Critics and how to react to them
Updated: Apr 11, 2019
Every writer has faced critics at least once during his or her career. Usually, it's a lot more than once - the more pieces you have written and the more famous you are, the more judgement you get. Let's admit that in most cases it is disconcerting to hear that your work isn't perfect, as you have spent lots of hours, days and perhaps years on it, and also because all creative people are compassionate and therefore vulnerable. Critics are bitter and can crawl as a poison deep in our consciousness, causing doubts and self-destruction. Some people are strong enough to ignore them and continue doing what they do, but, unfortunately, not all of us have such skill. Sometimes it can be good to be criticised, as critics can help writers grow. But we will get back to it later.
There are two types of critics: constructive and destructive
Let's start with the first one. Only a very skilled and a knowing person can judge someone's work constructively. By this, I mean that he doesn't only highlight what needs to be improved in the manuscript, but also explains why this should be done, and how these changes will affect the work and make it better. It also includes discussing what was well-written, because this person wants to support you. Such critics are very valuable for every writer, as they give a view from the other person's perspective. At first, maybe it's not too pleasurable to hear, but after some time, when the emotions calm down, and you think it all over, you might find some real advice in it. There are very few people who can do it constructively, and we have to be grateful to them, as this is one of the essential things allowing writers to grow. It is also crucial to consider such critics and use them in our interest in future. We have to thank those who take their time to go through all the strengths and weaknesses of our manuscript/book/poem/short novel/research/etc.
Examples from my experience:
- "Your work is interesting, but I wasn't sure what you meant by this sentence/paragraph/chapter. Please rephrase it".
- "The events in your book aren't connected, which makes them lose the logic. Could you please check once again what happened in this paragraph/chapter/part?".
- "I have read your manuscript, and I find it very interesting. But there are few things, which caught my attention..."
- "I think this should be fixed or re-written. I have made some notes on the pages. Please check them, because I believe they might be useful".
- "I checked your work, but I think there are some mistakes in dates of historical events. Can you double-check them once again?".
Sometimes it can be rougher, but still, constructive:
- "This paragraph makes no sense - first your character does X, and then X, which isn't logical".
- "I read your work, and sometimes I had an impression that the language you wrote it in isn't your native. You better rewrite it", with additional notes, where exactly it was in the text. This happened to me when I wrote research in my language, but used materials in other languages, and, perhaps, got lost in translation.
Who can be considered as the ones who can give constructive criticism and useful pieces of advice:
A person with significant experience in your field of work; another professional writer, who also went through the same thing; an expert on the subject; a supervisor; an experienced reader; and similar. Someone, who has an authority to advise, and whose words have meaning and value.
For beginner writers, it can turn out to be very stressful to give your works directly to a professional, even though it's the best and fastest way to improve. Because then you might get a fear of being destroyed by someone "who knows better". What if this person's words will make you feel so miserable that you won't want to write ever again...? These doubts and thoughts can be real, and every beginner writer has to be ready to face them. There are several ways how to prepare yourself for it.
When you start, every single judgement is taken very personally, and therefore can be painful. In this case, I recommend starting with the family members and close friends, whose words won't hurt you as much as strangers'. The more people read your work, the more fixes you can include in the manuscript before giving it further to someone with authority. Start preparing yourself to critics in a soft way because earlier or later you will need to be ready for the serious ones, which at the same time would be most valuable.
Now let's talk about destructive criticism
This can be compared with throwing rotten tomatoes at someone the crowd didn't like back in the days. Could this help you improve as a writer? - No. Can it tell about your weaknesses? - No. Such judgements are very superficial and unprofessional. But can they still hurt you? - Yes.
Examples of destructive criticism (from the experience of my colleagues and my own):
- "Very poorly written book".
- "Why is this person even writing?!".
- "This isn't research - more like yellow pages".
- "I didn't like it!".
Just a week ago I got this comment on one of my latest books, a biography of Wallis Simpson:
- "Why are you judging them*?! You cannot judge them! Who are you - a famous politician, or a judge?! Have you ever loved anyone yourself to judge them?! Have you lived through what they did?!".
*Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII.
This particular comment made me smile, because it was so out of context, so pure and untutored. I just ignored it. But if to speculate on my answer to it, what actually gave me a right to judge characters I wrote my massive research about? - First of all, I'm a historian with a Doctor's degree, which provides me with a right to have my own opinion. Secondly, I know this person didn't read my book, because I didn't judge the characters, allowing this to my readers instead. My side was only to provide facts in an enthralling storyline. And thirdly, the person who wrote this comment just had a nickname with no personality, which in the end made him or her no-one to me. If this person were at the same education level as me or has done many kinds of research, maybe I would consider it more seriously. But when I don't know who wrote it, and what psychological state this person has, I won't allow myself to get upset over it not even for a minute.
Here we get to the next important question: how to identify who criticised our work, and shall it be taken seriously or not?
There are several options of who can throw "rotten tomatoes" at us: enviers, competitors, mean people who like to judge others, internet trolls, those who crave to assert themselves at the expense of others, and similar.
So when you get it, it's better to ignore it. If this particular person didn't like your work, well, that's not much of a deal, because every writer has his audience.
Just remember that you can't please everyone!
But if such critics hurt your self-esteem anyway and you start doubting yourself as a writer, look deeper into this person's activity. Check if he or she has written negative comments before? If yes, and there are only bad ones, then you have nothing to worry about - this person likes to make others feel awful. "Who attacks first - protects himself".
Another thing to keep in mind is that certain people enjoy humiliating others and their work, which makes them feel higher than the others. Who does it? Either those, who never have created anything in their life; or those, who once were hurt, just like you, and now want to revenge.
Those, who are creative and like to develop not only as professionals but also as individuals, won't spend time throwing "tomatoes" at others, because they also know how it feels and don't want it for anybody else.
Hope this article was helpful, and now you know how to qualify and how to react to critics!
Please leave a comment below if you had any similar experience and how you worked on it. And, of course, if you have any questions on the subject.
Have a nice day!