by Daniella Levy
It hurts to hear people say negative things about something you poured your heart and soul into. It hurts to recognize that you are not perfect at what you do and can always use improvement.
However, criticism–good criticism–is a very powerful raw material you can use to build yourself as an artist.
People generally react to criticism non-constructively in one of two ways: resistance (dismissing, arguing, or denying) or withering (collapsing in feelings of shame and inadequacy). Both of these reactions deny you the opportunity to learn and grow from the feedback.
To get the most out of criticism, you have to be humble enough to admit your work has faults, yet confident enough that you won’t wither. You have to push past the instinct to get defensive, and instead, get curious about how the criticism can help you improve your craft.
Let’s break it down into five steps.
Step 1: Filter out bad criticism
The only kind of criticism that is worth listening to has three components:
- It’s constructive; meaning, its purpose is to build you, not belittle you.
- It resonates; meaning, you think there is truth in it.
- It addresses specific issues with your piece or your technique.
Anything that does not meet these criteria goes straight in the trash where it belongs.
Some examples of bad criticism:
- “This is terrible”
- “This is a pile of crap”
- “This sucks”
- “This hurts my eyes”
Some examples of good criticism (and I’m limiting them to the writing world because I know nothing about critiquing art!):
- “I felt that this character wasn’t developed enough. I’d like to get to know him better”
- “I wasn’t drawn in; the hook wasn’t strong”
- “The descriptions were too wordy”
- “Too much showing, not enough telling”
- “The structure of this paragraph is confusing”
>>This goes for what you say to yourself, too.<<
I’ve heard so many people say things about their work they would never say about someone else’s (to their face, anyway). “This is a pile of crap” is not constructive criticism, it is bullying.
Self-bullying, similarly to regular bullying, is an attempt to distance yourself from your faults and shield yourself from criticism. “Well of course it was rejected, it’s a pile of crap anyway, and I can see that now. No one else needs to tell me.”
Nope. This is not humility or being good at accepting criticism. It is the exact opposite: it is using your own harsh criticism to stave off whatever (potentially useful!) criticism might come from other people. This is not constructive.
And you don’t deserve to be bullied by anybody, yourself included.
Step 2: Breathe
Criticism always hurts. Let it hurt. But remember that you are here because you were brave. You wouldn’t be getting criticism if you hadn’t dared to share your work with someone and risk the criticism in the first place. Celebrate your courage, and nurse your wounds.
But the sooner you can move on to the next step, the better you will feel.
Step 3: Get as much information as you can
In the early days of submitting my upcoming novel to literary agents, I got a rejection I found particularly disheartening. Here’s what the agent said: “I wanted so much to want it, because I share your interest in crypto-Jews and those who fled the Inquisition. I feel the manuscript (sample that I read) is much too telling and not enough showing, if you know what I mean? I’d welcome taking another look if you revise the heck out of it. I do wish you the best of luck.”
In other words, she liked the idea, but felt the writing wasn’t good enough.
…Ouch. That is definitely not something that is easy to hear.
But you know what I did?
Something I’d never dared to do before.
I wrote back.
I thanked her for the feedback and asked if she would be willing to be more specific about the parts she thought were too “telling” and not “showing.”
I knew this was a lot to ask from a busy literary agent, but felt emboldened by her willingness to look at a revision. I was more than happy to revise it, but wasn’t seeing what she was seeing. I needed some guidance. I knew it was a long shot, but I thought that if she could just be more specific with the critique, I would be able to do something with it.
To my delight, she wrote back and sent me my first sample chapter with comments! She pointed out specific paragraphs that could be “shown” rather than “told.” She said that she found one character’s dialogue style unrealistic, and mentioned that “nothing really happens in this chapter.”
Step 4: Ask yourself: what can I do to address these issues?
The agent’s comments were enormously helpful because they identified specific issues to address:
- Less telling, more showing
- Unrealistic dialogue
- “Info dumps”
- First chapter doesn’t have enough action
Step 5: Re-engage with your work–and enjoy!
So I went back to the manuscript and tried to implement what I’d learned. I cut “info dumps” and tried to introduce information more organically. I scoured the manuscript for things that could be “shown” rather than “told.” I changed that character’s dialogue to sound more believable. And I asked myself: what could be happening in this first chapter that will introduce the characters and set up the plot well? How can I make it more compelling? I had an idea, and rewrote most of the chapter accordingly.
When I was finished, I was very satisfied and pleased, because I felt the novel had improved greatly thanks to the changes I’d made.
And I must have been right, because the very first query I sent with the revised sample resulted in my first full manuscript request for that book.
(In case you’re wondering: I did send it to the helpful agent to ask if she’d like to take another look, but she didn’t respond, and shortly thereafter she stopped representing manuscripts in my genre…)
I can’t tell you how much my writing has improved thanks to comments from readers–from literary agents and editors to non-writer friends.
I know criticism is hard and painful, but trust me on this. If you learn to use it right, you might even start to love it.
This post is dedicated to Rachel C. for being a patron of A Writer’s Path.
Daniella Levy is the author of Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism, and her debut novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, is now available for pre-order from Kasva Press ahead of its October release. Her blog, The Rejection Survival Guide, explores the creative life and resilience in the face of rejection. She also blogs about Judaism and life in Israel at LetterstoJosep.com, and her articles, short fiction, and poetry have been published by Writer’s Digest, Kveller, Reckoning, Newfound, the Rathalla Review, the Jewish Literary Journal, Silver Birch Press, and more.