Constructive criticism: where honesty meets kindness

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All writers and artists who share their work will face criticism. It’s not only inevitable, but essential for helping us learn our craft. But there’s a world of difference between constructive criticism that builds on the foundations of the early draft, and destructive criticism that tears the thing apart.

As a published author, you have no control over spiteful or negative reviews (though you can choose not to read them). When you’re a new writer or in the first stages of a new book, you get to decide who sees your draft. So unless you’re exceptionally thick-skinned, the best thing you can do for your writing career is to find someone supportive and truthful to help you, and avoid those who leave you feeling dejected and hopeless.

In my experience, some writing groups have a macho approach to critiquing, and members may pride themselves on their ‘brutal’ honesty. Well, I’ll be honest with them: it doesn’t impress me at all that they’re able to say what they think without regard for people’s feelings. What takes real skill, in my opinion, is to tell a writer their work needs improvement while leaving them feeling supported and hopeful they can make it better.

Kindness and honesty don’t have to be polar opposites. Kindness without honesty is not true kindness to an artist, because it denies them the opportunity for growth.  And while honesty without kindness may contain some useful truths, it can also cost the artist their confidence and motivation to carry on.

It may sound obvious that a critique should include positive comments, but it’s amazing how many people forget this. They assume if an aspect of the writing is already working, it doesn’t need to be pointed out.  But positive feedback isn’t just about ego. It’s extremely useful to know when your words are having their desired impact, and what your overall writing strengths are.

The difference between a constructive and a destructive critique is as much about word choice as content. When I receive a page of criticism, initially I skim through it, and certain words and phrases leap out at me. These are the words that contain a strongly positive or negative emotional charge.

Imagine if a critique of your first ever story contained the following:

Plot clichéd and predictable, pacing slow and boring, couldn’t care less what happens next, characters whiny and unlikeable, descriptions generic, bland and repetitive, spelling and grammar is very poor.

You’d need a hide like a rhinoceros not to feel a bit crushed by that. But what if the critiquer had chosen to turn those phrases into positive suggestions for improvement?

Needs new plot twist or angle, faster pace, more emotional intensity to hook the reader, use more concise and specific description, increase our empathy for the characters, sentences need a thorough edit.

You still might not like it. It probably wasn’t what you were hoping to hear. But there’s a different energy about it. It makes you feel like those changes are possible and within your power to achieve.

As writers, we do have to learn to deal with criticism, but we don’t have to subject ourselves unnecessarily to cruelty or insensitivity that is hurtful and damaging to us and our art. Because ultimately we’re responsible for the influences we allow into our lives.

Holding onto the faith that your audience is out there

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I’ve been thinking recently about my people-pleasing tendencies when it comes to writing. I find that social media, much as I love it and useful as it is, exacerbates these. It’s easy to absorb too much advice, to alter our work to conform to popular trends, and to compare ourselves to others. To measure our worth in clicks, likes and shares.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek feedback or community online. It’s natural to want validation and approval. To know people enjoy what we do. And constructive criticism is important for helping us learn our craft and improve.

But when we know we’re already technically competent, when we know in our hearts that we’ve found our voice or style, we need to maintain an inner belief in ourselves and our vision, even if we’re not getting the recognition we desire.

The best artists give us the gift of their true selves. They write the stories they want to tell. They portray a landscape the way they experience it, not how they believe everyone else thinks it should look.

Naturally, they also want people to love their art.

If we’re authentic and passionate and we present ourselves well, I believe eventually others will respond. There will be an audience for us, however small. We’re unique, but we’re not so special that no one else can understand or relate to us.

Sometimes we look for attention in the wrong places. We submit to agents who hate our genre. We don’t learn enough about marketing. We turn to those close to us for support, but although they may have our best interests at heart, they’re not the right people to appreciate what we do.

It’s possible too that our sense of isolation is partly an illusion. Someone does care, but for whatever reason, they don’t feel able to let us know. Statistics aside, we can never truly measure the impact of our message, or know who else we’re inspiring along the way.

We don’t know yet what we’re capable of achieving, which is why we have to keep putting ourselves out in the field. Even on the days when it’s tough as hell. When it feels like we’re the only one who values our work.

But valuing it ourselves is always the best place to start.

The power of vulnerability: why writers don’t need a thick skin

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“You need to grow a thicker skin.”

We’ve all heard it. Almost every writer has been told that if they plan to put their work out for merciless public scrutiny, they must learn to be less sensitive.

It makes sense, but leaves us feeling puzzled and discouraged. How do we develop this tough exterior? Should we give up on our dreams if we can’t, however hard we try? And how come none of the famous authors we love seem to have one?

The confusion, I think, is in the imagery.

“Thick skin” evokes wrinkly hides and reptilian scales. Creatures evolved for protection against savage teeth and claws. In comparison, our skin is tender and vulnerable. When we fall, we end up bruised or bleeding. The briefest contact with a hot surface leaves us blistered and sore.

Our thin skin also allows us to detect the subtlest nuances of texture and temperature. It lets us feel the sensuous embrace of water, the caress of a loved one, the gooseflesh creeping down our arms as we listen to a haunting song.

It’s easy to see how this relates to art and the emotions. The more deeply we experience the influences of the outside world, the more creatively we respond to it. As artists, we neither can be, nor need to be, nor should be armour-plated.

What we need is more faith in the power of our skin to heal.

Rejection and harsh criticism hurt. They pierce our fragile outer layer, and sometimes they live beneath it for a while. Yet we’re more capable than we know of recovering from those wounds and carrying on.

Opening ourselves up to risk comes at a cost. But the scars we bear are a testament to how resilient we really are.

With thanks to Lauren Sapala for her influence on my thinking about this and so much else.