and I won’t waste my time offering an actual critique. I’ll still accept your work. Then I’ll glance over it and say something like “Ahh, what a story (or essay or poem)!” You will then take that statement as you like it.

If I offer an honest critique and it’s negative in the slightest, I will have hurt your feelings. If I offer a less-than-honest critique, I’ve wasted my time and yours, plus I’ve given you false encouragement.

The point is, none of this has as much to do with developing a thick skin against criticism as it does with getting over yourself. You aren’t all that special, Pookie.

Look around. Most writers are highly sensitive, which is to say, we’re human. We ALL enjoy hearing praise, and we ALL dislike hearing criticism of our work.

The difference between the amateur writer and the professional writer, as with the difference between the amateur and the professional ANYthing, is that the amateur focuses on the emotional drama, and the professional focuses on deciding whether applying the criticism will improve the work.

In my own version of the perfect world, we would all place a higher value on honest constructive criticism than on empty praise.

I mean, we’re all adults here. If you want unbridled, unmitigated, unconditional praise, you should show your work to someone who would rather lie to you than hurt your feelings. (This is the role of your mother or that nice aunt or the siblings you get along with.)

If you want to improve your work, I recommend you eschew empty praise, acknowledge and then dismiss as a fluke any honest praise, and seek out criticism as something that at least has the potential to be a learning experience.

What I recommend you DON’T do, under any circumstance, is fling one forearm across your brow, grow wistful to the point of melting into the floor, and throw a do-it-yourself pity party to indulge the unrelenting psychological and emotional pain of having received what you requested.

That really isn’t a good look on anyone, and least of all on an aspiring professional.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

3 thoughts on “On Seeking Constructive Criticism (or “Shall I Be Wistful, or Shall I Progress?”)

  1. Great, straight to the subject article, Harvey. You are so right about people, regardless of how thick or thin skinned we are, would love to always have a “perfect, wouldn’t change a thing” written at the top of their story. First off that ain’t gonna happen, and if it does change critique partners or groups! If you can’t take it from someone you know and like then it’s gonna be a thousand times harder to take it from your editor, the copy editor, or a reviewer! Straight on, Harvey. Have a great day, Phyliss

  2. Harvey, I learn each day. What you say is so true. I’d rather have one honest critic which can make me a better writer than ten praise phrases reinforcing my ingrained bad habits. Well said.

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