What Is Criticism?
We’ve all heard of it, and probably encountered it in one form or another during our lives. Whether it’s about our writing, our job, or how we cleaned our rooms when we were kids, there was a time in our life where someone told us that we need to be doing something different. This can feel insulting, degrading, and even damaging to our egos when we’re faced with the idea that people don’t like how we do something, especially if we worked hard on it. Criticism can be one of the most difficult things for artists to deal with, and that’s the crux of today’s message: how to identify, deconstruct, and handle criticism against our creative works.
It’s important to remember that most of the time, when someone gives us criticism, they don’t mean it in a cruel manner. It can be something as simple as “I don’t like how you did this” (destructive) or as complex as, “I don’t like how your character handled this situation because I don’t feel that this would have been the course of action that he/she took” (constructive). So let’s start by taking a look at the two major types of criticism and how to recognize the good from the bad.
Let’s first handle the worst side of criticism: destructive. Now this doesn’t inherently mean cruel or hateful criticism, though it does include that. Destructive criticism simply means that it’s unhelpful and fails to explain why someone has a certain opinion. As stated above, “I don’t like how you did this,” is a form of destructive criticism because it gives the creator no indication of why someone didn’t like something. This is destructive because it can cause the artist to try the wrong fix, or dishearten them into thinking that the whole concept is bad and so they throw out the baby with the bathwater. When it comes to receiving unhelpful or destructive criticism, if the person giving the criticism seems receptive to discussion, try asking them to elaborate on what it was that they didn’t like from their initial comment.
The other side of destructive criticism is the not-so-kind side of things. When someone is intentionally mean or aggressive, this is usually done from a place of jealousy or self-deprecation. Some people only feel better when they’re tearing down someone else. The important thing to remember about cruel destructive criticism is this: ignore it. It’s like that old adage most of us heard as kids, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The same applies here. If a ‘critic’ can’t articulate their thoughts in a way that is helpful or constructive, then they have no place to criticize you at all. I know it can be hard to ignore the people who want to be negative, especially when those can be the loudest, but if you let yourself dwell on their negativity then you’re letting them win. Don’t let them win. In a moment I’m going to go over how to handle this kind of criticism, so don’t worry.
Constructive criticism is either positive in nature, meant to build up an artist or writer, or detailed in how and where a work might be improved from the perspective of the consumer. Much like destructive criticism, there are two major kinds of constructive criticism. The first is what I like to call the ‘ego boost.’ This is when someone tells you that they like your work, but don’t tell you why, or what they didn’t like. Oftentimes this is just your general reader who gets enjoyment out of your work, and isn’t expected to provide more than passive feedback as to whether or not you’re generally on the right track. This kind of criticism (some wouldn’t even consider it that) is nice, but ultimately unhelpful.
The second kind is the very rare but highly sought after: well considered criticism. This is given by the person who dissects your work and understands your characters, plot, and setting almost as well as you do. What makes this so desired is that this person has a completely different vantage point of your work, the ultimate reader. These readers will often leave you lengthy dissertations on your work, taking apart and deconstructing your writing piece by piece. Unfortunately, a lot of writers have a tendency to feel attacked by this, as it can feel like a lot of negativity all at once.
How To Handle Criticism
Whether negative or positive, it’s always important to remember how to take criticism without letting it break you or your confidence. Let’s start with negative criticism again, as that is often what artists struggle with the most. For those used to getting a lot of praise for good writing, it often only takes one bad review or one negative reader to make them spiral into self-doubt.
In the event of getting criticism that provides no explanation of what a person didn’t like, the best thing you can do is ignore it. I mean it. If a person doesn’t understand why they don’t like something, or they can’t explain what it is they dislike, chances are that it’s not your fault. It’s most likely that your work simply wasn’t what that reader was looking for. If you feel that the reviewer might be receptive to further conversation, and if you feel that’s something you would benefit from, you can ask them if they want to clarify their thoughts a little more coherently. This, however, rarely works.
As I mentioned above, there are those who give great criticism who come off as overly negative or aggressive. Some artists feel that even a small amount of criticism is an attack. Unfortunately this can dissuade good critics from giving their thoughts to writers and artists who genuinely want to hear it. It’s important to remember that if someone took the time to provide you with a length, in-depth critique of your work, if they dissected and analyzed, and provided coherent feedback, then it usually means that they enjoyed your work. Seriously! They liked it enough to read over it carefully, to consider it on multiple levels, from plot to characters to settings, and then provide you with their detailed opinions. If they disliked your work, then this would be a waste of their time, and they probably wouldn’t do it. If you find that you dislike their feedback, just try to be polite about asking them not to leave such criticism in the future.
Finally, there are times when it’s hard to tell if someone is being destructive or constructive in their criticism. Someone who leaves a lengthy review but seems to just focus on the negative. Often, a good critic will also talk about the things that they liked, things that they felt the writer did correctly. This is the key to discerning whether criticism is destructive or constructive. If the critique is purely negative, especially if it’s berating or rude, it’s destructive and meant to tear you down. This should be either ignored or approached with caution. If they bring up elements they liked, or places where they feel something was done well, chances are that it’s constructive and meant to be helpful and insightful.
How To Give Criticism
In the event that you want to give someone else a critique of their work, remember what we’ve spoken of here so-far. Explain what you liked and why, and what you didn’t like and why. Be as detailed as you can be. However it is important to remember not to try to tell another person how to write (or do their art), or try to tell them how you do yours. It’s a very tricky balance to master, and every writer will take things differently. Make it clear that you’re doing this because you like what they’ve done so far and that you want to be helpful as a reader.
It’s also important to not give critiques to people who aren’t looking for it. This is actually one of the biggest sins I see from critics as a whole: critiquing artists who aren’t looking for it, or aren’t looking for it yet. Some artists can’t handle heavy critique, or they only want to hear it from certain trusted sources. It can be very damaging to an artist to try to digest critique on something they either aren’t finished with or aren’t confident in yet. As a rule (for myself), unless I see a statement directly from a writer that they want critique on a piece, I ask before doing so. It’s just polite.
Your Own Worst Critic
Finally, I want to talk about the worst critic out there: Yourself. In an earlier post I spoke about confidence among writers and the voices in our heads telling us how bad our work is. Like any artist, we spend more time with our product than any consumer. We were there for every word, every Google search, every typo, every deleted sentence or scene. By the time a writer finishes a book, they’re often sick of writing it.
Remember that the reader wasn’t there for that process. The reader only sees what you put out to them, whatever that might be. They see the fruits of your labor, they taste the apple from the tree, they didn’t see you plant the seed and nurture it.
Don’t let your own criticism get in the way. Don’t let your insecurities trap you in rewriting hell. Push forward, move on, keep putting one foot forward and you will get to the end. Regardless of what anyone else says, regardless of their criticism, regardless of your own insecurities, the feeling when you type that last word is indescribable. Whether it’s your first book or your tenth, you will always be your biggest obstacle.
Criticism will always be hard to take, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a bad thing. When you learn how to discern between good and bad criticism, you will find yourself quickly evolving and growing stronger.
So what’re you waiting for? Hug a critic today!