How to use and respond to criticism: a sweary guide for writers.
You will get criticism whether you want it or not. As a writer, or any creative, it will be a central part of your existence. A central and very painful part of your existence. So how to you deal with it? How do you use it?
As I write this, I am in the morning before the Sunday night reading of my new play. It will be followed by an audience Q&A. That’s right, the audience will give me feedback right when I most want to slit my fucking wrists. So this essay isn’t a mere academic exploration. It’s a survivors guide. How do you take criticism, and make use of it, without killing yourself and/or burning your work?
Constructive Criticism: The Goose the Lays the Golden Egg?
I’ve written about how to give good feedback on someone’s writing. Good feedback starts and ends with praise. It is detailed, positive advice for how to make your work better. It focuses on what the reader understood, how they felt, and how this ties to particular parts of the work.
Almost nobody offers good constructive criticism. It’s not their fault. Constructive criticism is hard to give. I flattered myself I’m pretty fucking good at positive criticism, yet I still descend into impassioned, destructive rants which in my head mean I’ve been really interested in the work but for the writer sound like everything is darkness and they should kill me or themselves or both.
So, if you meet someone who gives anything like constructive criticism you should make sure that person never has to pay for alcohol in your company ever again[i]. But, like the perfect guy or the perfect blow job, let’s assume you will never meet that person and move on.
Because ALL criticism can be constructive. If you learn how to deal with it.
Everyone who hates you is right.
This isn’t just me giving rein to the voices in my head. Those bastards have been in charge for ages.
Everyone has a right to how they feel. If they don’t like something, then they’re right not to like it. BUT – and this is important – the reasons the give for not liking it may be shit.
Example: My writing involves a fair amount of gay. That offends some people. Some people will be offended by that for reasons I find disagreeable[ii]. Now, if I were writing for some big American TV channel than maybe I should swallow my disagreement (maybe!). But I’m not, so, sometimes, they should fuck right off.
However, and it’s a big however, if I assume everyone who disagrees with me is stupid then sometimes I will miss out on something important. Just because I’m on the side of the angels doesn’t mean I’m always (or even often) right.
So, you need the detail
Don’t defend yourself. Don’t deny their criticism. You asked them for the critique (unless you didn’t. In which case you may feel justified in telling them to fuck off. I wouldn’t though.) They didn’t ask you to critique them. So, take a deep breath and start out by shutting the fuck up.
Something triggered their feeling ing about your work. And it will be something specific. You just have to find it. Don’t assume they were triggered because they are stupid. What you need to find is the moment in the piece where they felt that emotion. We’re all about emotions. Find the trigger.
First, say thank you
If you agree with the critique, say thank you.
If you disagree with the critique, take a deep breath, shut down the desire to defend yourself, and fucking well say thank-you. (Wo)Man up.
Then ask for details.
What made you feel this way?
When in particular did you notice this?
How did this make you feel?
What in particular did you find confusing?
How did this make you feel?
Don’t get angry, don’t explain to them why you think they are wrong.
You want to get to a point where you can tag somewhere on your script/manuscript with a question – “is this confusing?”, “does this joke land?”, “would Fred use this sort of language?”, “is this bit going to piss off the homophobes and is that what I wanted?”
I’m going to come back to this last one: seriously, resist this temptation to tell them they’re wrong because they’re awful human beings. If you’ve misunderstood then you’re just being an arse. And don’t ever let a feeling of moral superiority ruin your opportunity to hear another voice. Imagine if you can re-write that scene so your homophobes (or whateveraphobes) feel the love. Find what makes them uncomfortable then make it work better. Reach higher, even and especially if they can’t.
Or don’t. It’s your call. But being self-righteous won’t make your work better. Everyone has a right to how they feel, even if they’re wrong. Write the writing so it changes them.
What if they’re really being a dick?
Yep, you may find out that the reason they don’t like your piece is because they don’t like you. You remind them of their evil abusive father. They think science-fiction writers are dumb. It turns out you slept with them in 1997 and forgot. Their real reason to be there is to show off their massive-status-writer’s cock. You know, normal stuff.
First, say thank you[iii]. Seriously. You being grown up makes you look sexy in a “whoops I broke a glass let me clear that up” sort of way[iv]. Second, fuck em. You’re great. You’re a writer. That’s in-built sex appeal. Once you know they object to it because they are utter arse-heads, then you can forget about it.
Third, try and get the bit tagged which triggered them and look at it. They may be onto something even though they are dicks.
Finally, say thank you. See above.
At the end of the day, if they’re dickheads they’re they have to live with it. Don’t waste more time on them.
What if they ask you a specific question about how great you are?
At last, an opportunity to wax lyrical about how you first wanted to be a writer when you were eight years old and borrowed your mother’s blue typewriter.[v]
That’s cool, answer the question. But don’t waste the opportunity to turn it back on somebody who is genuinely engaged with your work. Get it turned around, as quickly as possible, to an open question for them. “How did I come up with that character? Well, blah blah blah. What did you think of them? What was your favourite moment with that character? Why?”
You still need detail even when they praise you
Blind praise is dangerous. I loved it, you’re so funny, would you like to come back to my place later I have much wine and Star Wars DVDs. Great.
But your work won’t be improved by wine and Star Wars (wow, I think I just bit my own tongue.)
Ask for details. Don’t let praise be an excuse to stop learning.
But seriously, you asked to be hurt
If you ask someone for feedback, they will find something wrong. Honestly, they’ll feel they’re not doing it right if they don’t find something wrong. So, respond calmly. Take a deep breath. Keep it about the work. Not that night in 1997.
You will get to a point when you’ve had enough, and you can’t take it anymore. You’ll be able to tell because you get defensive and stop asking questions. That’s ok. Take a deep breath. The hurt you’re feeling is normal and doesn’t mean you or your writing is bad.
If you can get out of there or move on the conversation, do it. Then go get a hug from someone you love.[vi]
Don’t be scared to ask people what their favourite bit was, or what made them laugh, or for some positive feedback. Don’t be too disappointed when they move on to something that bothered them. We’ve been trained to think “criticism” means “say something bad.” Hold on. It’ll be over soon.
What to do afterwards
Make sure you have everything down and FOR GOD’S SAKE DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING YET.
I recommend getting drunk. This is my solution for most things.
If you edit straight away, you will overreact. Some of your feedback is from readers, whose feelings are absolutely correct but whose recommendations for change should probably be ignored (they aren’t writers, they’re readers, listen to their feelings not their advice). Some of your feedback is from writers and is really about how they would write it, not what you would write, so should probably be ignored (except where they point out technical stuff, that’s useful, otherwise, feelings, feelings, feelings). Some of your feedback may be from editors, in which case it should all be taken very seriously, but first get yourself in the right frame of mind – and if they’re any good they know how to help you do this.
You need to come back, later, to everything you tagged (whatever the critique, whomever the source), and have a go at rewriting it. Don’t delete the old version. Just have a think, and see if you can come up with something better.
In my experience, 8 times out of 10[vii] you will. It’s possible you will do the opposite of what your critic wanted (MOAR GAY! MOAR EXPLOSIONS!). But you’ve found a section that provokes/confuses/disappoints. You owe it to yourself to take a closer look.
So: There’s a process
The MC opens it up to the floor.
Eventually someone raises their hand, and says something utterly dickish that has nothing to do with the work you have actually presented.
Take a deep breath.
Remember that you are out of your mind with stress and worry and probably didn’t listen properly.
Say thank you, then ask an open question. If in doubt, try “which part in particular made you feel that way?”
Take notes. All you’re going to remember afterwards is that it was horrible, and you never want to do it again.
Resist the temptation to explain why they are wrong. They aren’t wrong. They are responding to a trigger, and it’s that trigger you need to find.
Once you’ve squeezed them for all the information they were worth, thank them again, and move on. Try to smile. Unless you’ve already filed your teeth to sharp points.
Finally, at some point you are going to crack and say something defensive. Don’t worry about it. You’re a writer. People expect you to be a bit nuts.
And remember, you’re amazing. You wrote something, and you shared it. You moved people enough that they had things to say. You’re a real writer now.
[i][i] Yes, Owen, I’m both offering you a lifetime of free drinks AND hoping you don’t read the footnotes. For my other lovely readers, you get free drinks as well, but only Owen gets footnote jokes. It’s not that I love him more. He’s just funny to mock 😉 PS. Go listen to radio charades. https://radiocharades.wordpress.com/
[ii] I should say in both directions. I have been told off for my writing being both too gay and not gay enough; for being horrible inaccurate and being far too explicitly accurate. This, I think, is life. Also they were all probably right.
[iii] Not for the sex in 1997. That would just be rude.
[iv] Thankyou Eddie Izzard. One of the best, funniest and most lovely people on the planet today.
[v] Not a true story, but a true-ish story. I wanted to be a writer long before then.
[vi] If you can’t get a hug from someone you love, pop me a tweet @keithcrawford77 and I’ll send you a hug from a stranger. Nobody should have to be on their own or be hugless.
[vii] Four times out of five motherfucker. Why, yes, I have been drinking.