The most useful asset you have as a writer is critique, but if you find the idea of receiving critique daunting, here’s some top tips on how to get the most out of it:
1 Question, don’t defend – Many people maintain that when taking critique on your work, you should remain stoic and silent. Whilst this can have its benefits, I’ve kept schtum through enough writing workshops to know it shouldn’t be taken as a hard and fast rule. There’s a difference between questioning someone’s critique and defending against it – the former benefits you, the latter only benefits only your ego. If someone gives a criticism (e.g. your plot is confusing, your description is too samey) and you don’t agree, ask them for examples of the issue. Having the confidence to ask for clarity will allow you more opportunities to improve. Taking the opportunity instead to explain why the person critiquing you is wrong does little to help you. Regardless of whether or not you agree, they are your reader, and their opinion is valid. It’s easy to shrug of critique you don’t like and say ‘they just don’t get it’ – but remember, if they didn’t get it, might there be something you can be doing better to make them
2 Don’t forget the praise – Regardless of how well you take criticism, it can be tempting to focus only upon the negative critique you’ve received and to forgo the positive. For years when receiving critique, I would write down only the things which needed improvement and would often get home, look at my notes, and feel like a vat of failure soup, before I realised there are huge benefits to engaging with positive critique. This isn’t merely about soothing your ego – it’s about understanding the parts of your writing that are working for the reader as well as those that aren’t. Knowing a sentence which people responded well to or a character which resonated with people will allow you to analyse how you achieved that result, and how you might be able to replicate it in the future.
3 Consider your critics – If you’re working in either a traditional workshop setting or just showing your work to various friends, it’s worth bearing this one in mind. If 10 people tell you to cut a character and 2 people tell you to keep them, you don’t always need to go with the consensus. Other people’s words are not gospel, and as much as it’s important to always take their opinions into account, only you can write your own writing. Consider who your critics are, what they tend to read, what their blind spots are and which genres they prefer. If you show a piece about a giant space-slug that eats stars to a room full of historical fiction afficionados, don’t be surprised if the response is poor. It’s a tricky business to manage, because you should of course seek out differing viewpoints for your work – echo chambers benefit no-one. This one is a balancing act, and it’s one you’ll get better at managing the more you show your work and open yourself up to judgement.
4 Don’t take it personally – A simple point, but one which bears repeating ad infinitum. This is not only good advice for maintaining your sanity, but also for improving your relationship with your work. If you’ve written something which has been heavily criticised, remember that there is a huge separation between you and your work. Understanding that an attack on what you’ve written is not a personal attack on you will give you space to breathe and will remove a lot of self-doubt from the equation. Everyone writes a few stinkers once in a while. I’ve written stinkers. Friends of mine have written stinkers. Almost every writer you love will have written at least one truly awful dumpster-fire. You might not have seen it, but it’s there, festering away on their shelf. ‘I know what you did, Margaret Atwood,’ it says, teeth bared. Writing a bad piece does not make you a bad writer. In fact, more often than not it forges good writers – those who show a willingness to change and listen and grow.
J. G. Lynas is a writer who will soon be undertaking a PhD in Literary Practice at the University of Warwick, focused on ‘the New Weird’. He is influenced by the mesmeric works of Jeff VanderMeer, Max Porter, and Shirley Jackson, and writes in the boundaries between the macabre, the weird, and the real, experimenting frequently with form. He owns far too many paisley shirts.
Directed by Sarah Moss, the Warwick Writing Programme at University of Warwick prides itself in having writing staff who not only teach but are also published authors involved in the writing industry and literary scenes. It has just opened an exciting PhD programme in Creative Writing (https://goo.gl/3pdiB9) alongside its internationally recognised flagship BA and MA programmes.
For more on the Warwick Writing Programme: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/writingprog/