WHETHER we actually read Shakespeare or not, we’ve all either heard or quoted Mark Antony’s words, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” more than once. Even if the sum total of your education involves Looney Tunes! Yes, Elmer Fudd once performed a great soliloquy.
When we receive invited criticism, it is a grave mistake to refuse to bury the corpse such critique reveals and only focus on what praise remains. In simpler terms – learn from both the positive and negative words of those you respect.
I learned this once again this week as, one by one, the beta readers for my newest work chimed in with their thoughts. First came some great words from a fellow member of our local writers group. Having both grown up in south Louisiana, this one meant a lot:
Now you are hitting full stride with this story. It’s like red beans and rice; it is always better the next day after the seasoning had a chance to soak in for a night. Very engrossing and I liked it a lot from start to end.
But then asking for criticism is not about praising Caesar, so it’s appropriate that someone who liked my first novel wasn’t so enthusiastic about my newest. More to the point, she observed, “Honestly, I just don’t get the point.” So do I ignore that and focus on the praise? Do I just toss the whole thing and start over? Do I cross her off my ‘friends’ list and plunge on ahead?
On learning I am a writer, a minister friend once said to me. “So let me get this straight, you ask people to criticize you. I get plenty of that whether I want it or not.” The look on his face said even more – “You writers are a weird bunch.”
What to do with Criticism
Winton Churchill observed, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Considering the beating Churchill took from a largely ungrateful England in the few years after WWII, what he says about the positive use of criticism means all the more. His memoirs touch on a few ways we can decide to use criticism. Loosely paraphrased, they go like this:
- Avoid it – the British Bulldog would have quoted Aristotle, “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing” Every true writer has learned the hard way that avoiding criticism only leads to one’s words never be: ng heard.
- Ignore it – This is something Churchill never did. His usual morning involved three hours of reading every single word in at least four newspapers, in the bathtub no less. He didn’t ignore what others were saying about him and he got very clean while taking in their insults.
- Learn from it – The aforementioned beta reader was honest that it isn’t my writing but the whole genre of dystopian fiction that she doesn’t get. A ‘no thank you’ from a trusted reader has as much value as the ‘I can’t wait to read the next one’ from someone else. That honest criticism has value in that it reminds me that every honest reader is not going to appreciate every good story.
- Focus on Doing – Churchill never allowed negative criticism to dull his focus. He had a nation to save and everything else was secondary. William Faulker never read reviews and perhaps for him, that was the only way he could remain focused on what he loved, writing.
The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.~ William Faulkner
The Bottom Line
When it comes to criticism, I think the balanced approach of Churchill is best. When criticized: Don’t avoid it, don’t ignore it, do learn from it.
And then – Keep right on doing what you know you need and love to do.