In Your Corner: What is Criticism & What Can It Do For Me?

The latent question lurking under the title of this post is perhaps a more honest one, but we’ll talk about honesty versus insight in a moment. You might say we’re going to spend this post looking at:

Can Criticism Be Anything Other Than A Tool Of The Snob & A Misery For Everyone Else?

But as you can see, that title is a bit too long to fit, despite feeling more accurate (to me, anyway. I suppose I’m projecting some of my fears here. Apologies if that doesn’t hold true for you!).

The last time I was in a setting where I was exposed to criticism of my writing from multiple points of view was during my last stint as a student. For many of you, that will also be true, but some of you are lucky enough to have stumbled across writing clubs and manuscript exchanges where you can get some of the same experiences outside of academia. This post is geared towards any author who is looking to develop some serious skills in giving and taking constructive criticism, however, not just those in structured group environments.

Here’s a truth:

No matter how well-prepared you are to receive it, any kind of correction or less-than-enthusiastic take on your writing can fall like a blow. The only times where this hasn’t felt true to me were when I was completely wiped out from pulling all-nighters and didn’t have the emotional capacity to take in what I was hearing. (Don’t be that person. Don’t stay up all night to get this effect! It comes with other problems. It’s not an admirable skill to cultivate.) Accept that it’s going to hurt, or feel uncomfortable, or at the very least come awkwardly.

If you relax too much, you might fall into the trap of being honest instead of insightful.

What do I mean by this? I mean that not everything is useful to hear. I’m being serious here. Not everything is useful to hear. The key to giving constructive criticism is in paying attention to both your own personal needs and to the expressed needs and wishes of your fellow writers. Don’t, for example, spend a lot of time breaking down spelling errors and grammatical issues if the author whose manuscript you’re reviewing has asked you to pay attention to plot holes and characterization. Maybe the spelling stuff can be dealt with later, or will naturally resolve itself as the author moves into his or her next draft. But it’s not something that will help that author right now, so it’s best to focus on what will.

Pro tip: when you’re the one receiving the criticism, you can’t always get people to act this way toward you … but you should always be free to lay some ground rules and boundaries for what sort of feedback you want. I’ve had professors give caveats at the beginning of every semester about how to respect and support other authors, so it’s worth approaching whoever is facilitating your group meetings and requesting this, or if you’re doing it digitally you can store some guidelines as a file on Dropbox.com or Google Docs for easy access. If your consortium is a little more casual than this, maybe take a line from Christopher Nolan’s movie, Interstellar:

 

Cooper: Hey TARS, what’s your honesty parameter?
TARS: 90 percent.
Cooper: 90 percent?
TARS: Absolute honesty isn’t always the most diplomatic nor the safest form of communication with emotional beings.
Cooper: Okay, 90 percent it is.

But look, you’re not a robot or a space-farer (probably), and you are in need of the support and guidance of your fellow authors. So how do you take part in that community in a way that produces construction (the building of something good and new) rather than a cataclysm of doubt?

Simplicity is the enemy.

Seriously, though. Saying “this story was badly written and I dislike it” is definitely critical, but it leaves no room for construction. Along the same lines, unabashed praise–“I loved it! It’s great!”–creates a similar vacuum of opportunity. A few small compliments throughout a critique may be helpful for keeping morale high, but they’re not your stock and trade. They can’t be your bread and butter, or no work will get done.

So complicate it. And ask for people to complicate their feedback, if it’s too simple.

Giving is as good as receiving, if not better.

Okay, maybe not better. But it’s important, this giving thing. Honing your critical capacities on someone else’s work–and seeing how other authors receive specific kinds of insights–will help you understand what to do with criticism when you’re on the receiving end of it … and it will also help you spot flaws in your own work before anyone else even looks at it. As other, wiser people have said: It’s one thing to develop a nagging sense that something is wrong with a work, but to be able to figure out where that sense of wrongness is coming from–character, language, plot, or something else–and then act to address it is what differentiates good authors from great authors.

 

It’s not personal.

It’s not, we promise, but it will sure feel like it is–especially if, as we mentioned earlier, someone takes a snobby approach (they’re no doubt working on some personal crisis of identity or insecurity of their own). Still, try to put aside your personal feelings, and bring an objective lens to what you’re looking at. Your manuscript and the manuscripts of others are mysteries waiting to be deconstructed and reconstructed. And even if you’re not a fan of the genre of manuscript you’re reading, you can still be useful to the author by putting your personal tastes aside and looking at the bricks and mortar of what makes for universally good storytelling.

Take notes.

Many workshops limit the author being critiqued from responding during the main critique session, but every group looks different. I’ve found that even without that restriction, simply watching and observing is more useful than trying to guide the conversation myself–if I do, I end up missing out on really useful advice I didn’t even think to consider asking for! So … take notes. It will distract you when the criticism is too pointed or your feelings too close under the surface, and it’s also just good advice for retaining detailed memories of the event. You can dispense with any advice that isn’t useful once you’re out and away from the session, or some advice might leap out to you later that didn’t in the moment. Time and distance is a great healer, no?

Lead with the positive.

Choose a handful of things the author did well–specific things–before diving into the rest of your critique. It’s also a good idea to end with a positive, for mood boosting effects. You can’t control how others do this on your work, of course, unless you make it a part of your collectively-agreed-upon rules for critiquing, as mentioned earlier. But remember, specific is vital. If you liked a character, what did you love about her? Was it her snappy dialogue, her peculiar tics and traits, or her back story as a mathematician during the Space Race that fascinated you?

Find your ideal reader(s).

Every workshop has one or two people who really know how to give good, useful, smart, and insightful constructive criticism. Latch on to those people and never let them go. Some of the people who were ideal readers while I was in college are still in touch today, and we still do good work together. There’s something symbiotic about it, of course–they get my work, and I get theirs, so the feedback goes both ways–but these people have become something more than just workshop fellows. They’ve become friends.

 

Joining a critique session is anxiety-inducing, there’s no mistake. But when everyone participates in good faith, it can be one of the most enriching experiences of your life as a writer.

“Don’t trust a mirror that only tells you how wonderful you look.”

― Matshona Dhliwayo

criticism

 

You are not alone. ♣︎


Elizabeth

ABOUT ELIZABETH JAVOR: With over 18 years of experience in sales and management, Elizabeth Javor works as the Manager of Author Services for Outskirts Press. The Author Services Department is composed of knowledgeable publishing consultants, pre-production specialists, customer service reps and book marketing specialists; together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Elizabeth Javor can put you on the right path.

Marketing BASICS : Silencing Your Own Inner Critic

In this, my last post in this Marketing B.A.S.I.C.S. series, I’m going to keep things simple.  Or rather, I’m going to keep them as simple as is possible when dealing with a highly complicated situation.  Marketing, as you’re most likely very well aware already, is no joke.  It’s not easy.  It’s not even moderately difficult.  It’s hard.  Especially for the fledgling self-publishing author who’s looking to make a break from the traditional mode and its dependence on the commercial machine.


 

The Recap

Five weeks ago I launched the Marketing B.A.S.I.C.S. series with this introductory post, followed by posts that broke it down letter by letter:

… and last but not least, as you no doubt have already guessed, we’ll be looking at:

  • S. “Silencing Your Own Inner Critic.”

You’ve probably heard it said:

We are our own worst critics.  As authors, we demand perfection from the words we spill in pen and pixels across the blank page and screen.  We hold ourselves to impossibly high standards that we subject no other person in the world to, except perhaps our religious and sporting icons.  But even then, quirks and flaws tend to round out the narratives we love to follow.  Only, not in our own writing.  The tiniest error, the slightest imperfection, the minutest of mistakes, and we latch on like barnacles to a cargo ship’s hull.  And, well, barnacles are a terrible nuisance.

The error-fixating mindset to which authors are prone isn’t confined to the writing process, either.  It bleeds beyond the margins and into the world of marketing, especially when we consider marketing from a self-publishing standpoint.  The buck stops here, an indie author might say, because I’m the only one in this self-publishing machine.  If I want it done, I have to go out and do it, by golly.  And while that may be true to an extent, there’s venom in the assumption that marketing your self-published book has to be an exhausting and isolating experience.  As we’ve already discussed in previous posts, there’s both a paid professional community and a thriving social network that feeds the self-publishing industry.  You’re not alone, and recognizing this is key to silencing your own inner self-critic.  Knowing that there are resources out there to lean on to strengthen your work and your marketing strategy takes a load off … as long as you’re open to accepting outside help.

How else can we silence that inner critic?

I find the best way to move forward is, well, to move forward.  To willingly put on the blinkers to any and all negative voices that might wander through our minds and lead to self-doubt, distraction, and stagnancy.  We must fill the silence with the sound of our progress, and deafen our doubts by continuing to do what we love most: writing.  Never forget that you are, first and foremost, a writer!

silencing your own inner critic

Silencing your inner critic is wonderful.  But your critic is, often, just a reflection of the highly critical world we live in, where expressing dissatisfaction has become high fashion.  Perhaps we should all do as Israelmore Ayivor recommends and “Don’t agree to accept what critics say; be prepared to silence them by doing what they think you can’t do!”  Silence your own inner critic, and all the world’s many malcontents, by loving what you do so much that you don’t even see the obstacles in your way–and you’ll fly right through them like quantum particles burning through the universe.


Thank you for reading!  If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or contributions, please use the comment field below or drop us a line at selfpublishingadvice@gmail.com.  And remember to check back each Wednesday for your weekly dose of marketing musings from one indie, hybrid, and self-published author to another. ♠

KellyABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog, kellyschuknecht.com.

Ask the Book Doctor: Editing and Reviews

Q: I have started to write a novel based on facts [that took place] in the 1865-1880 time frame [sic]. I have no experience writing anything, I just know I wish to write a story. Is there some where [sic] to send a few chapters to be read over to determine if there is hope in proceeding [with] it. [sic]

 

A: I am one of many editors who provide professional feedback for a fee, but if you want free feedback, join a critique group and get free feedback from peers, to see if fellow readers find the information captivating.

 

My strongest suggestion is to take a class or a course in creative writing before or while attempting to tackle writing a novel. Creative writing requires much more than simply owning a computer and knowing how to type, and novels require even more specialized knowledge, such as how to handle pace, point of view, dialogue, characterization, and plot, among other things. Any good creative writing teacher will also give you feedback on some of the writing, during the time you take a course.

 

Although I don’t believe e-mails have to be flawless, the errors in the one asking this question show me that the novel will need careful editing before it is ready to market.

 

If you want professional feedback, or if you do not want to take a class or join a critique circle, or if you can’t find anything suitable in your area, by all means go to my Web site at http://www.zebraeditor.com, click on “Editing Request Form,” and follow the prompts to learn now to submit work to me for a professional evaluation and/or editing.

 

Bobbie Christmas, book doctor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Read more “Ask the Book Doctor” questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.