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.