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Accepting Criticism and Applying It

It’s common in this day and age to view writing as something anyone can do, and do well, with a modicum of effort. The number of memoirs from first-time writers is at an all-time high in the submission buckets of publishing houses everywhere. Self-publishers and the American ideal of democratic accomplishment encourage the hobbyists: don’t let the elitists convince you that writing is hard– prove them wrong! Well, I’m going to take an unpopular stance here and say only a small fraction of those who write are writers and only a fraction of writers write well.

I think anyone can learn to write, don’t get me wrong, but I think only a small number of people is willing to do the learning. Learning, unfortunately, involves thinking critically about what’s on a page. Learning means feeling and being vulnerable. Learning is hearing that a scene has failed to mean anything to a reader; learning is missing the mark completely on a verb and having no clue how to fix the problem. It’s hard. Writers invest little bits of themselves in whatever they produce– to say nothing of the time, effort, and patience it takes to put all those words to paper in the first place. It’s a doomed writer, however, who believes that this personal investment imbues a draft with artistic value, or to an audience, any value at all. First drafts have little to do with art; first drafts are the outline of art. The real art happens in revision, in the judicious application of criticism.

We’ve all seen the new writer who hasn’t yet come to understand what a boon criticism is to his or her draft. They huddle in corners of peer review groups, lips trembling, clutching at copies of their draft and refusing to let go. They shove unedited first drafts into your submission buckets with a cocky, “YOU’RE WELCOME, EDITOR,” and call you a bitch when you send the rejection letter two weeks later. They don’t care what anyone thinks, because they just know they’ve done it right, and if someone doesn’t get it, well, that’s not their fault.

Accepting criticism, learning that it’s given in an effort to help you hone your craft and connect with your audience, is just the first step. The second is learning what criticism to apply and when. I have many dear friends who, in my humble opinion, write on a level I’m unlikely to equal. One of them posts frequently on Persephone Magazine. What I admire about this friend is not just her ability to sit back and accept criticism, but also her ability to decline– politely– to use it. There’s not a scrap of arrogance in that decision for her; she weighs each criticism, maybe even toys with her draft to see if it fits, but ultimately, she thinks critically about the effect upon her draft as a whole and makes the final call accordingly. I’ve known this friend for years and have seen her writing improve in direct relationship with her ability to accept and use criticism.

A writer must consider many variables when weighing criticism: will this suggested change alter the voice of the piece; is the criticism a difference of opinion or an actual flaw; does this suggested change make the meaning clearer to the reader? Simply nodding your head and doing everything someone suggests isn’t good enough, because you hold the power and the responsibility, you get to take all the credit and all the blame. Using criticism means not just hearing it, but dissecting it, thinking critically about it, absorbing and exposing oneself to it. If it were easy, everyone would produce Works of Awesome.

But for the writer who knows better, criticism is a means of comfort, a path to healthy pride in the product of a great labor. Honing a tool is an inherently violent process– cutting, pressing, pushing– but a dull tool does nothing for its bearer.

Do you remember the first time you submitted a piece of writing to criticism?

 

 

 

By Michelle Miller

Michelle Miller is a twenty-something blogger, cook, freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, Washington. She’s a feminist trying ever-so-hard to embrace her spaces, conventional or not. She looks forward to numerous bad hair days, burnt cremes, a soapbox or two, and maybe (just maybe) a yellow polka-dot bikini in the years ahead.

10 replies on “Accepting Criticism and Applying It”

While I agree with Selena, below, that it can be dangerous to use qualifiers to separate “good writers” from others who are bravely in the early stages of their self-expression as writers, I get and value the distinction you’re making here. The difference lies in the writer’s purpose: are you writing for self-expression, to exorcise some personal demons? It doesn’t make you NOT a writer, and it doesn’t make you bad at what you’re doing: self-expressing (which is a vital cause and not to be belittled as lesser than the pursuit of writerly craft for craft’s sake). But if your purpose as a writer is to pursue craft and to write for the art of it, not just to say something but to say something extraordinarily well, then criticism, education, and ass tons of practice are all essential.

Maybe it’s unfair to classify one writerly goal as being associated with “good writing” and the other as not; maybe it’s more to the point to discuss things in terms of well-developed craft versus well expressed intentions/emotions. I have read a number of memoirs, for instance, that do not stand out as well-developed artistically, in any significant way, in my opinion, but that have still moved me and expressed well what they were trying to express. I am not breathtaken by their phrasing or word choices, but am deeply touched by their story. (Actually, in fiction, too, I often find good storytelling does not always accompany great art, and vice versa.) I think there’s a place for both (and happy the reader who encounters them together), but I think your article speaks more to the writer in pursuit of great craft: an admirable goal, one I hunger for myself. Your advice in this regard is spot on.

Also, you’re very flattering and I love you dearly.

That’s so true.

I think I learned more about the mechanics of writing by subjecting a draft to a jury of my informed and thoughtful peers than I did by studying grammar and composition.

Granted, the grammar and composition knowledge didn’t hurt, but you know what I mean. ;)

My peers were never afraid to let me have it with both barrels, though, for which I’ve always been grateful. There’s really just no better way to find out what works and what doesn’t than hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth.

I teach composition (not creative writing, though) and the thing I try to impress most on my students is the unending process of reading, thinking, writing, and revising. We read with an eye for the details. What makes it work? What would I change? And I’m allowed to say I’d change it, even if the piece we’re reading is by someone “better” than I am–today I told my students I think MLKj uses too many cheesy metaphors in the “I Have a Dream Speech,” for God’s sake, as if I could produce something nearly so moving and like I have the right to criticize his work–but that’s the point. You learn to write well by writing but also by thinking critically about writing even when you’re doing other things. Just like your friend who’s the dancer is always fooling around with his posture or doing isolations while waiting in line, people who are passionate about writing are seeing methods, topics, and examples all the time. I try to teach them that they are writers–we all have to use tons of writing every day–and we can be good at it if we think critically about our process.

That was only a little relevant, but I just taught for today so it was all ready to spill out in response to someone talking about writing.

Absolutely!

Whenever I’ve struggled with a mechanic (for example, how to gradually shift tenses), I’ve always relied on seeking it in action in my favorite novels. Reading the theory of how to use a mechanic never helped so much as seeing it in action.

And you’re right. MLKj did use too many damn metaphors. ;)

Ah the big “C” – I have always dreaded it. I used to behave badly after getting it. But then when a teacher tells you in front of an entire class that you “Write like a mad woman” – yeah you tend to react badly.

These days, I think I am my own worst critic. But I welcome feed back. So, any one that feels like it, please feel free to comment and give me some constructive criticism the next time you read one of my posts.

I respectfully disagree with you on a few points.
I don’t think it’s possible to be a writer who sends work into the public eye without a healthy amount of hubris, and that’s okay. I think we live in a fantastic era where anyone can try their had at writing, to see how hard it actually is firsthand, instead of sitting on the sidelines. I’m also not sure it’s possible to empirically define a “good” writer. Does that mean they have all the required degrees saying they know where to put the semi-colons and the difference between canon and cannon (I just learned a few weeks ago, btw.)? Or that they know how to tall a good story and engage an audience?
I’d also counter that fair writers become good writers with practice. Taking criticism is one thing, spending hours and hours and hours doing something, anything, is going to show improvement. Some of our Persephone writers had never written a single word for the public eye before they started, and all of them get exponentially better the more they write for us. I’ve been writing longer than you’ve been alive, and I get better the longer I do it, and more objectively self-critical.
I think the writer umbrella is big enough to cover a lot more people than it does, and the former teacher in me doesn’t see how encouraging more people to try their hand at writing is anything but a great thing. Nobody gets hurt, everyone becomes better at communicating, we all get to see the world through a wider and more diverse perspective. Win win.

I can agree that confidence is golden. If we all lacked for confidence, I think we’d have given up long ago. I like to think the ideal is humility–a realistic appraisal of our abilities, strengths, weaknesses, and accomplishments. It takes strength to withstand criticism, you’re right, especially in an art defined as much by rejection as by success.

I don’t mean to imply that poor writers can’t improve, however, because I don’t think I’ve ever met a great writer who didn’t start out as a poor one. Rather, my point is that some poor writers never recognize that they require improvement, or that writing takes practice, and rigorous revision – especially in those first few drafts.

If we agree that the purpose of writing is to communicate some thought, idea, emotion, or what have you (this is my premise, at any rate), then exposing it to the critical eye of an audience helps to ensure that the intended communication is taking place. It’s hard, especially for new writers, to figure out the nuances of manipulating/exploiting readers. A reader will respond differently to “I stopped. Turned.” than to “I stopped and turned,” for example.

I think writing non-critically for therapeutic reasons or just to get words onto paper is fine; I get a little grumpy, I confess, when some writers act surprised that this unexamined writing might require revision before it ever gets published, as if the fact that it meant so much to them in the writing makes it innately literary (or even comprehensible) to me.

But maybe I’m just a stick in the mud; it’s entirely possible! :)

Theres this really great Linda Barry quote, where she is talking about the process of any creative endeavor – ” you have to give birth to this baby and then ride it all the way to the bank”.
I think it speaks a lot to any creative process-writing, art, music-etc- its a constant evolving and eating crow and being able to listen to criticism and filter it however necessary. Its hard though – its something you created, so naturally no one can ever see as much of the “preciousness” in it that maybe you do, so its understandable when people wring their hands at the idea that maybe their work does need improvement.
I think criticism is good – it helps you figure things out that maybe are too obvious for you to even notice them. One of the best pieces of criticism I ever got was from an older friend who had been writing for a while – let your sentences breathe- whoever is reading your work doesn’t deserve to be talked to, but as if talked with. It blew my mind as a writer who wanted to jam pack every sentence with as much information as possible that instead of thinking what it would be like to actually read my work as someone not inside my head, that everyone would be at the same table I was.
I sometimes wish their was more criticism from commentors here on P-mag – I wanna know what the people want and then apply in a way that works for all of us.

“One of the best pieces of criticism I ever got was from an older friend who had been writing for a while – let your sentences breathe- whoever is reading your work doesn’t deserve to be talked to, but as if talked with.”

I love that. I’m the same sort of writer – prone to long sentences packed with details. I once had a reader tell me he was running out of breath before he got halfway through my clause!

I’ll be sticking that bit of advice you shared right up on my wall, I think.

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