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.

The joy of finding a writing mentor

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Some years ago, I reached a low point with my writing. I’d been practising a long time and I still felt I was no good. I was working on a novel that was truer and more self-revealing than anything I’d attempted before. And nobody seemed to like it.

In retrospect, I did some unwise things which contributed to my sense of failure. I entered the story into big contests before it was ready. I shared an unfinished draft with someone I ought to have known was completely the wrong person to read my style of writing.

What they said about it still haunts me.

Self-publishing my book or starting a blog would have been unthinkable then. I was so ashamed of not being a better writer. I rarely told my friends that I wrote at all. If I did, I’d add at once, ‘but it’s only a hobby.’

I never really believed that. Inside I was certain this was what I wanted to do more than anything else. Only I was scared to say it out loud.

I knew what needed to happen if I was to have any chance of being an author. You don’t get far in the business before someone advises you to toughen up. To grow a thicker skin. And when you read the one-star reviews of some published books, you understand why.

But the more I pretended I didn’t care what people thought, the worse I felt. I had to admit that I wasn’t a naturally hard-shelled creature. And I didn’t see how that could change.

I thought about giving up on my goals. Instead, I decided to seek out one more opinion from someone who didn’t know me. That was when I came across Lauren Sapala’s website.

Lauren is a writing coach based in San Francisco. She specialises in working with writers who are afraid, stuck, or battling with self-doubt. She’s interested in creative personalities and how they can work with, rather than fighting against, their temperament.

Reading her articles, I sensed she was someone positive and compassionate who I could trust. So I contacted her, we had a discussion about my situation, and I sent over my first few chapters.

Lauren connected emotionally with my story in every way I’d hoped a reader would. She gave me some very thorough feedback on why that was the case. It was the biggest relief and the most amazing feeling.

Somebody understood what I was trying to achieve. I was no longer alone on the island.

I sent her the whole manuscript, and she returned it with more encouraging comments and suggestions for improvement. As well as being a fantastic motivator, Lauren has a sharp eye for detail and an intuitive grasp of how your characters would speak and behave. The changes she proposed helped me to make the book much stronger.

As a coach, Lauren did so much more than make me feel better about my novel by praising it. Because if she’d done only that, it would have left me still reliant on an external opinion. And I’d be immediately crushed again when someone else disagreed.

By reflecting back with such clarity her reactions to what I’d written, she taught me to see for myself what the strengths of my writing were.

She helped me internalise the belief that my story was worthwhile and important, whatever anyone said. So in future I’d be better equipped to use any constructive criticism to improve the work, while discarding the negativity of people who weren’t its audience.

The change didn’t happen overnight, and it’s still in progress. But it slowly led to where I am today: feeling brave enough to post this in public, and preparing to publish my latest book next year.

As an artist, you can be both strong and vulnerable. If you’re sensitive, and you express yourself freely and authentically in your writing, then the harshly critical responses will probably always hurt.

But an inner core of self-belief and a sense of purpose can help you embrace the pain. To let it flow through you and leave again, without assigning it any permanent power. It can help you find the courage to share your gifts again, accepting you’ll never be universally loved.

If you’re isolated and struggling with self-doubt or fear of criticism, I recommend finding a mentor (whether a coach or a writer friend) who can help you learn to trust your voice. It’ll be amongst the most valuable training you could undertake.