How Do You Handle the Big “C”? (Or What Do You Do With Criticism)
Personally, I handle criticism very badly. I cry. I tell myself I’ll never write again. I beat myself up for being such a poor communicator—or at least I used to.
Then I learned five simple words: “S/he is not my audience.” It’s as simple as that. My writing can’t possibly appeal to every person in the world, so this is someone my writing doesn’t appeal to.
Unfortunately, if you are in a group getting critiqued, you may find several “someones” who aren’t your audience. What typically happens in a workshop or writer’s group is that people feel it is their duty to find a flaw. If everyone figures out a different flaw, or if the group sees a flaw, but doesn’t know how define it, then you will get more criticism, possibly than warranted, and some of it may be hurtful, some of it confusing, and some of it wrong. I mean, have you ever jumped on the bandwagon when you weren’t sure yourself and agreed with someone who seemed to know what they were talking about?
The best way to handle criticism and negative comments is to know your own work so well that you know when someone is giving you good or unhelpful feedback. And even good feedback isn’t helpful if it derails you from your story.
Good feedback that takes your story in a different direction than you are interested in writing can cause you to lose interest in the story or even create writer’s block. If that happens, I suggest looking at your story and saying, what if it didn’t happen that way, what if it happened this way. Sometimes taking a fresh approach will reignite the idea you wanted to write.
So how do you know what you want to write and what will derail you. By knowing your story and being clear on what you are trying to say. Look at your theme repeatedly throughout your story development and see how you can tighten it, make it more specific. Look at your theme from different angles: as a premise, as a dramatic question, as a logline, as a brief synopsis, as a full-page synopsis. The more you write and develop your ideas, the more you understand what you want to say. Each time you rewrite and strengthen your theme, you get closer to the core of what you want to say about the world, about life, about humanity, about why cats sometimes love dogs, about whatever you are focused on.
How Do You Evaluate Comments
Let’s go back into the writing group. Sherry loves your story, Mack hates it. You’ve set your story in Fresno. Sherry suggests you move the setting to London—more people will be intrigued by a glamorous setting. Mack is sure it needs to be in a small rural town no one has ever heard of—you can create more mystery in an unknown setting and change the details to anything you want. They both have other ideas, Sherry’s from how to make it even better, Mack for improving it. However, they both agree that your main character would not spit on the sidewalk no matter who was standing there.
What do you do with all of this? First, it’s your story and maybe you don’t know why it takes place in Fresno, but the thought of moving it out of that setting feels wrong in your gut, however both Sherry and Mack have good points. And they probably do, they might even write a great story if they set it somewhere else, but that’s their story, not yours. There’s something in Fresno that matters to you, you have to keep writing about it until you figure out what that is and then use it.
Sherry and Mack both agree that you’ve misread your character. One of two things has occurred, you did misread your character and the character you thought you wrote about isn’t the same one they are reading about, or you threw something in to surprise the audience, but it doesn’t work organically with the character you’ve created. However, Jane loved the spitting on the sidewalk, it was so unexpected. How much stock do you usually put into what Jane says? If not much, this may not be the time to start; if a lot, then maybe the problem is that you haven’t completely setup the character to your readers that you have in your head.
Margo, along with several other people are telling you there is a problem with the way your characters are acting in the fourth chapter. Maybe if you change their attitude you can fix it, but everyone sees something different as the problem in chapter four. The motivation isn’t there. You’re missing a pertinent scene. Why do you have so many or too few characters? Something’s missing. You’ve included too much. No one can be specific or explain it in a way you understand. This means they may not know what the problem is, it just doesn’t work for them. You are going to have to keep working at it until you figure it out. However, too many people do a complete rewrite instead of tackling what could be a much smaller problem. Sometimes the issue is consistency or it may be a logic problem or maybe you haven’t set up the scene in such a way that the events are believable, which could be done with a couple of well-placed phrases.
Basically, when you get feedback you need to evaluate what that feedback means.
- Is it someone else rewriting your story with their own ideas?
- If so, unless it feels like a direction you want to take, no matter how good an idea, ignore it.
- Is it a general consensus that you keep hearing?
- If so, then you need to take a long hard look at whether you are being clear and communicating what you thought or if you are missing a key element in your writing.
- Is this negative comment an attack and/or the person usually cynical?
- If so, then maybe s/he isn’t your audience.
Thank you Nancy, that was great!
For more than 25 years Nancy has invested thousands of hours of studying writing including two graduate degrees: a master’s in Professional Writing (MPW, which is a multi-discipline approach to writing) from the University of Southern California and an MFA in playwriting at USC’s School of Theatre. She has received numerous awards for her writing and some of her stories have been read on public radio. Nancy has also studied writing with several successful, award-winning writers. Her book, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages, covers the full creative writing process. She’s published more than 130 articles and been editor of two print and two online publications. Presently Nancy is academic editor of the Graziadio Business Review, a business journal for the Graziadio School at Pepperdine, and currently teaches screenwriting at Pepperdine University to undergraduate and graduate students. Her website is http://nancyellendodd.com.
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