I woke up to one of the harshest reviews I’ve received about my writing to date. It was a doozy, let me tell you. If you’ve ever put yourself out there artistically and endured a scathing critique in response, this article is for you. It hurts, I know.
It hurts a lot.
First came horror, then the cannonball of dread started sloshing around in my stomach. They hated it. My writing is rubbish. I gulped and kept reading the same savage critique of hours of hard work and imaginative labor on my part; the slash marks, the contemptuous disdain of my artistic intent in favor of qualifiers like “banal” and “cliche.”
Sadly, my immediate thought was: If my work is this bad, I shouldn’t even be writing.
Thankfully, this was a privately sought-out review on a public forum, and not my editor or a trusted beta reader. That doesn’t change the fact that I had some serious emotional and mental labor to undertake in order to dig myself out of a nice, little, pity-shaped hole the critique had constructed for me.
Dear friend, I hope this never happens to you. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. And yet, I know as well as you do that for better or for worse, harsh critiques come with the territory. Part of releasing our work into the world is being willing to accept the opinions that come along with it. Evolving as an artist involves taking enormous risks.
Let me share with you what I believe true constructive criticism looks and feels like. I am fortunate and blessed to have established a working relationship with a wonderful editor over the past two years. Her editing model exemplifies the heart of true criticism, as defined:
criticism (n.): the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.
Balance is key. What initially attracted me to my editor was her ability to highlight which aspects of my writing “work” and more importantly, why. That way, when she exposes weaker or faulty elements (and why they aren’t working), I already have the assurance of knowing there are specific strengths to my writing. It isn’t all bad.
A good editor or critique partner knows this, or at least they should. Not all of them do, though. What are you supposed to do when your precious, mewling, still-in-its-infancy word baby gets raked over the coals and hacked to pieces? Take shelter in your blanket fort? Cry for days? It’s tempting, believe me.
I prefer to spare you from either of these less-than-ideal fates by offering the following tips.
- Accept that pain is inevitable, a fact of life lived with other humans. No one escapes. This may sound harsh, and indeed it is, but bear with me. A well-known writer phrased this idea in terms of boxing. Boxers train to fight. They don’t set foot inside the ring afraid to get hit. If they did…well, they probably shouldn’t be boxing. If you ain’t in the game to win, get out of the ring. He’s right, in that sense. Unfortunately, we have to prepare ourselves to take some hits if we’re brave enough to put our work out there in the first place. That’s life on planet earth with other human beings, and not all humans are nice. (Shocking, right?)
- Recognize the reviewer’s bias. Easier said than done when you’re freshly wounded. However, it’s a point worth considering as early as possible, so you can shake off the rejection and move on with your writing life. Maybe they were taught to critique this way. Or maybe they’ve had someone treat their work similarly and they feel like doling out what they’ve endured. Possibly they’re just plain mean, angry, dissatisfied with life, narcissistic, you name it. They’re coming to the table with pre-programmed baggage as a writer, none of which is your problem or (possibly) lack of talent as a wordsmith.
- No one has the right to make you feel like you shouldn’t write. I repeat, NO ONE. (Block them if they do.) Neither of my previous points were intended to make you feel like you should continue to subject yourself to unfair or overwhelmingly negative critiques. This is not what true critiques are intended to be or how they should make you feel. By all means, if you have an editor who treats your writing this way (God forbid!), find a new one. The same goes for beta readers or other reviewers, including family members. If they cannot give you a balanced opinion, block them or request that they not ask to evaluate your work.
- Cultivate readers/reviewers who can judge your work in a balanced and fair manner. You know when your work is being treated fairly because you won’t experience that gut-wrenching feeling of despair. Yes, the piece may need an entire rewrite or painful surgical cuts may be required, but you’ll know that your reviewers saw what you intended to do and they’ve fueled you with the means to go about achieving that in a better, more effective way. They are interested in connecting you with your work on a deeper, more authentic level than the one you were able to portray.
- Take the time you need to learn from your mistakes. Stay open-minded. After the initial shock of a harsh critique wears off, you may glean a good deal of useful information from it. Give yourself the time and space to identify what that might be.
The primary lesson I learned from my tough critique was this: write from the heart. In all honesty, my piece was purely experimental. I was writing in a genre I don’t characteristically read, but on top of that, I wasn’t deeply emotionally invested in the particular story I had chosen to tell.
My readers picked up on that. There was a false note about what I had written and it came through in the manner of critiques I received about the work.
When I dealt with that realization, the spectrum of advice I received shifted into perspective for me. Although some of the reviewer’s thoughts were harsher than they strictly needed to be to serve as good critique, the take-home message was the same: I wasn’t that into my idea, and it showed.
So, I’m heading back to the drawing board for that particular story. Anyone else with me? Got any tough critiques you’re having a hard time swallowing?
Drop me a line. I’d love to chat about getting past creative “bumps in the road” on your artistic journey!