Welcome to Part 2 of 2 guest blogs by Joe Ponepinto. Joe is a graduate of the MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and is currently the Book Review Editor for the Los Angeles Review, a literary journal published by Red Hen Press in Southern California. Joe was a journalist, political speechwriter and business owner before turning to writing full time. He’s founder and president of the board of the Suburban Detroit Reading Series. His work has been published in journals including Vestal Review, Fifth Wednesday, Raven Chronicles and others. Joe blogs at http://otnipenop.com/.
On Criticism, Part 2: "Learning to Take It"
By Joe Ponepinto
Having your work critiqued by a writers’ group is something like voluntarily submitting to an intervention. Everyone tells you they love you (or at least, your efforts), and then proceeds to list everything they think is wrong with you and how you need to change it. Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but when you’re on the receiving end of a particularly rough critique session, it can seem this way.
As I said in the previous post, many writers act as though critiquing a story means they MUST find fault with it, and they spare no effort to see flaws in plot, point of view, tense, tone, theme … you name it, often forgetting to praise what they did like, or more importantly, to assess the author’s intentions and how well s/he carried them out.
I’ve seen many writers crushed as stories they believed were their best work were ripped to shreds. And I’ve seen many of those writers never return to their groups. I don’t have to imagine what they felt, because I experienced the same thing when I was much younger, and I didn’t write creatively again for years.
The usual response to any appeal to be positive in critiques is, “A writer has to have a thick skin,” or “If a person can’t take it, he has no business being a writer.” There’s some truth to those sayings, but remember that for most writers, the craft is very personal, and they have a tendency to take criticism aimed at the writing as attacks on their worth as a person.
Over the years, I’ve developed a few techniques for dealing with criticism. The goal of these is to put some perspective on the practice, so that it can be useful, without being harmful. Keeping these in mind helps me from viewing criticism as an attack on my ability to write.
1. Consider the Source: Who’s delivering the criticism? How much writing experience does this person have? Has s/he been published? Amateur status doesn’t invalidate criticism, but I’ve found that sometimes the most vociferous criticism comes from writers with the least publishing experience. The most experienced writers in a group usually restrict their comments to suggestions (rather than absolutes) about how to make the work better.
2. Does the criticism pertain to literary conventions, or is it based on the critic’s personal taste? Pay close attention to what’s being said. A bad critic will invoke personal opinion without using a source or examples from literature. A good critic will attempt to analyze the author’s craft in relation to his/her intention, as well as back up the opinion with outside references.
3. Inaccuracies in the Reading: When a critic brings up points in a story that are clearly inaccurate, such as character names or specific events, I tend to tune out the comments. This happens often when the reader disliked the subject, or the particular genre or style of the piece, and had to force him/herself to read the entire text, usually by skimming instead of reading closely. But reading closely to determine the author’s intent and ability to use craft is what critiquing is all about. A critique based on a bad reading is no critique at all. I’d actually prefer a critic to tell me s/he just couldn’t get into the story (although it was extremely well written, of course), and therefore will not offer a critique. I can handle readers disliking the style or subject—what I can’t stand is the sometimes mean-spirited critique that results from that.
4. What if the group’s criticism is divided? Occasionally members of a group will split as to whether an aspect of a story worked or not. Unless the people who didn’t like it have a strong rationale for change, I usually look at the plus side. If it worked for some people, it will work for others. Remember, no piece of writing will work for everyone, and it’s futile to try to make it that way.
5. A Preponderance of Feeling: But if a strong majority of the reviewers finds the same problem in a story, that’s when a writer should take the criticism seriously.
6. The Importance of Time in Accepting Criticism: Since I’m going to wait a few weeks or months before attempting the next draft of a story, it gives me time to let the criticism it’s received chip away at the wall of my writing subconscious. I admit (and you can probably tell from these tips) that I don’t yield to much criticism. But I find that over time, the more valid points of criticism linger, and refuse to be dismissed. By then, the protectiveness in which I encase my first drafts softens, and I’m more willing to accept the aspects of the story that need improvement.
For more great blogs and commentaries by Joe Ponepinto, be sure to visit his blog: http://otnipenop.com/
I’m pleased to share another guest blog next Thursday, with poet and publisher Tonja Bagwell. Tonja is the curator of the Poetic Travelers reading series at Lawrence Street Gallery in Ferndale MI and the publisher of Jafansta, Inc. Come by next week to hear Tonja discuss upcoming events and new releases.