Definition of Critique — noun: a critical estimate or discussion. Examples: a critique of the poet’s work • an honest critique of her art. — Merriam Webster Dictionary
Analysis, evaluation, assessment, appraisal, appreciation, criticism, review, study, commentary, exposition, exegesis. — Apple Online Dictionary
IF YOU’RE A WRITER, soon or later you will join a critique group, work with an editor, or give your writing to someone for feedback. You ask for the feedback because you want to improve your writing — and yet — others’ evaluation of your work can be difficult to receive, no matter how gently it is given. You know your writing has flaws (whose doesn’t?), but it still stings when someone points them out.
Or maybe the feedback isn’t solicited — you just published a new book and a friend states that it “just wasn’t for me,” or someone leaves a scathing 2-star review on Amazon. Ouch.
No matter where it comes from, being open to and embracing criticism can make the difference between stagnating or growing your writing skills. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything that is said. On the contrary, receiving criticism constructively is a skill in and of itself.
The following five tips can help you use critique effectively — whatever its source — to become a better writer.
Tip #1 — Pause
It’s natural to feel defensive when someone criticizes your work, especially when what they say can be interpreted negatively. But, remember that most people provide feedback because they want to be helpful. Even if they’re totally off base, they are most likely offering information they intend to help you improve your writing. So, before rejecting any criticism offhand, pause, take a breath, and use the following tips to help frame your response.
Tip #2 — Consider the Source
Is the person a part of your target audience? If so, you’ll want to pay particular attention to places in your writing where they say they “just don’t get it,” “got confused,” or “feel lost” or “bored.” Are they an accomplished and respected writer or editor or someone whose opinion you admire? If so, perhaps it’s worth listening to what they have to say. If the person critiquing the writing is clearly not a member of your target demographic, it might benefit you to take what they have to say “under advisement,” rather than to heart.
When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. — Neil Gaiman
Tip #3 — Don’t Take it Personally
Whenever you put your writing out into the world, you may feel vulnerable, as though you are exposing yourself to the judgments and opinions of others. But, no matter who or where the criticism comes from, remember it is the writing that is being critiqued, not you personally. And though the words you write come from your heart, that doesn’t mean they are a direct expression of who you are. It’s more productive to distance yourself a little from your work — even if you’re writing memoir — and be as objective as possible. That objectivity will allow you to make better decisions about what to cut and what to keep.
Tip #4 — Focus on your strengths and be true to yourself.
We tend to be hardest on ourselves and hear only the comments we perceive as negative. Remember to also pay attention to the positive things people say about your work. What do you do well? If you write great dialogue, maybe you’ll want to use more of it in your stories. If you have a special talent for metaphor or description, think about ways you can use these skills to enhance your natural writing voice.
Tip #5 — Use only what resonates.
While it helps to embrace and listen to feedback, keep in mind that it’s just one person’s opinion and not all criticism you receive is useful. You are the author and only you can know what you are trying to say. If what someone says strikes you as true — even though it may hurt a little — think about how you could incorporate their ideas in ways that are true to your intention and your voice. On the other hand, if someone says something that doesn’t resonate, feel free to toss the criticism into the waste bin. You can’t please everyone, and you’re not obligated to even try. Bottom line: if it resonates, consider it; if it doesn’t resonate, let it go.
And whatever else you do, keep on writing regularly. You will only become a better writer as you practice your craft with intention and purpose.
Do you have a tip or strategy for handling criticism constructively that you’d like to add? Please post it in the comments section.