Handling Criticism Gracefully

Handling Criticism Gracefully

By Vicki McElfresh

©2001, Vicki McElfresh 

The bane of every writer's existence isn't long, sleepless hours in front of a blurry monitor, bouts of writer's block, depression, or even a story that simply goes nowhere.  The bane of every writer's existence is criticism.  Criticism is the final stage of the writing process, the moment when all the long hours have been spent, the sweat wiped away, and only the words and pages remain.  It's the most vulnerable moment in a fledgling writing career, or even an established one.  Criticism, and how a writer handles it, can make or break a career.

Handing any piece of writing to a friend, spouse, or teacher, is frightening, especially when the work is something the author takes great pride in.  In a face-to-face setting, there are certain rules to follow.  Don't interrupt the reader with questions like, "What do you think so far?"  or  "Have you gotten to the part where my character falls in the river?  It's my favorite."  Comments like these won't make the critic like the story any better.  They will likely annoy him.  Likewise, don't comment on every laugh, muscle twitch, or sigh.  When the critic is done reading, he will gladly explain what the strengths and weakness were.  But not while he's reading.

Once the reader has begun his comments,  listen carefully and don't interrupt.  Take notes.  When all the commenting is done, ask questions on comments that don't make sense or aren't agreeable. 

Be polite.   If someone has been kind enough to take an hour or so to read and comment on a piece of writing, don't tell the critic he simply didn't understand the story when the comments aren't agreeable.  Explaining the story to the reader won't change his opinion, but it will change his mind about the writer.  When asked to read future piece, he'll probably decline.  After all, why bother when the writer didn't appreciate the service the last time?

Online groups have made the critting process easier.  Readers are faceless entities whose existence is bound to a login name.  There are no laughs or sighs while a piece is being read, but there are posted comments.  The same rules apply online as in person.  The number one rule, even online, is be polite. 

Comments that consist of "I liked this," could be responded to with the simple reply: "What did you like?"   Sometimes, the online setting frightens prospective critics, so their comments are terse.  A little prompting can give the critic courage and also elicit a more helpful response. 

Some online readers take the opportunity to criticize pieces so harshly that their comments discourage the writer.  Don't respond to such a crit with anger.  Don't call the critic an idiot, moron, or other choice term.  Don't reply at all.  But do read his comments carefully.  Even a harsh crit can have helpful advice. 

Other readers take the time to carefully plan their criticisms.  These crits usually contain encouragement and helpful advice, but honest crits can also sting.  Before replying, consider the comments carefully, skim the story, and think about what the reader has said.   The critic whose spent time reading a story and writing a crit isn't going to appreciate being told, "Well, author X read this story, and his comments are completely opposite of yours.  I don't think you're qualified to comment on my work."  Or, "I don't care what you say, I like the plot to be ambiguous.  It gives the story ambience."  

No matter where a piece is being reviewed, thank the reader for his time and comments.  Offer to crit one of his pieces if he is a fellow writer.  Ask questions if a comment is unclear, or if there is something the reader didn't catch. 

How a writer responds to the comments of well-intentioned friends and family will likely determine how a writer will respond to prospective editors and agents.  Editors aren't concerned about helpful comments.  They will rarely comment on submissions.  If an editor doesn't understand a story he simply return a rejection letter that says, "Not for us."

Think of family, friends, and online critics as future editors.   Listen closely to what these people say, and hopefully, an editor will one day say, "This is exactly what we were looking for.""