How To Critique II: Accepting Criticism and Who to Listen To
Part I of this series is over here. I don’t know why I’m telling you that: if you scrolled down the page at all/ever you could figure it out yourself.
There’s plenty of literature around the web about handling criticism, especially critical reviews and critiques. I’m not going to get too into that, since it’s been done a billion times before–besides. Realistically, how am I supposed to help you with your anger/self esteem issues? Only you can do that, buddy, and until you decide to do it you’re going to respond to criticism just how you feel like responding, and it isn’t going to be pretty, and you’ll probably lose friends. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like criticism either–I sympathize with you on the ruffled feathers/negativity thing. However:
Adults are polite. Or, at worst: adults are silent. Those are the two options you have: there are no others. Don’t be that person who defends a story decision into the next millennium: listen to your critique partner’s advice. Either take it, or don’t. There you go, dealing with criticism mastered.
A note: if you’re having trouble NOT firing off that hotheaded email about how no, really, Princess Cracklypoof NEEDS to have sex with that two-headed dragon in Chapter Three, take a moment, sit back, and picture how this email looks to people who are not you. Childish and butthurt, yes? Don’t send it.
Something that doesn’t get touched on as much, and probably should, is the governing idea of my blawg here:
Who should I listen to, when taking critique advice?
If you’re part of a critique group, you might have four or five other opinions to take something from. If nothing else, I hope you at least have your mother/father giving you useful advice while simultaneously castigating you over your use of swear words. All these opinions are unlikely to agree, and they certainly aren’t going to agree with you. So: whose advice should you take?
Here are some ideas to help you determine the answer to that question.
1) Is this a majority opinion?
If more than one person is saying your description of the muddy river is unclear, you might want to consider listening (and, perhaps, finding a critique group that doesn’t love puns quite so much). If it’s something more than one person has noticed, chances are, it’s not all of them, it’s you.
2) Do I like this person’s writing?
If you’re in a critique group with other writers, it might be worth it to read something these folks have written, if you haven’t already. If you have two critiques telling you to do opposite things, and you prefer one critiquer’s writing over another’s, I’d recommend listening to the person whose writing you prefer, or at least taking that person’s ideas into higher account. A little elitist? Maybe. But you know what you like. Think of it this way: whose advice would you prefer when asking how to roast a turkey? Grandma’s, whose turkeys are always briny and delicious, or your cousin Meredith, who burned the shit out of the five pound turkey breast she roasted for Thanksgiving that one year?
A note: your acceptance/denial of advice probably shouldn’t include this information. Ever. But you figured that out yourself, I hope.
3) Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
Don’t get all hot n’ bothered just because someone’s trying to give you advice. Some of this advice, if you let yourself admit it, will resonate with you: some of it will have even occurred to you as you were writing. Always take this advice. After all, you’re the end authority, and if you agree, there’s nowhere else to go.
4) Who are you writing this story for?
Let’s say you wrote a story about a Tinder date gone awry. One critique partner, a twenty-four year old girl from Michigan, thought it was hilarious. Another critique partner, a sixty-five year old man from Iowa, found it very confusing.
Sit back and ask yourself a few questions here. Tinder is mostly used by younger people, specifically millennials: is this who you want this story to reach? If it is, you want to listen to your twenty-four year old compatriot more than your sixty-five year old one, as she’s in the age demographic the story is intended for. She’ll get some of the references your older buddy won’t get, and in this case, that’s fine.
(A note: I felt super-ageist after posting that. Obviously, this post is assuming your 65 year old friend doesn’t know much about Tinder. There are exceptions. If he’s a 65 year old Tinder guru, listen to him, of course!)
Don’t get me wrong, you should make you story as digestible for a wider audience as you can. There’s no point in purposefully excluding people who might otherwise like it. But there comes a time when too much backstory causes a plot to suffer, and in the end only you can determine whether an explanation of swiping right ruins the flow of the story or not.
This doesn’t mean, of course, you should discount everything your sixty-five year old friend says. He’ll have some useful advice for you, too. But when he demands you give the website URL with http:// in front of it (‘otherwise, how will people understand this is a website?’) you might want to turn a deaf ear. You’re looking to make this story digestible to the majority, of course, but it’s already about a specialized subject, and you have to accept that it won’t be absolutely everyone’s cup of tea.
If the idea of writing a specialized story bothers you, it might be time to consider making this a generic ‘blind date’ instead of a Tindr hookup. Though that, too, can hurt your story, by taking it into the realm of the general and out of the specific.
Which brings me to my last advice crumb:
5) Why are you debating taking this advice?
Try and be objective, here. That can be hard, if a critique feels extra harsh, but keep in mind what I said in Part I: no one here is trying to hurt you. Everyone has good intentions, and if you don’t assume that, you’re going to go slowly mad. So take a step back and try and consider the advice you’ve received honestly. Ask yourself: do I want to take this advice because it’s genuinely good, or because this person seemed nicer? Or, conversely: am I ignoring this advice because the critique ruffled my feathers?
That second one especially is something to be wary of. Especially since constructive criticism often ruffles feathers, and is, to my mind, generally more honest than endless compliments. Everyone wants to hear they don’t need to change a thing in their story: however, this is almost never true.
There y’go. I actually wrote Part II of this. I’m so proud.