Criticism for Writers

Writers are characteristically not so good with criticism.

Sure, they’ll listen to your notes on their novel or their short story or their screenplay or their blog entry and they’ll appear to be so appreciative of your criticism and then you’ll go away and they’ll sit and stew for hours about the nerve that you have to be so open with your hatred.

Seriously, writers do this.

I like to think I’m pretty good with criticism. I always say to people from whom I want to get thoughts from, that if all they do is come back after reading something of mine and tell me it was great — that’s doing me a disservice. In fact, I’d rather have someone tell me (even if they love it overall) all the nitpicky little things that didn’t work for them. Telling me you loved my writing when I’ve asked for notes will result in, yes you guessed it, me leaving that piece of writing alone. Cause you loved it. See?

But oh, it’s a double-edged sword, that criticism. Tell me the little nitpicky things you didn’t like, such as the punctuation on page twelve, or someone’s speech being too preachy or your boredom in the last three pages and I will thank you for your commentary, your overall positive notes and your nitpicky little criticisms and I will write you a nasty e-mail later that night, which I will (of course) never send.

I’m over-doing it here, of course.

It’s funny to me how writers can finish a draft of something and feel so good and so positive about it, only to be met with minor criticisms on it, and then they get derailed. Seriously, the minor criticism seems so huge to them, that they just have to go away and not think about it for awhile. Long enough to get back their enthusiasm for the project.

Someone once said, “A piece of writing is never finished. It’s abandoned.”

If, as writers, we have the attitude that a piece of writing can always get better and always improve based on notes and criticisms and thoughts — then above and beyond the fact that we may not want to be working on this one project for our entire lifetime, at least we can admit to ourselves that it can always get better.

Didn’t Howard Jones sing a song with that title?

It’s just a matter of how good you want something to be, versus how long you want to spend on it. I know that the things I’ve spent the longest amounts of time on, are always the best. And I guess that, when it comes down to it, you have to decide ahead of time if what you’re writing has a purpose, or if the act of writing is why you do it.

Then, criticism may not have the lasting effects that it has on others.

8 comments on “Criticism for Writers

  1. colby - August 30, 2004 at 5:57 pm -

    That, um, should be “appreciative” in the first paragraph.

  2. steve - August 30, 2004 at 6:05 pm -

    and “I always say to people from whom I want to get thoughts” 😉

    In all seriousness, I completely understand whence you are coming here. Luckily, I cycle pretty quickly and I’m willing to let their remarks sink in (several hours later).

  3. Pauly D - August 30, 2004 at 6:16 pm -

    Alright, alright.

    Maybe I can’t handle criticism.

  4. Will - August 30, 2004 at 8:06 pm -

    Hey, that was great, Paul…uh, I mean, I liked it, but a few sentences seemed to be run-ons…er, I mean, it was perfect…

    This is dizzying.

  5. Lori - August 30, 2004 at 10:19 pm -

    I’m pretty sure that Howard Jones said that “things can ONLY get better.” And that’s pretty different from “things can ALWAYS get better.” If ya know what I mean.

    Hey, remind me to tell you about the time I talked to Howard Jones on the phone…and, even though I’ve talked to much bigger stars, he was my college crush (yes, that’s humiliating) and I completely made a fool of myself, but I didn’t care. Remind me to tell you about that.

  6. fabe - August 31, 2004 at 1:17 am -

    Paul-

    That was a reeeeaallly friggin good entry. rilly-rilly. friggin. good. And, I might add… poignant.

    The thing is, if you write for any legth of time, you develop a criticism-absorption muscle. I have finally gotten to the point where I can totally remove my ego from the revision process. I embrace criticism of all kinds because it’s humbling, it forces one to justify creative choices, and because often times the bastards are right.

    However, I will say that the worst is when your own fans are working against you. Sometimes a disconnect occurs when a person thinks they “get” your work and runs around acting as your cheerleader, hyping your stuff, heaping praise upon you; and only later do you find out, when you overhear them talking you up at a party: they do not “get” a damn thing about your work. In fact, they’ve got it all wrong. And then you wish you could somehow get them to just un-like it. And you want to run up on them at the party and scream, “Shut up! The Fat Penguin represents America, not a ‘well-endowed ethnic man!’ It’s about Global Corporatism, NOT ‘the magic of interracial friendship!’ Jeez, just shut-up! Just shut-up you stinky little midget!”

    BTW, it’s worth noting here that none of the above has ever actually happened – I’ve never had a “fan,” “hype,” or an allegorical fable involving a Fat Penguin and a Saucy Sardine. Point of fact: I have never once been “talked up” at a party – by a stinky little midget or otherwise. I was just using that as a ‘for instance’ because… you know… I’m sure that kind of stuff actually happens to people out there right? Like to Stephen King or something. Can someone help me out here?

    Anyhoo, great post, Pauly. Keep up the good work.

  7. Diann - August 31, 2004 at 6:46 pm -

    This just came up for me today! I’m thinking of joining a writers group and have been hesitatant because the whole purpose of it is to critique your work…I was looking for more of a ‘moral support’ type thing where I could blend into the wall and just absorb for a while…

    I can usually handle criticism, if it’s given at the right time–after I’ve finished a project, not along the way. It also has to be from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

    I will probably join the group. I need the camaraderie.

  8. em - September 1, 2004 at 9:28 am -

    Critics? They are *never* right.

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