(This is a repeat, fleshed out and edited, of some earlier blogposts on the subject. I thought it would bear repeating as some writers have expressed an interest in seeing it again.)
Writers, unless they hide their work in a closet, under the bed, or locked away in journals where it will never be read, will encounter both praise and criticism. When I was a young mother, I told stories to my kids as my mom and sister had told them to me years before. I loved stories of the family traditions and the escapades of ancestors. I wrote them down and submitted them to children’s magazines. I had the unusual fortune of having the first four or five pieces I ever wrote accepted and published. When the next piece was met with a rejection, even though the rejection was accompanied by encouraging words, I let it rock my world, topple my fragile ego, and block my muse. I didn’t write again for publication for a dozen years. Thankfully, I’ve managed to develop a thicker skin.
I don’t think I’m the only writer who has allowed criticism and rejection to stifle their creativity. Why do we do this? I think it’s because writers are a special breed—one with extraordinarily acute vision, talent, and passion—and tender ego. From the writer’s pen flows, not mere words, but an outpouring of the soul, not wholly unlike the travail—and the joy—of giving birth to a child. Inherent in that exposure of our innermost thoughts and insights is vulnerability and defensiveness of our verbal creations.
Blessed is the writer who can emerge undaunted from the paralyzing blow of sharp criticism. Naturally, our tender hearts bleed from the onslaught of arrows shot at our work—our babies. Our tender ego takes the full force of those arrows and is wounded by their sting. If we never toughened our egos, we’d never write another word. And that would be a tragedy, for criticism is not only inevitable, it is valuable, it is not only valuable, it is crucial.
In the years I have been writing, I have learned how useful criticism can be. I seek it as I'm writing. But in order to avoid letting a rejection or negative review bring creativity to a halt, as I've done in the past, I've learned that I must get beyond the defensive feelings and look closely at the criticism, measure it thoughtfully against my purpose, apply what is constructive, discard all that isn’t, and move on to write again.
Criticism has made my writing better. I give a lot of credit for the popularity of my stories to my editor, writers group members, and other critics. They see things I miss. That doesn't mean they are always right. I must keep in mind that no one knows the characters, plot, and purpose as well as I. It’s important to keep my purpose, as well as my audience in mind and gauge suggestions and criticisms against it.
Monica Wood says in her book, The Pocket Muse that “every writer needs two critics, one who gives only praise and another who never ever lies.” I have found that there are other categories of critics a writer must identify and deal with as well.
The love-everything reader is nice to have, and I agree that the encouragement of family and friends who love everything I write goes a long way toward keeping a positive attitude.
The gently discerning listener is, I believe to be the most helpful. In my writers group, I have the support of people who never lie, but they tell the truth in the most gentle and supportive way, qualifying with an “I may be wrong,” so that it hardly feels like criticism at all.
The viewpoint of the blunt but honest stranger, who points out the flaws in my work, may be harder to take, but has sometimes affected improvements in my writing. But don’t confuse them with the next one.
Unfortunately a writer stands a large chance of encountering the nasty and adversarial critic—one who, for reasons we may never know—seems bent on tearing the writer and her work apart, apparently taking personal umbrage.
There is also the clueless critic, who, though he may harbor no malice, just doesn’t get it, but because of their own experiences, beliefs, or biases, finds fault where there is none.
It’s up to the writer to sort it all out. Not quite as easily said as done, especially when our tender egos get in the way of objectivity. It’s hard not to take criticism of our work as an attack on our personhood. Because we pour our souls into our work, we have a hard time separating ourselves from our creations. I remind myself in the face of criticism to tell myself, repeatedly, if necessary, that the critic isn’t saying “You're a horrible person and a terrible writer;” to look instead at what they are saying. (If they are attacking your personhood, the critic along with the critique should be summarily dismissed.)
Then I step away and let it jell for a while. It is much easier to be objective when I come back later to study the critique. Then I review what I know of the characters, the plot, the purpose, and direction of my story and then examine the criticisms and suggestions of the reviewer or editor with an open mind—to see whether they are valid or not. I use what supports and enhances, and disregard what doesn’t fit. Many blunders, long boring passages, and inconsistencies have been pared from my work thanks to the honest and thoughtful critics who care about my writing.
I have come to appreciate and rely on “critics” as I write my stories. It is far better to write and be criticized, than not to write at all—or to write in a closet and never let your words see the light of day, for how can that help the world?