Writing Wednesday: Criticism

Everyone has to deal with criticism, especially anyone making creative efforts within the public eye, so I figure we may as well be prepared when it comes.  If you’ve ever seen someone respond to critique as if it were a personal insult, you know how off-putting it can be.  It’s even worse if you know and like their work otherwise — few things are more disappointing than watching someone you admire behave like a petty jerk.  Gross.  So, how can that be avoided?

The advice that’s been most helpful to me is to remember that a person cannot be wrong about their own reaction.  I may disagree with them, I might have experienced a completely opposite reaction, but how a work made them feel, their gut feeling — everyone has a right to that honest first response.  You don’t have to like it, but it’s worth hearing. 

Okay.  Acknowledging that, another thing worth remembering is the creator is not obligated to act on others’ feedback, or even respond to it.  There’s a reason designs-by-committee tend to suck, and any work sufficiently popular will garner all sorts of conflicting advice.  For confirmation, just search for your favorite book or film on Amazon and read the one star reviews; someone will hate everything.  That isn’t license to reject all criticism, however, merely a reminder to take creative advice with a grain of salt and to always know why you’re rejecting or accepting it.  Are you turning down advice because it hurt your feelings, or because it genuinely isn’t useful?  Or are you shaping your work to please others when your heart isn’t truly in it?  I find the “useful” or “not useful” gauge helps me distance my emotions and be more objective with advice.  Let things cool before replying: knee-jerk reactions to knee-jerk reactions rarely produce wise, level-headed results, and I don’t have to be rude just because someone else was first.  Also, multiple complaints often indicate a real problem.  I may think a reader is totally off the mark with his or her interpretation, but if lots of readers keep making that same “mistake,” it’s probably because I failed to properly communicate an idea.

Insults are not legit criticism.  It’s not fun when when people attack your work, though it can be useful and is therefore worth listening to, but the moment someone begins to attack you personally feel free to ignore them.  Insults are never useful, so who gives a damn?

I should mention I’m referring mostly to unsolicited opinions; it’s a bad idea to get defensive over criticism, doubly so if you’ve asked for people’s criticism.  I believe there’s an art to the formal critique.  The ability to step back, analyze, and articulate what what makes a work successful — or unsuccessful — takes practice, but it’s invaluable to anyone interested in self-improvement.  While I enjoy and try to understand others’ critiques second-hand, it’s something I wish I had more exposure to in real life. (If you’re working toward some kind of creative degree, don’t waste your chances!) And if you’re already as hypercritical of your work as most artists, myself included, using the opportunity to build a thicker skin never hurts.  Pun semi-intended?

Serious feedback is a huge service.  I really appreciate even the briefest comment, because it means someone not only took the time to look at my work, but put forth the effort to reach out and share their thoughts.  I try not to overlook any responses, and the last thing I’d want to do is attack someone for daring to be honest.  Ultimately, I know I can’t please everyone, but maybe with enough humility to admit where I’m wrong and the self-confidence to resist changing what feels right, I can produce something that at least pleases myself.


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    I’ve never had a huge problem with criticism, but something I learned was the difference between constructive criticism...
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