First, I’m going to be clear that I have no problem with critics. They serve an important purpose and are really helpful. I’m inspired to work hard because of the fact that there are people out there whose job it is to analyze my work. Without critics, an artist might be tempted to stagnate and refuse to evolve. The words of a critic can help an artist grow as long as they develop the thick skin to take it.
So, this post isn’t to declare war on critics, but to give some advice from personal experience with critics. Though, I might let the defensive claws out from time to time.
Early on, I had thin skin for criticism, but the worst part was that I also had a skewed concept of what a critic was. I thought every person who criticized my writing knew my style and path better than me. It was a really bad attempt to make everyone happy and it resulted in a series of mistakes. I became confused with my own writing, my characters didn’t feel right, and my style steadily became a horrific mess of suggestions that buried my natural tendencies. It was only last year that I managed to clean up everything and get back to the style that I was comfortable with. All of this is on my head.
One of the ways to get an aspiring writer used to criticism is the round table or class discussion. This is when everyone in the group or class reads an author’s submitted work between sessions. At the next session, the class spends 15-20 minutes discussing the work while the writer silently sits there. You’re not included in the debate and you get no real chance at rebuttal. Trust me when I say that you get in a lot of trouble if you try to get into the debate. This is a form of peer review, which I believe is designed to toughen your skin. Honestly, I still don’t like this method of criticism. It’s multiple voices at once instead of a solitary critic, so there is arguing over various points. I saw this method fall into chaos many times and a lot of writers simply shrugged the entire event off. Again, I understand the method, but it isn’t that direct and focused. I remember talking to a few classmates after their time in the hot seat and they were annoyed that the class focused on some trivial section or grammar, but never mentioned anything about how the story or characters were. It can be frustrating if you think the entire experience was a waste because you didn’t learn anything other than people are jerks. Still, the benefit is that you get a taste of being criticized and unable to defend yourself, which can make you a tougher person.
My advice is to listen to a critic, but don’t always follow their suggestions. They are masters at their trade, not masters of your story and characters. A good example of this is one criticism I got years ago for Beginning of a Hero. The part that stood out in the review was “it would be a guilty pleasure if the book had more teenage angst”. This is good advice to help a blossoming writer focus his book. Unfortunately, this writer didn’t want to go in that direction and angst didn’t really fit any of the characters. Angst shows up in later books, which a critic wouldn’t know. They live in the now while the writer lives in the past, present, and future. So, this put me in a difficult spot where I wanted to respect the critic’s opinion, but I always didn’t want to go in the wrong direction with my characters. I remembered my teenage angst and it wasn’t something I wanted to put my characters through simply to appease someone. It’s a difficult decision when you are given advice by an expert, but you feel strongly against using it. My suggestion is to follow your gut on characters and plot, but grammar and spelling should be listened to with a more open mind.
To be fair, I will tell a brief story of a time a critic helped me. I had published Beginning of a Hero and a few people had read it. A problem was brought to my attention. Stiletto was introduced, showed up at the school, and . . . vanished into the stables never to be seen again until near the end. The critic mentioned that it was hard to believe Luke actually cared about Stiletto since the dog was never around and Luke never thought of him. This led to what I called the ‘Stiletto Editing Session’, which was a week long mission to make sure Luke’s furry friend got the attention he deserved. In this case, the critic made me realize a mistake and I was able to fix it.
Now, this post might be more story than advice, but the handling of a critic is very important for any artist. If you take it too personally, you’re going to be spending a lot of time angry and fighting. If you ignore every criticism, you’re going to miss some very useful advice that can help you grow in your trade. It is an act of balancing your own style with the helpful advice from people whose job it is to help you grow. Always remember that the critic is doing their job and, typically, is not trying to be mean.