Friday Guest Post: The Good, The Bad, and The Critical

Please welcome our first Friday Guest Poster, Jessica Baverstock!  Jessica writes the wonderful blog, Creativity's Workshop, in which Creativity is featured as a real character.  Creativity writes in purple ink, you gotta love it.  And both Jessica and Creativity have really good things to say about writing, as you'll see when you read this post.  Funny story: Jessica had no idea that I was planning to alternate guest posts with mini-critiques on Fridays, but I am, and because of that, the topic of this post is perfect! 

The Good, The Bad, and The Critical
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by Jessica Baverstock

A couple of months ago we were introduced to Charlotte's Inner Critic, Patrick, and then invited to come face to face with our own Inner Critic. Criticism is an important concept to understand and become comfortable with because, as writers, we are always encountering it – be it from our Inner Critic or from others who voice their opinions about our work.
 
We usually think of criticism as the evil, creativity-killing blight of a writer's existence and strive to avoid it at every turn. Anyone who criticizes our work is either an unenlightened cretin who doesn't know good work when it bites him in the nose, or a heartless dream-quasher who opened our eyes to the futility of our struggle so we may now slink away and overdose on hard liquor and dark chocolate. It's not uncommon for us to vacillate between the two opinions as if we were traversing the stages of grief. Very rarely do we manage to accept the criticism without the emotional roller coaster beforehand.
 
However, not all criticism is created equal. There are two types. One is the soul-destroying, idea-murdering negativity that insidiously eats away at your self esteem and drive to succeed. The second, while demoralizing at first, is actually a gift – an opportunity to make changes and improve. If you can identify which type you are being subjected to, then you can decide whether to work on accepting it, or plow on in spite of it.
 
Here is the checklist I use to identify the good from the bad.
 
1. Is the criticism reasonable and helpful?
 
Helpful criticism is usually accompanied by explanation.
 
For example, which of the following two 'criticisms' do you feel is helpful?

    "You'll never be able to get this book published. Your writing is mediocre at best."
    "Your main character is a bit flat. I think he needs more back story. His motivation is just not showing through."

The first example is too vague. "Your writing is mediocre" doesn't provide information you can use to improve and certainly doesn't give you the incentive to try harder. The second example is helpful. It gives you specifics and a direction. While both examples hurt, the second example is the kind of feedback you need to hear. Don't ignore it. It's your opportunity to improve.
 
2. How experienced is the person giving the criticism?
 
Has this person actually worked in your field, or are are they just offering an opinion because they believe it's expected? You would obviously give more weight to feedback from an experienced writer than from great-aunt Maud who never has a good word to say about anyone.
 
This principle can also apply to your Inner Critic. When you are starting out in an endeavor, your Inner Critic tends to be trigger happy, vigorously attempting to scuttle anything 'flawed.' However, remember that your Inner Critic is not yet experienced. It needs time to gain understanding and insight. Perhaps it's worth ignoring that criticism for a while until your experience and skill have improved. Vice versa, if you are an experienced writer and your Inner Critic is nagging you, perhaps he's on to something and you need to take the time to listen.
 
3. Do you receive the same criticism from multiple sources?
 
When your critics begin to agree, it's definitely time to sit up and take notice. As James Surowiecki  says, there is wisdom in crowds.
 
If everyone who reads your novel mentions its abrupt conclusion, then it's probably something you should take another look at.
 
Good Criticism Exists! Use It.
 
Crowds and experts have been known to be wrong. However, understanding the weaknesses in your work will always help you in the long run – to find ways to address those weaknesses or learn to hide them behind your strengths. By always being open to helpful feedback and opinions you can grow in your writing, reaching heights you never could without first addressing the flaws.
 
Remember though, everything improves with practice. Your first efforts at something new will always be below par. Do not let criticism discourage you. Use it to continue improving.
 
What methods do you use to identify helpful criticism?

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10 Comments on "Friday Guest Post: The Good, The Bad, and The Critical"

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Evan
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Evan
05/07/2010 08:10
It’s all true! Identifying whether the criticism is truly the helpful sort is for me the hardest to get my easily-crushed creativity to work around. I think the source of the issue lies in those two types of criticism you’ve mentioned Jess. As often as is the case, cold, hard (or conversely, warm and mushy) opinion is misconstrued as criticism. Positive or negative in nature, we the writer/painter/ knitter/marketer, feel that anything that even remotely smells of feedback immediately qualifies as criticism; that is, something to be taken note of, to be used for the betterment of one’s work, to… Read more »
Charlotte Dixon
Guest
05/07/2010 09:23

Thank you, Evan, for this thoughtful reply, and for linking back to the posts you reference. You are so right–it is very difficult for us to be able to analyze our work objectively. Jessica did a great job of giving us some guidelines on finding someone who can.

Jessica
Guest
05/07/2010 18:33
Hi Evan. You’re right. Sometimes we get so anxious to please and incorporate everyone’s suggestions that we lose the uniqueness in our work. In that case, you need to find a support group who give both helpful criticism and, more importantly, encouragement – telling you what they like about your work. Creativity needs nurturing and the safety to try new things because they won’t turn out perfectly first time. So, as Charlotte mentioned in her post about her Inner Critic, criticism comes later in the project once you’ve done your first draft and freely explored options. It’s perfectly okay to… Read more »
Derek
Guest
Derek
05/08/2010 00:35
When I first started creative writing, I remember how criticism from the rest of the class or teacher would often shoot me down in flames. I would just want to go home file my work and not look at it again, thinking it was useless anyway, so why bother? As a Zen practitioner I had come to realize that I had been conditioned to seek approval and the defence I developed against this approval-seeking was to give up or go all out to prove the all wrong – an all-or-nothing response. It was through the self-reflection of zazen (Zen meditation)… Read more »
Jessica
Guest
05/09/2010 06:31

The all-or-nothing response is a very common one. I think we all face it at one time or another. Thank you for sharing your journey. 🙂 It’s a very difficult response to overcome.

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
05/09/2010 06:50

Derek and Jessica, I used to see this among students when I was studying for my MFA–people would come into workshop with a story, wanting someone to tell them the story was perfect. The actual point of the workshop was to work on stories to improve them, so it was a rather pointless desire. But we get really caught up in that kind of thing when facing criticism. Which is why Jessica’s post is so helpful.

Jessica
Guest
05/24/2010 18:35

Today’s post on Lateral Action mentions 5 strategies for eliciting and using feedback. It mentions some very good points.

http://lateralaction.com/articles/how-to-get-feedback/

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
05/25/2010 10:01

Thanks for the link, Jessica!

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[…] Baverstock has been a great friend and loyal reader of this blog (she's also written a couple of guest posts for me), and when she told me she would be publishing her 100th post last […]

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[…] to have her work critiqued, welcome Jessica Baverstock.  You may remember Jessica from her wonderful guest post here a few weeks ago, or you may know her from reading her great blog, Creativity's Workshop, in […]

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