Or How to Give and Take Constructive Criticism…

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time handling criticism. Who wants to be told that what they have created, what they have poured their heart and soul into, isn’t perfect? Not me. I want people to praise me using as many adjectives meaning greatness as they can. For some reason, though, they never do.

I think a big part of the reason why we don’t want to hear bad things about our creations is that oftentimes people don’t know how to give constructive criticism. Typically, it’s just plain old criticism. One can experience a bit of a power rush when pointing out other people’s weaknesses, mistakes, typos, bad hairdos. I think we are biologically set up to prove ourselves more fit and capable than other creatures. Plain and simple, people are hard-wired to want to say, “Nah, nah, na boo-boo, stick your head in poo-poo.”

Sad, but true.

So let’s start with how to give constructive criticism. If you are ever in the position to read someone’s writing or to work as an editor, you might want to keep these suggestions in mind. They are simple, effective, and make it more likely that your suggestions will be followed in the end.

1. Start with the positives. For example, “I enjoyed the story. I love how you do descriptions and your characters are interesting.” Start with the things you liked about the work. You want to encourage people to listen to you, not want to throw a rock at you.

2. When you introduce some of the issues you had with the author’s work, phrase it like this: “I had some ideas or suggestions for you, if you’d like to hear them.” Not… “Let me tell you all the things you did wrong because doing so makes me feel strong and god-like.”

3. Give them a chance to defend themselves after each suggestion – we all need to do that. I have found myself saying things like, “Yes, well I meant to do what you’re saying, but the baby was crying and the water was boiling over and I just forgot.” Listen to the writer, say, “I can totally understand that,” and then move on to your next point. Empathy is a beautiful thing, and may save your life at this point.

4. If you can, give concrete examples or alternatives. Writing an entire book (heck, even an article or a poem) can be an overwhelming process and it’s easy to lose yourself in all those words. Try to help the writer out by giving page numbers, names, specific ideas. From personal experience, I know that hearing criticism can raise your blood pressure to the point where all you hear is a buzzing noise. People will tune you out if you only point out where they went wrong.

5. Be prepared for people to not take your advice. Pretend you’re a parent.

Now, How to take criticism (be it constructive, or otherwise)…

1. FIrst of all, bear in mind that we all have a hard time hearing criticism of ourselves or of anything related to ourselves. That’s a fact of life. But you’ll never improve if you can’t listen to what others are trying to tell you about your work. You’re just going to have to leave your ego at the door.

2. In the beginning, when you are at your most sensitive, only give your work to someone you trust and who is going to be supportive of you. When your self-esteem is stronger, try people who are going to say what they mean, even if it isn’t what you want to hear. If you’re like the rest of us, you’re going to have to improve whether you like it or not. Find someone who will really help you do that.

3. Keep in mind that ‘constructive’ criticism is meant to help you. Try to keep an open mind and take lots of deep breaths when you are hearing it. People don’t always get their wording right and may not be the most diplomatic in their delivery, but they are trying to help – most of them anyway. Learn to weed out the good stuff and ignore the rest. Don’t ignore everything, though. People are typically only going to mention an issue because something about it bothered them. You need to hear that. If you don’t like their suggestion for changing it, you can come up with your own. But usually, it’s something that does need to be addressed one way or the other.

4. Make your own list as you listen. This will keep you focused and help you better understand what the other person is saying. Ask them questions. But not in an attacking manner! Not… “How could you have missed that bit of information? I wrote it in that one line twenty pages ago!” Like I said, people are going to point out areas that trouble them. So if they didn’t catch it the first time, you didn’t make it clear enough. Deal with the problem and move on. At least that problem is relatively easy to fix!

5. GIve yourself some time to absorb what you’ve heard before diving into editing, or before outright dismissing everything the person said. Time can actually make you see what your friend/editor was trying to say, when you’ve moved past how they might have said it.

Improving ourselves isn’t an easy process, but a necessary one. Most of us aren’t natural writers who are going to get everything right the first time around, as hard as that can be to accept. I’ve actually had my 8-year-old point out gaps in my story. If that isn’t galling, I don’t know what is. But he was right, and I made the changes. Several years ago, my younger sister was trying to tell me that I needed to improve on my descriptions. She said to me, “Okay, I want you to describe what we’re doing right now.” So I started to do that, and halfway through, she stops me and shows me, by coming up with her own description, how inept my attempt was. That was very hard to take, especially from a younger sibling whose butt I can still kick into next week if I wanted to. But…she was right. I had a hard time hearing the criticism, but eventually I admitted to myself that it was a trouble spot and so I worked on it. It might have taken me several years to hear what she was trying to say, but eventually I got the message.

In conclusion, the only one who suffers from not being able to take criticism is you. I’m not asking you to become someone who can take any hit and not care. I’m just saying that maybe you might be able to take something away from the experience other than a desire to hurt someone. Somewhere in there might be just the right thing that helps you turn the corner in your writing. You just never know… It’s better than eating worms, anyway.