You ever read Zen Pencils?
It’s one of the more peculiar webcomics out there, ostensibly being a series of cartoons formed around inspirational quotes. It’s something of a series of illustrated affirmations, most of them pertaining to the work of a creative, be they illustrator, writer or craftsman. Given that the aim seems to be encourage people to perform their art with as much passion as possible, I’m mostly in favor of it.
In general, I really dislike discussing the “spiritual” side of writing. You know, the kind of talks where we all sit around a coffee shop, chuckling about how “arduous the journey of a thousand steps that begins once you put verse to page” is, or “how we must tap into our darker sides to really bring out the light in our prose,” or “please, for the love of God, someone punch me in the fucking face so I’ll get to fucking work already.”
I love talking about writing. I hate talking about being a writer.
I view it as chiefly unproductive and I think this latest strip from Zen Pencils summarizes why: it’s way too easy to romanticize persecution.
And why wouldn’t it be? It’s the essence of a good story, why we root for the underdog. But I think, in this case, it’s turning the act of criticism into something inherently negative, something that brings the mood down, fosters hostility and generally creates an atmosphere of hatred. It can do this, sure, in the same way that a charity can adopt hateful positions; anyone hateful enough can turn anything into a tool of hatred. But to dismiss all criticism would be as weird as dismissing all charity.
And I wouldn’t be commenting on this if I didn’t see it prevalent in so many young writers. I feel, too often, that young artists, upon being criticized, begin as mildly discouraged or frustrated and then go flying headlong into an internet hugbox where all criticism is bad and no one can hurt them again. Part of this is due to the rise of caustic critics as a popular form of entertainment, but I think a lot of it is also due to the fact that no one really tells people how to handle criticism aside from “suck it up.”
As I do occasionally discuss writing technique on this blog, I thought it’d be handy to offer some tips on how to handle criticism for burgeoning young writers to get the most out of it. So, without further ado, let’s begin…
1. Accept That Criticism Is Good
Ultimately, the only way you’re ever going to find out how fast you can go is by crashing a few times. In this, criticism is where you’re going to get hurt.
And it will hurt.
Accept that you’re going to feel frustrated, discouraged, maybe even a little depressed when someone tells you that you didn’t do something well. This is both normal and good; if you’re irritated, then you know you can do better and if you’re depressed, then you know the art meant something to you. It’s fine to feel this way, but it’s not fine to dwell on it.
Trust me, as a guy who received many negative reviews, that it gets easier to move on from them. They can still sucker punch you from time to time, but overall, you find yourself learning their rhythm and identifying what you can use out of them.
And that is what you should be focusing on. Like a half-starving buzzard over a bloated heap of roadkill, your aim should be to completely skeletonize a critique, feasting on the tasty, rotting innards of what you can improve on and ignoring the brittle, marrow-less bones of critical hyperbole or parts where you just disagree.
Be open-minded in your view of criticism. Be thorough in your review of a critique. Be careful about what you choose to take from it. Be unafraid to disagree with it.
2. Identify Who The Critique Is For
Not all critiques are for you, the writer. It’d be nice if they were, but they are not. Critics generally set out to do what they want to do for a reason and it’s not always how to improve your craft. But generally, there are three sorts of critiques.
-Reviews for the Reader: These are the vast majority of blogs and reviews out there. The reviewer’s goal is to generally inform other potential readers or an established audience. They tend to have larger audiences and focus on general themes of the book, going off of their own feelings and instincts.
These are worth paying attention to. If you find that the thoughts they bring up are echoed by many, then it’s something you might want to consider.
A good example (in my opinion) of this kind of blog is The Book Smugglers.
-Reviews for the Reviewer: These tend to be sites where people come to see the review, rather than what’s being reviewed. The reviewer’s goal is generally to put on an entertaining performance art. The audiences can be large, but are also pretty loyal to their reviewers.
At the risk of sounding elitist, I find there’s not a lot here to for a writer. The aim is to entertain, not to inform or discuss, so it’s usually done with the benefit of the author being the furthest thing from their mind. That’s not to say you can’t get something from it, but that’s generally just incidental.
A good example (in my opinion) of this kind of style is The Nostalgia Critic.
-Reviews for the Writer: These tend to be sites where the work has a more in-depth review, dissected and discussed at length. The reviewer’s goal is generally to identify what works and what doesn’t work in great detail. The audiences might be smaller, but they tend to be more involved.
These are the ones you should pay attention to. They are often the harshest, but also the most insightful.
A good example (in my opinion of this kind of style is Staffer’s Book Review.
3. Listening is Harmless
I think, in general, it pays to listen to most criticism. Note, though, that I make a huge distinction between “listening” and “incorporating” or even “considering.” Just because someone makes a critique doesn’t mean you have to do what it says, nor even that you have to consider doing what it says. In fact, a number of critiques are completely contrary to what you might be trying to do.
There are plenty of critiques that will criticize a book for not being what they wished it had been. Someone might have wanted more romance where there clearly wasn’t going to be any (this happens). Someone might have wanted your direct artistic choices to have not occurred (this happens a lot). Someone might want to read the newest Brandon Sanderson and have found your book and start sighing that it wasn’t Brandon Sanderson (this happens all the time).
Making the choice as to what criticism to listen to and what to incorporate and what to ignore will also become easier as time goes on, like anything else in writing. My general rule of thumb is that criticism that I’ll listen to is criticism that’s already occurred to me (and maybe the critic put it in words that had thus far eluded me) and criticism I’ll ignore is criticism that basically takes umbrage at the book being something other than what the reviewer wanted. No offense to them, but I can’t really use that.
This, I think, is where Zen Pencils is coming from. The hatred can be hard to ignore, but I find it gets easier once you look at it in utilitarian concepts. It’s not doing anything for you, so why would you listen to it?
Anyway, I hope this helps burgeoning writers.
If it doesn’t, you can tell me why.
But I probably won’t listen.