Some Thoughts About Receiving Criticism

Statistically speaking, you have visited this blog! I know this is a brash assumption on my part, and I apologize for thrusting it in your face so determinedly, but I think you’ll find the science supports it. Given that you’ve done so, there’s a good chance you’ve read my header text, I.E. those lines that begin ‘Hiya!’ and rapidly go South like straggling geese in November. You probably read the line, “Please avoid derogatory remarks or otherwise unpleasant commentary, however I welcome constructive criticism” and if so you probably snickered at that where the general tone of silliness on my blog otherwise failed to move you.

Because, let’s face it, that’s hilarious. A writer ‘welcoming’ constructive criticism. I say that up there to try and invite it, because I do accept that I need it, but I don’t truly welcome it. Nobody does. We writers are good with constructive criticism in the abstract sense. “Oh, of course I’m okay with people pointing out flaws in my work,” we say. “How else do I get better?” And to some extent, we mean this. But we don’t really welcome feedback. Like ill-tempered ancient Greeks accepting passersby as guests because, “hey, Zeus might be watching over this hobo”, we allow criticism into our lives briefly because we have this feeling that we’re duty-bound to tolerate it. But few writers are truly okay with criticism, and I’ve yet to meet one who’s actually happy to receive it, because criticism means we’ve messed up.

Again, all writers are intellectually aware that we’re fallible human beings (unless you’re not, oh current reader, in which case I apologize for my backwater planet biases). On a rational level, we understand that we will make mistakes, and that our execution will be imperfect even when it’s technically functioning. There’s always room for improvement, after all. But on an emotional level, all writers are passionate about what they do. Yes, even I, on those days (in the months, more like!) when I allow this blog to stagnate and go barren. Even then, I’m still passionate about my writing. And because I’m passionate about it, I don’t like receiving criticism. I know I will never write a perfect piece, but I always want my work to be good enough that people feel like nitpicky assholes for criticizing it. I’m still uncertain whether this is purely artistic or is actually somewhat spiteful. Knowing myself as I do, I’m going to go with the latter.

So, even as I’m writing something and already beginning to see problems with it on an intellectual level, I’m priming myself emotionally to defend it. Because here’s that catchprase again: writing is a very subjective art. Not so much as painting or sculpture, because writing is also a technical skill with rigid definitions of competency. Grammar, spelling and correct use of words are not open for debate, they are immutable. A writer may choose to deliberately flout these rules for artistic purposes, as some Modernists did (looking at you, Gertrude Stein!), but does so with the implicit understanding that their writing fails the ‘competency’ test. But when it comes to which correct word we use, how many adjectives we use, sentence length, which we use of the multiple correct word orders in our native languages, and many other core components of creative writing, anything that we can get away can be good writing. Or at any rate, decent.

And sitting in the back of every writer’s mind is that notion. “If I can prove it’s working, then they can’t criticize it.” This isn’t necessarily wrong. There is room for authors to explain how things are working within a piece, but it’s pretty cramped. If you’ve ever seen the inside of a submarine, that’s about how cramped. You can move forward or back a few feet, that’s it. The reason for this is simple: writing has to be able to stand on its own. This is also why I despise the tendency of English professors to stress how authors intended particular symbolic ideas. Look, you’re welcome to take Jackie’s sudden KO by a pear to the head as an ironic reversal of the way humans are thrust suddenly into life and sentience, but don’t try and pin that on me. I just thought it was funny for someone to be knocked unconscious by a pear, and Jackie was the most annoying character at that stage in the plot.

Bringing this back around, sometimes writing has to be explained because sometimes readers are just being obtuse. That ‘sometimes’ appears at the same frequency as a cute cat video that doesn’t instantly conquer Youtube, but it exists. But other times, and indeed most of the time, we as writers are the ones that need to shut up. Just because we hear criticism doesn’t mean we have to adjust those points. If we determine that the critics are coming at it from the wrong direction, then we ignore their advice. But we do this after giving it a sober evaluation and determining whether that advice is really the best fit for the piece at hand. It’s irresponsible for writers to let the knee-jerk reaction spread to the rest of our bodies. Yes, it’s natural to feel that little flash of irritation when someone starts picking apart our work, but it’s a little flash. It can be suppressed as easily as any other silly craving. And we’re better off if we do.

My advice for this is simply to cultivate the write mindset. When you see someone is giving you feedback, tell yourself to be patient. Give them time to fully lay out everything they’re saying, and try to embrace it with a positive attitude. Assume that what they’re about to tell you will be useful, even if it’s useful because it’s so far off-base that the bewilderment caused by trying to connect it to your writing helps you to evaluate your work with a fresh mind. This isn’t as easy as pushing down a split-second emotional reaction, because I think a lot of us are conditioned by our studies in writing to assume that criticism which happens outside of a workshop environment won’t be useful. But it’s still perfectly doable. I don’t know if I’ve done it, but I’m pretty sure I can, and that’s why I’m telling you to do it first. Because I’m a cynical asshat, and the only thing I do on this blog is waste your time with my drivel.

That’s not how I actually feel, but it’s the literary way to put things. You don’t have to be a great writer, you just have to make people think you are. Then you can criticize them.

7 thoughts on “Some Thoughts About Receiving Criticism

  1. I see where you are coming from, but I couldn’t criticise someone else’s writing, but I’m not worried about someone doing it to me as long as they do it nicely. It will make me a better writer hopefully.


    1. Well, thanks! I’m not surprised to hear that. Art is a personal thing to begin with, and then the more time you invest into a given piece, the more that intensifies. Actually, I’d suggest that applies to just about anything humans do. We like getting attached to things we work on.


  2. This is so true.
    It’s like chefs that invite critics to their restaurant and get offended at a bad review.
    It’s not what you wants but it’s what you asked for.
    The thing with writing is much like eating. You would go on a diet if you felt you were eating too much but, at the same time, you don’t want someone pointing out that you’re eating too much (Rude.) In theory however, you would like someone to be concerned about your welfare.


    1. Thanks much! I haven’t heard that analogy before, and I have to say I love it. Although if I could live on writing the same way I do on food, that’d make my monthly budgeting a lot easier!


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