The Writer’s Guide to Taking Critiques

Originally posted on Medium.com

If we as writers suffer from any collective phobia, it’s the fear of criticism. Creative types in general are the caste most vulnerable to personal insecurity because we base our entire sense of self-worth — not to mention our economic survival — on society’s perception of us. As if that weren’t enough pressure, getting defensive towards criticism does nothing but discredit our careers even more. And for good reason: no one wants to invest in a writer who can’t be trusted to improve.

The most intuitive alternative is to act gracious about criticism, such as saying “thank you” to each critique and then revising. This would be easy for “objective” problems like spelling, grammar, or word choice. But what are you to do if the criticisms you receive don’t all agree with one another, or come into conflict with your writer’s vision? Or what if they interpret certain tropes in your text differently from one another or your original intention? There’s no use trying to please all these contrasting opinions; it’ll only confuse and frustrate you, make you look like a spineless hack, and still not satisfy someone out there.

So what are we writers to do with the cacophony of critiques we’re all bound to receive?

Think the Comments Over

On certain message boards for writers, among of the most contentious recurring topics are the so-called “writing rules”. If you’ve ever seen dicta like “cut out adverbs”, “tell less, show more”, or “avoid the omniscient point of view”, you know which rules I mean. Debates over them usually pit either devoted followers who want reliable correctives for bad writing against the dissidents who champion literary freedom and diversity. Here I sympathize with the rebels more than the loyalists, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say the original rules should be guillotined away. They can be useful as long as you realize they’re more like guidelines than laws and should be examined with a critical eye.

Take, for instance, the rule saying you should avoid synonyms of “said” whenever tagging dialogue. The premise goes that “said”, by virtue of its bland vagueness, doesn’t obstruct reading flow as much as more specific, colorful tags like “chortle” or “grunt”. I understand it came about to discourage pretentiously mining the most obscure synonyms, but I for one have never felt a single jolt whenever a writer spiced up their retinue of tags. But that does mean I never listen to the axiom at all when writing dialogue; instead I see it as a warning against going overboard with tag synonyms rather than an all-or-nothing commandment. It is understanding the logic behind the rule that matters the most.

This principle applies not only to technicalities of prose like diction, sentence flow, or word choice. Opinions on a story’s plotting, character development, and setting all warrant the same approach. The feedback you receive from critics can provide vital clues for improvement, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide whether they lead you to your chosen destination.

Everyone Has Different Tastes

Even if you were to succeed in getting your spelling, grammar, and other conventions of quality writing to hit the mark, don’t expect this to please all your potential customers. Meeting what some might call the objective standards of good writing does not guarantee you’ll cater to the subjective preferences that your audience has.

They say that beauty lies in the beholder’s eye, and it’s true for writing as well as people. Some readers like their prose tight and fast-paced while others prefer to meander through paragraphs of poetic descriptions. Some like their villains to be rich and powerful, some go for petty thieves in run-down neighborhoods, and still others prefer their antagonists to be just as sympathetic as the heroes they disagree with. Some might swoon over vampires or werewolves while others grunt with bored derision at those paranormal romance cliches.

And then of course there are the genre considerations. Some want to read profound literary insights into the human condition based on the day-to-day lives of white American suburbanites, or the inspiring struggles of poor urban Bangladeshis. And then you have dudes like me who like fantasy about sexy warrior women versus dinosaurs (which is precisely my favorite subject matter for my own stories).

If there is a solution to this second problem, it is simply to write the genre, subject matter, or story types you would prefer to read yourself. Writers who have the most fun when they’re writing are the honest, genuine kind that readers appreciate the most. Even the ones not so partial to what you write about will respect that, and the ones who share your enthusiasm for those topics can become your loyalest fans.

People are Offensively Crazy

But what are you to do with readers who object to your work along moral or political grounds rather than the way you tell it? In other words, what about those so-called “Social Justice Warriors” and other critical crusaders across the political spectrum?

Someone rumored to be Albert Einstein himself said that there are two things that are infinite, the Universe and human stupidity, and they weren’t so sure about the Universe. I would modify the statement by saying it is craziness that is infinite rather than stupidity; there is a certain level of creativity that you need to invent the silliest ideas imaginable. But yes, history has shown humans are very good at doing just that. And they are also very good at taking offense to the greatest variety of things imaginable.

Remember in 2014 when Matt Taylor, whose team landed the Philae probe on a comic, wore that “objectifying” shirt of buxom action heroines on TV and caught the wrath of certain self-proclaimed feminists— never mind that the shirt was a birthday gift from a female friend of his who drew that stuff regularly? And never mind that people outside the Third Wave feminist subculture might not make the connection between sexy women (and ones armed like soldiers, no less) on a guy’s birthday shirt with reducing women to a subservient “barefoot and pregnant” status. On the opposite tip of the political spectrum, you had Michelle Obama being called racist because she said “black girls rock”, even thought it was clear to me that she was uplifting a historically marginalized subsection of the US female population. In both cases you had people throwing a fit because they saw an offensive subtext where everyone else did not.

For that matter, everything that humanity has ever imagined is offensive to other humanity. For some, it’s interracial dating, gay marriage, or the Theory of Evolution. For others, it’s the lack of African characters in Disney’s Frozen, or men sitting on the subway with legs held apart (so-called “manspreading”, and yes, there are activists out there who believe this is a serious problem). It wouldn’t surprise me if water was offensive to someone out there. Avoiding any offense to anyone out there is a physical impossibility. It out to be a law of physics: If it exists, it will offend somebody.

Not to mention there are the ones who invent their own subtexts to read into even the most innocuous things, for who knows why…Of course, if someone does take offense to your writing and you value their opinion, it’s wise to listen to their perspective (bringing us back to my first point in this guide). But if you come to the conclusion that their reasoning is flawed, or that their feelings go against your artistic vision, then don’t let those individuals hold you back. For all you know, they may not even represent the entire group they claim to speak for, but rather one militant and vocal subsection.

In a One-Sentence Summary

Listen to your critics’ arguments, but then think those over and decide whether they’re compatible with what you want to achieve.

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