Applying the rules of art to writing: learn to accept criticism

“Critique is the foundation of art school education, and learning to make constructive use of it is one of the most difficult and important lessons to absorb. Look at your own work, and the work of others, as dispassionately as you can. Being defensive or hurt, while a natural reaction, will not help you improve your work. Learn the biases of your instructors so that you make the most use of their comments. Disagreeing with criticism is not wrong, but unless your work succeeds on its own merits in the eyes of your instructors and peers, resistance may not be constructive or helpful. Be brave under fire.”
Excerpt from ‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White

This applies exactly to creative writing, which by its very nature means being published. Today, as well as being published in books, newspapers or magazines, that may mean self-publishing and blogging online. Wherever you publish, assuming you are writing to be published, other people are going to read what you write. They will have their own opinions about it – about the content, the style, the imagery, the characters – often strong opinions which may take you by surprise. And it’s not just the newspaper and magazine book reviewers who may criticize; there are the comments of readers at Amazon and Goodreads, and book bloggers on WordPress.

It is natural that the first instinct is to be defensive, to be protective of your work and characters, with whom you have spent so much one-to-one time. Letting them out on their own, vulnerable to the opinions of others, is a step which all published writers and journalists must take. I had this fear knocked out of me 30+ years ago when I trained to be a journalist [below]. kit whiteMy copy was subbed, rewritten and critiqued so many times by my editor, my peers and my training editor, not to mention the magazine readers, that I quickly developed a thick skin. It was that, or dissolve.

I took a lot of creative writing classes when I turned from journalism to fiction, and observed many students react with tears or anger, sometimes both, when other students commented on their work. I understand the emotions. Sometimes the feedback was roughly given. But we are not living in the real world if we expect everyone to like every word we write, every character that is so precious to us may make others turn heel and run. Life is full of critics.

So I developed a strategy to cope with the feedback, no matter how insensitively given. I made the decision to accept all feedback gratefully, no matter how much it made me grind my teeth. Sometimes, a day later when I was calmer, I could see some sense in the comments. So I learned to write notes, take time to cool down, re-read the criticism later and decide which bits to ignore and which bits to learn from.

kit white

 

‘101 Things to Learn in Art School’ by Kit White [MIT Press] Buy now

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Comments

  1. Brilliant post, Sandra. I remember my first tentative steps into the world of creative writing workshops. I was terrified. And at first I couldn’t hear the feedback for the buzzing in my ears! Thank-fully that has passed! But you are so right – it’s about figuring out what to attend to as much as what to ignore. Bravery under fire is exactly the attitude required.

  2. This was an awesome post! I LOVE that you suggested that some of the criticism could be taken and some ignored. Some people think they are being helpful when they are only nitpicking. And sometimes when we are receiving the advice, we forget it is CONSTRUCTIVE criticism and not just someone being mean. Also, I loved the photo of you! 😀

  3. Excellent advice here, Sandra! When I studied creative writing in college, the workshops could be brutal, and artist egos were often in play. (And my ego was no exception!) But it was an invaluable experience, because if we as writers refuse to hear and even appreciate criticism regarding our work, we’ll never learn anything. When I first started submitting my stories and poetry for publication, I learned quickly that I needed a thick skin. Some of the rejections were real zingers. But I also received some extremely helpful constructive feedback.

  4. I remember the first time my writing was criticized by an editor. Hated it! But now that I’ve been both a writer and an editor, I see it from both perspectives. It’s never easy to accept criticism as a writer, but we all need feedback and we all need to be receptive to the feedback in order to learn. Thanks for this.

  5. Great picture Sandra! And a great attitude – it must have been difficult when you were younger to get such full on criticism, but it’s stood you in good stead. Pre-ordered my copy of Ignoring Gravity today – like the book cover you settled on and the trailer.

    • Thanks Andrea, I am so pleased you liked the trailer! I remember in my first week as a journalist being very shy at other journalists hearing me on the telephone. So I would wait until everyone was busy and then dial the number. Of course by the time the person I was calling actually answered, everyone in my office was quiet again. So I soon got over that shyness! SD

  6. I accept criticism easier now I am older…guess I’ve mellowed with age, also kinder to myself, I used to rip up a lot of my drawings in temper when I was younger because they were never how I wanted them to be 🙂

    • I also think when you get older you realise everyone has their own opinion, but that doesn’t mean what you have done is wrong. When you’re younger, things are more black and white, right and wrong. 🙂 SD