Criticism and Learning to Write

Critical Confusions

There is much confusion about when and how criticism should enter the writing process. Some teachers’ experiences show that people enjoy writing more and do better writing if they learn in an atmosphere of permissibility. That is, they’re allowed to make mistakes andplay with things without being told right away that they’ve done something wrong.

On the other side of this, however, stand the people who watch writers enter the industry totally unprepared for the realities of publishing. These writers often have no idea what it’s like to have a real, professional editor go through their work, and they have no idea what will be expected from them by such an editor. They often react very negatively when the realities of the writing world hit them — usually either fleeing in abject misery or lashing out in hurt anger at what they see as unwarranted criticism of their work. If these writers truly want to make a go at writing professionally, then this hardly seems like a nice position to put them in, does it?

Extremes

Some people believe there should be no real criticism at all. They believe that all writing should be done for the writer’s sake and from what the writer wants, and that criticism serves merely to harm the writer’s creativity and enthusiasm.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find people who are fed up with what appears to them to be a very unprofessional attitude and, in retaliation (or out of some idea of helping new writers), rip apart any kind of writing they see as harshly as possible. They do this no matter what stage the work is in, and they justify it by saying that they’re helping the writer improve.

In the Middle

I happen to believe (as, I think, many people do) that there are problems with both extremes. If you plan to write for yourself rather than as a career, there’s no reason for your work to be harshly critiqued unless you want it to be. However, if you want to have a writing career, it isn’t helpful for someone to coddle you and send you out into the world of publishing without the skills you need to survive in it.

In this day of online posting sites and personal web sites, people who “write for themselves” but put their material out in the public eye need to be prepared for the idea that they can’t stop people from commenting on that material. Any public posting of a work is a kind of publication, and thus comes with the potential for criticism. People who believe that they can make their work public and then claim that they are “only writing for themselves” and thus don’t want to hear any criticism are being naive–they want only the good of public exposure with none of the bad.

On the other hand, what’s the point of having your very first rough bits of work torn apart for not standing up to publication standards? The process of writing is a gradual thing, involving many successive iterations and drafts, and that should be respected. You can’t be expected to do perfect work first try, and you shouldn’t be punished for failing to do so. This simply serves to kill your enthusiasm and convince you that writing is beyond your abilities.

Cycles of Criticism

There is a gradual course of criticism that comes from the life cycle of a single creative work yet applies equally well to the education of a writer. I must acknowledge Mari Messer’s Pencil Dancing as the inspiration for some of this cycle (quite a good book — I highly recommend it).

Protecting Your Ideas

In the very first stages of a work there is too much vulnerability and fragility to withstand much criticism. Your enthusiasm for your new idea is still delicate. Your confidence in its value stands on shaky ground, as yet unsupported by thought, trial and error, and experience. Criticism could shatter this fragile enthusiasm and leave you uninterested in pursuing your new idea. Because of this, it is often a good idea to play with your newborn ideas by yourself or with someone you trust to understand what you need at this point in time.

This need for shelter is paralleled in a writer’s education. Walton and Toomay’s The Writer’s Path notes that it’s easy to get normally recalcitrant boys to write. All you have to do is tell them to write about something they love and then tell them that they won’t have to show the result to anyone unless they want to — not even the teacher — and their work won’t be graded. When you do this, a surprising enthusiasm for writing emerges! Until you have firmly decided for yourself whether or not you enjoy writing, during its frustrations as well as its high points, you don’t want to pile on any extra pain.

If you’re thinking of using web posting sites or critique mailing lists as a sort of interim sounding-board when working on your writing, be careful. Again, just because posting on such places feels informal doesn’t mean that you won’t feel the full critical effects of “publication.” Until you have some experience and confidence, look for sites and lists that restrict membership to people who are willing to offer the level of criticism you’re ready for.

Feeling Safe to Screw Up

In order to really be able to play around with your writing, you have to feel that it’s safe to make mistakes. When you first asked someone out, did you practice in front of the mirror where you were the only one who could tell you that you looked stupid? Writing needs that same privacy if you’re to feel comfortable trying something new.

You want the first steps that you take in any creative project — or in your education–to be private if possible, so that you can take risks and play around with ideas without worrying that someone will tell you you’re stupid. A teacher can still help you by suggesting exercises, ways of playing with writing, and so on, and by being available should you decide that you’re ready to have your work looked at. But those very first steps should be taken in safety.

Ask For the Kind of Criticism You Want

This is something I learned from “Pencil Dancing”–you have a right to ask for the kind of criticism that you’re ready for at any given stage.

Criticism should build up slowly, from broad and mild to detailed and strong. Over the lifetime of a single project you’d start with broader issues such as structure and plot. You’d move on to more specific things like characterization and pacing. Eventually you’d hit the stage where you want to know about awkward sentences and word choice. Your education works the same way. At the beginning you work on broader issues such as whether your story has a plot. You just don’t need to know yet whether you use too much passive voice.

Take Your Time!

Start out slowly. Trust me when I say that if you haven’t had many people edit your work, then you have no idea just how many mistakes and problems can be found in any given piece of writing. (Particularly since writing is so subjective–what looks perfect to one person will look wrong to another.) It can be a real emotional shock to confidently ask someone to mark up your story and get back a swath of red ink that looks like someone had a nosebleed on the paper. Any time you send something to a friend for a little advice, be sure to tell them exactly what level of criticism you’re looking for, and don’t jump ahead of yourself.

Too many people think they need to make their very first stories in their beginner classes perfect and publishable. (This isn’t helped by the occasional teacher who says that she won’t give your work an A unless she thinks it’s publishable–and this in low-level classes!) If you were studying to be a chemist you wouldn’t expect yourself to come up with a new patentable drug while in college. If you were studying architecture, you wouldn’t expect your first ideas to be turned into real houses. Neither should you hold yourself to publication standards when you’re just starting out. Yes, you’ll probably want to get there eventually. But first you need to learn your craft, and that takes time.

Ask Only For What’s Good

The very first sort of criticism you want is the knowledge of what is good in your idea or story. Why is this?

You’re still a bit fragile at this stage. You’ve gone through a draft or two by now, or maybe a few rounds of brainstorming. You think you’re getting somewhere. But in order to make progress from here — in order to improve — you need outside help at some point, particularly when learning to write. If you start out by asking what is good in your work, then you start to learn without having your enthusiasm crushed. Consider it an adjustment period.

You cannot learn to write simply by finding out what doesn’t work, just like you can’t learn math simply by finding out which homework problems you’ve done wrong. You need to know what does work first, along with why and how. Finding out what’s good in a piece is helpful, and it gives you a chance to adjust emotionally to receiving criticism — a necessary step in the process. Allow harsher criticism to wait until later stages.

Don’t allow this stage to lull you into a false sense of security, however. Keep in mind that the only reason you aren’t hearing about lots of mistakes in your writing is because you aren’t ready to hear about them — not because they aren’t there. Otherwise, when people do start giving you “real” criticism, you could get an awful shock!

Know Your Stage

Try to have a decent handle on what stage you’re in over the course of your education. While you can’t dictate the kind of criticism you receive from teachers or class-mates, you can pick and choose classes based on the stage you think you’ve reached. Obviously you don’t want to take an advanced class until you think you’re ready for some heavy-duty criticism. Pay attention to class descriptions, and perhaps talk to the teachers ahead of time.

Some workshop classes and critique groups will allow you to tell people what particular issues you’re looking for help with; you can sometimes use this to help shape the type of criticism you receive. Again, beware of posting publicly on web sites and such until you’re ready to hear your work criticized, because this makes your work fair game just as any other sort of publication would.

What Can You Ask For?

A few examples of the sort of criticism levels you might ask for, from broad generalizations to specific problems:

  • “Just tell me what’s good right now. Later I’ll be ready to hear about the bad stuff.”
  • “Right now I’m looking for basic structural stuff. I’m not going to pound on the specifics right now because they’ll change.”
  • “What do you think of the basic plot ideas? This draft is mostly a proof-of-concept until I get a handle on what I’m doing. I’d particularly like you to note any gaping plot holes you find.”
  • “Plot, structure, pacing, characterization, dialogue–stuff like that is fair game. Just don’t go into specifics like awkward sentences, typos, and spelling right now.”
  • “I’m having trouble with this one character–she seems a little flat and uninspired. Could you help me figure out why?”
  • “Things sound kind of stilted. What about the language could I improve to help this?”
  • “Let ‘er rip!”

Constructive Criticism

It is particularly important for you to receive constructive criticism rather than any old sort of criticism. Criticism expressed constructively is less likely to be painful, and it’s much more likely to help you create a better work. It’s less likely to trigger a defensive reaction in you, which means you’re more likely to listen to it. Constructive criticism also focuses on solutions rather than problems, so it’s more likely to help you understand how to fix the problems you’re having.

Feel free to specify to your readers that you only want constructive criticism. Since many people misunderstand constructive criticism to mean ignoring problems rather than suggesting solutions and expressing them helpfully, you may have to explain what constructive criticism is. If they just don’t get it, then find someone else who’s willing to help you. (Again, however, keep in mind that this applies to finding someone to help you as you develop your work. If you publish your work, you don’t get to tell people what they can and can’t say about your writing.)

If someone isn’t accustomed to giving constructive criticism but is willing to give it a try, then give them some time to adjust and don’t expect miracles. Help them learn to give constructive criticism just as they help you learn how to write better. For example, if your reader simply tells you about a problem, then ask them what they’d suggest as a solution. Prompt them for the helpful parts.

Although we aren’t going to give full instructions in this article for doing a constructive critique of someone’s work, here are a few general guidelines to follow:

  • If you mention a problem, suggest a solution or two.
  • Remain positive — don’t be sarcastic, dismissive, or deliberately mean.
  • Focus on what can be fixed and how, not what’s wrong.
  • Mention the good as well as the bad.
  • Be friendly.
  • Keep in mind at all times that your purpose is to help the writer improve his writing–it isn’t to rip apart his work. The line between these two things can be thin, so it’s important to keep your purpose as helper firmly in mind. This means that you’re honest without being nasty, helpful without coddling.

In return, it’s the writer’s job to accept that constructive criticism gracefully. To ask someone for a critique and then get angry at them for providing it is rude at best. To put material out in the public eye and get angry at people for commenting on it is naive, unrealistic, and again, rude — remember that publication, however informal, is putting your work in the public eye. And just as actors have to put up with having their performances commented on, and novelists have to put up with reviews — you have to deal with whatever praise or scorn you receive once you publish your material. If you aren’t ready for that, don’t publish it.

Also remember that it isn’t only the folks giving the critiques who tend to forget that constructive criticism is something other than ignoring problems. There are also plenty of writers who, upon hearing of problems in their work, accuse their critiquers of not being “constructive.” Again, coddling you isn’t constructive, and criticism isn’t necessarily mean just because it’s painful or hard to listen to.

Differing Ability Levels

Be careful about asking for criticism from someone who isn’t a teacher and is at a wildly different ability or experience level than you. It might not help you all that much.

If you’re extremely experienced and you ask for a critique from a novice, they might not be able to address the in-depth issues you need looked at (although they might be able to give you a decent first-round pass at obvious issues). Also, even if they can see the problems, they might not know how to suggest solutions. If you’re a novice and you ask for a critique from a successful author, they’re probably going to give you a much more in-depth critique than you’re ready to handle just yet. So try to get critiques from authors who are in roughly the same stage as you are, or just a little bit ahead of or behind you.

Note, however, that this is not a universal rule, but rather a rule of thumb. Some people are very good at seeing the problems in other people’s work even if they aren’t terribly good with their own work. Also, by asking your readers to answer certain questions, you can often help someone who doesn’t have much experience to provide useful feedback.

Professional-Level Criticism

By the time you’re ready to submit pieces to professional venues, you should be ready to handle criticism from a professional editor. By the time a specific piece is ready to be submitted, it should stand up to such a critique. What does this mean?

Thoroughness

You should be ready to hear about everything that could use fixing in a project, all at once. This is the time to set someone who really knows what they’re doing loose on your writing, and tell them to mark up absolutely everything they would suggest changing. Remember that by now a specific work should have gone through multiple drafts, and your work in general should have gone through many critiques and revisions. You aren’t being asked to hand a rough draft (with all its massive problems) over to a thorough editor — you’re being asked to hand over a nearly-finished manuscript. (Your first few times, however, don’t be surprised if what you think of as “finished” is seen as a first draft by professionals.)

Details

At this point you should be ready to hear about awkward phrasings, spelling mistakes, typos, and other such niggly little things. This is the time to nit-pick, and it should be the very last step in the process. Whether you’re preparing to send a piece out for publication, or preparing to move out of your studies and into a writing career, you need to be able to handle thorough critiques that point out all the painful little details. If you’re emotionally unable to handle such critiques, then consider that you’re probably going into the wrong line of work.

Busy Editors

Busy editors often won’t mince words. The really good ones will still phrase issues in constructive terms, but they also know that if you aren’t ready to hear about your manuscript’s problems, then you aren’t ready to handle the editing, revision, and publication process.

A reasonably professional editor won’t get personal and vicious in her comments. However, there are editors out there who don’t have this kind of self-control and don’t see anything wrong with critiquing this way. Thus, you need to be prepared to occasionally get some nasty comments from editors if you’re going to send your manuscript out there. Remember that your manuscript is not you, and not every editor is like this. So if this happens, just shrug and move on to the next publisher or market.

Keep in mind that an editor’s comments are almost always going to be difficult and painful to read, even when they’re entirely reasonable, so don’t assume that painful comments are necessarily mean ones. Also remember that you’re probably unaware of many aspects of the publishing business, so don’t read too much into the rejection slips that you receive — they aren’t horrid things meant to personally wound you. I recommend that any writer who plans to publish professionally read the following article on rejection slips, written by a professional editor (the page may take some time to load): Making Light: Slushkiller.

Make Sure You’re Ready

Far too many writers try to get their work published before they’re actually ready for it. They ask a professional author for a critique, or send something off to an editor, and then they flip out a bit when they get the surprisingly harsh results. Make sure you’re ready to handle this level of criticism before you ask for it. There’s no shame in deciding that you aren’t ready for it yet — it’s appropriate to start out slowly!

I found a particularly wonderful quote in Monica Wood’s The Pocket Muse. She referred to this tendency to jump ahead in the process as “the refusal to complete our apprenticeship,” and quoted a friend of hers as saying that the writer’s apprenticeship usually lasts ten years from the first serious word to the first published word. Keep this in mind as you worry about publication!

Of course, none of this is meant to imply that you have to be a perfect writer before attempting publication. Besides the fact that (arguably) no writer is “perfect,” it’s entirely acceptable and even expected for writers to continue learning their craft throughout their career.

Learning to Write

When you start out you need a safe atmosphere that promotes risk-taking. There’s just no need for the “grammar police” to jump all over the first rough drafts of your very first short story. Preferably find a creative writing teacher who understands this. If you can’t, then start out on your own with a book like “The Writer’s Path” or Discovering the Writer Within.

Gently ramp up to criticism a piece at a time. Start with the good stuff. Move on to constructive criticism, and start slowly — ask for the type of criticism you feel you’re ready for, or at least take classes appropriate to your level. Finally, by the time you’re ready to join the work force, you should be able to handle thorough and nit-picky critiques. You should also be ready for the idea that not all editors are going to be as encouraging as you might hope. Remember that posting material in public forums on the web is a form of publication, and invites all the criticism that this implies.

Just remember that learning to write is not an instantaneous thing. So many people think that writing is as easy as setting pencil to paper. And while perhaps it is true that writing is as easy as setting pencil to paper, writing well enough to get published takes a whole lot more work, instruction, experience, and practice. So don’t jump ahead of yourself — take your time.

My thanks to Ariane Jenkins for the discussions that helped to lead to this article.

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