What I’m learning about writing: criticism

What I’m learning about writing: criticism

If you ask my dad how well I respond to criticism, he will not be able to answer you because he’ll be lying on the floor, laughing.

Historically, taking criticism on board has not been my strong point. I am that interesting combination of believing that everything I do is perfect, first time, whilst also being too lazy to ever have a second crack at it anyway. In some ways this has helped me to produce a good quality product on my first go, but in more ways it has made me an intolerable human whom everybody hates.

Like most writers, my goal has always been to have someone, anyone, read my work. Accolades and prize money sure, but first and foremost I would like people to read my work. What I would like is for my stories to head out into the world and have at least some people say that they got something out of them.

That gives me two options:

1. Write a first draft that I think is great, pop it in my top drawer and live smugly because no one has criticised it.


2. Publish anything.

I know nothing about publishing. Well, I know a little more than I did this time last year. But if the internet is to be believed, it is mostly people shouting at each other about how annoying it is that people keep sending manuscripts.

(The internet is mostly not to be believed.)

But publish anything isn’t my end goal, either. Someone clever asked me what I wanted to get out of writing, what I wanted to produce. I want people to read my very best work. I want people to get to the end of my book and tell their cat that it was a very fine book indeed.

That has meant getting help from people I like and trust, who know better than I do.

I know most adults know this already, but the main thing I’ve learned about criticism is that not all criticism is bad. I know! I had always envisaged someone criticising my writing as a kind of ritual physical torture wherein they would reach into my chest, rip out my still-beating heart, pour salt on it and feed it to my least favourite cousin. It’s nothing like that.

Ask the right people, and their criticism will be one of the most valuable writing tools you have.

What I do is send some of my manuscript to my Writers Victoria mentor, and she reads it and then we have a conversation about it. She says, “I really like this bit” and then she says, “I don’t really understand why this happened though.” She doesn’t say, “Whoever told you to write must have really hated your parents and bank balance LOL!”

At the end of the conversation, I have a new set of things to tackle to turn my book into my very best work. I don’t have a bruised ego because this is not my very best work–yet. I have accepted that I won’t get a whole book right on the first pass or probably even the tenth pass. So criticism is just a series of potential improvements and clarifications and better word choices and braver characters and an end result that is my very best work.

I realised that in sparing myself the potential sting of criticism, I would cheat myself out of having my very best work on someone’s shelf, with pages tear-stained and spine broken (hopefully).

So now I love it. I maintain some objectivity, account for some personal taste and am not an idiot about it, but on the whole the decision to embrace criticism has revolutionised the way I write and the way I feel about my end goal of a not shit book.

Footnote: this new-found love of criticism applies only to writing. If you criticise anything else I do, I’ll have you killed.

Lesson 2: Criticism isn’t about hurting your feelings, it’s about working toward the best possible end product.

  • John James

    July 13, 2013 at 3:32 pm Reply

    Yep, that’s what I’ve learned from the few pieces of writing I’ve passed on for review – you really do learn stuff – it’s not about how bad your writing is – it’s about how it can be even better…

    NIce post :)

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 15, 2013 at 5:09 pm Reply

      Thanks JJ! It took me a long time to realise that it was about learning, not bashing, but I’m very glad I did (eventually) :D

  • Sarah

    July 13, 2013 at 9:38 pm Reply

    The best thing I ever did for my writing was Enrol at uni. I have a supervisor who pulls my work to pieces but was very clear from the outset that to take it personally will only delay the process. I’ve cried heaps over all those lovely words I thought I’d produced. Now I just sit back and take on what I think is valid and ignore the parts where they think they know better…which probably means I’m not as accepting as criticism as I pass myself off to be x

    • John James

      July 14, 2013 at 8:19 am Reply

      Yeah, that’s an interesting point – I do think you need to trust yourself sometimes. Not all advice will be valid.

      Personally, when I get some feedback and I immediately think “yep, that makes sense”, then I’ll make the change.

      If I get some feedback that doesn’t make sense to me, I tend to go with that gut feeling and either ignore the feedback, or ask for clarification.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 15, 2013 at 5:12 pm Reply

      Yes! I don’t think that makes you less accepting of criticism – you’ve got to have your wits about you, too, otherwise you’ll never finish anything. It’s not about pleasing everyone, after all.

  • Emily

    July 13, 2013 at 9:59 pm Reply

    Love it. The scariest thing I ever did was hand my writing over to a friend to read. There’s something so personal about it – it’s almost easier to send it to someone you don’t know. Similar to telling your deepest, darkest secrets to your hairdresser, perhaps.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 15, 2013 at 5:13 pm Reply

      Agreed! And I know that my friends are lovely and will probably struggle to tell me that it sucks anyway, so with ALL love and respect to them, I’d rather send it to someone else.

  • Melissa Savage

    July 14, 2013 at 12:50 pm Reply

    This describes the exact reason why I started blogging. So I could get my stuff out there and learn to deal with people reading it.

    ANd last week in another area of life, my podcast, we had some listener feedback that has been really helpful and we have made a couple of changes to make our stuff more accessible.

    • John James

      July 14, 2013 at 1:28 pm Reply

      Well, I for one love your blogging style Mel!

      It has a real authenticity and freshness about it (and everyone reading this post should also go check out Mel’s blog!)

      No pressure Mel! ;)

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 15, 2013 at 5:14 pm Reply

      I think that’s part of why I did it too, Melissa. It’s been a great platform for me in that regard.

      Always nice to have feedback that resonates and can be incorporated into a better end result!

  • Jodi Gibson

    July 14, 2013 at 12:53 pm Reply

    It’s funny, I can take criticism all all fronts except writing. I have a long way to go don’t I? I’m still at the stage where I am too scared and fragile to let someone read my work and have them stomp all over it. I know it won’t be like that, but I need to get past it in my head first.
    Deep breaths….

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 15, 2013 at 5:16 pm Reply

      All part of the hilarious process I think! I got to a point where I felt like I wouldn’t improve without some external input, so it was the only option I had other than staying still. But I didn’t always feel like I wanted to hear the hard truths about my writing (and in a lot of ways I’m glad I didn’t – I don’t think the feedback I would have got back then would have really inspired me to keep writing and improving by doing!).

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