Friday, December 6, 2013

Criticism and praise

Tabitha at Writer Musings led me to this article on "Tough Love" for writers.

And as usual with most writing advice, I agree in part and disagree in part. I do think that most of us overestimate the quality of our work when we first start out. I do think that rigorous revising is important, and that most writers have no idea when they embark upon a project just how much editing it will need. I've also found that it's often difficult for us to critique our own work at the level it needs.

But maybe all that is nature's way of protecting us, of keeping us from curling up in the fetal position and giving up before we even begin.

I've always needed that confidence--even if it qualifies as overconfidence--to write anything in the first place. The first draft is all about mental cheerleading for me.

And then I let the inner critic out of the trunk where he hides out during drafting, and unleash him on my manuscript. And later still, I invite other critiquers in. Not with the ego-shattering force that the article describes, but with a willingness to delete anything that doesn't belong. I don't need people to come down on me "like a ton of bricks," "[tear] my stories to shreds and [throw] them back at me ... shatter[ing] my ego ..." The fact is, it's not about my ego at all. It's about the story. What makes it a better story? Where is the plot unbelievable or slow? Which scenes are contributing nothing? It's not personal. My book is not me.

I do sometimes get upset over criticism, but that's mostly because it means I have a lot more work to do, and sometimes I don't see right away how on earth I'm going to fix everything. Critique is not a judgment of me; it's a to-do list. And whining over to-do lists is part of my process--not the most glamorous part, to be sure, but the part that clears out the sludge of my resistance so the words can flow again. Look, it's not fun to rewrite seven chapters that you thought you were done with, or switch the whole thing to a different POV, or cut the book in half and rewrite the ending. It's much more fun to hear that you're a literary genius and you don't have to rewrite a word.

But praise is no good unless it's true, and praise alone doesn't help most writers grow. Rejecting all criticism usually doesn't help much either. On that, I agree with the article.

I suppose where I come down in the end is that we need a balance of praise and criticism to keep us going and keep us writing well. That mix varies from writer to writer and even from day to day. Whatever works.


  1. Ah, well said. Like you, I find myself getting upset over criticism only because it means a lot more work -- not because I'm taking it personally. Hearing that I have to rewrite a book entirely from scratch is a pretty tough pill to swallow, for instance, but every time I've done, I've been glad I did.