I've saved one of the hardest lessons for near the end. I don't know anyone who enjoys negative criticism, especially of creative work. But such criticism can be priceless -- if you learn how to use it. The right frame of mind can transform criticism that is nasty, petty, insincere, biased, even profane, into gold.
This alchemy requires one magic strategy: The receptive writer must convert debate into conversation. In a debate, one side listens only to find a counter-argument. In a conversation, there is give and take. A debate ends with a winner and a loser. A conversation can conclude with both sides learning, and a promise of more to come.
As hard as it is to follow, I long ago made a resolution that will sound like a Herculean impossibility: I never defend my story against criticism.
Not defend your story? That sounds as impossible as not blowing out a match as it burns toward your fingers. The reflex to defend your work against attack is a force of nature, the literary equivalent of flight or fight.
Let's take a hypothetical example. Say I've written this news lead out of a city council meeting: "Should the Seattle police be able to peep at the peepers in the peep shows?"
Now say I get this criticism from an editor. "Roy, you've got much too much peeping going on here for my taste. You've turned a serious story about privacy into a cute play on words. I was expecting Little Bo Peep to show up. Ha, ha."
Such criticism is likely to make me angry and defensive, but I've come to believe that argument is useless. I like all that peeping. My editor hates it. He prefers a lead such as, "The city council debated whether the Seattle police should be able to go undercover as part of the effort to see whether adult businesses are adhering to municipal regulations of their activities." My editor suffers from omnivorous gravity. He thinks I suffer from irreversible levity.
One of the oldest bits of wisdom about art goes like this, and please excuse the Latin: "De gustibus non est disputandum." There can be no arguing about matters of taste. I think "Moby Dick" is too long. You think abstract art is too abstract. My chili is too spicy. You reach for the Tabasco.
What, then, is the alternative to a donnybrook? If I don't fight to defend my work, won't I lose control to people who do not share my values?
Here's the alternative: Never defend your work, but explain what you were trying to accomplish. So, "Jack, I can see that all that peeping in my lead didn't work for you. I was just trying to find a way for readers to be able to see the impact of this policy. I didn't want to let the police action get lost in a lot of bureaucratic language." That response is more likely to turn a debate (one the writer is likely to lose) into a conversation (in which the editor might convert from adversary to ally).
My friend Anthea Penrose offered a negative criticism of my short, short chapters for the serial narrative "Three Little Words." She said something like, "It wasn't enough for me. Just when I was getting into it, you were finished. I wanted more."
How could I possibly change her mind? And why should I? If the chapters are too short for her, they are too short. So here was my response: "Anthea, you're not the first one to respond that way to the short chapters. They clearly do not work for some readers. By using short chapters, I was trying to lure into the story time-starved readers who say they never read any enterprise work. I've received a few messages from readers who told me they appreciate my concern for their time, that this is the first series in the Times that they have ever read."
Another critic: "I hated the way you ended that chapter after Jane was tested for HIV and didn't tell the me results of the test right away. I wanted to know now. But you made me wait until the next day's paper. I thought that was really exploitative."
My response: "You know, Jane was tested a number of times, and back then she might have to wait a couple of weeks for the results. I came to understand how excruciating it must have been to wait that long, with life and death in the balance. So I thought if I made the reader wait overnight for the results, it would get you to identify with her plight and empathize."
Such a response always softened the tone of the critic and tore down the wall between us. Knocking down the obstacle created openings for conversation, for questioning, for learning on both sides.
- Do not fall into the trap of arguing about matters of taste.
- Do not, as a reflex, defend your work against negative criticism.
- Explain to your critic what you were attempting to do.
- Transform arguments into conversations.
Even when the attack is personal, try to deflect it in your mind back onto the work. "What was it in the story that would provoke such anger?" If you can learn to use criticism in these ways, you will continue to grow and grow as a writer throughout your career.
1. Remember a time when someone delivered harsh criticism of your writing. Write down the criticism. Force yourself to write down something you learned from the criticism that you can apply to your future work.
2. Using that same example of criticism, write a memo to your critic explaining what you were trying to accomplish by writing the story the way you did.
3. Be your own harshest critic. Review a batch of your stories and write down ways that each could have been better.
4. People tend to be harsher and more insensitive when they deliver criticism from a distance via e-mail. The next time you receive criticism this way, resist the urge to fire back a response. Take some time to recover. Then practice the advice offered above: explain to your critic what you were trying to accomplish.
5. Writers often know what is wrong with a story when they hand it in. Sometimes we try to hide these weaknesses from editors. What would happen if we began to express them as part of the writing and editing process? Perhaps this would change the nature of the conversation and get writers and editors working together.