Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by glorybee » Sat Jul 26, 2014 9:06 am

A FaithWriter asked me a very specific question about how to react when given a devastating review—one that makes you wonder why you even bother to write. I’ll try to answer that, and also the larger question of how to deal with critique in general.

Most of us, when we write, are exposing a part of our soul to the world. When our writing is criticized, it feels as if we ourselves are being criticized—and that really hurts. Nevertheless, we feel called to write, so it’s hard to understand why something that we are so clearly meant to do isn’t always received well.

We all have different emotional tools, and varying thicknesses of skin (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?) So the advice I give here won’t work for everyone, but I hope you can all find something useful in these pointers:

1. First of all, remember that your writing is not YOU. Those who critique it are not criticizing you, no matter how much it may seem so. Most, if not all, of your critics don’t even know you, and if they did, perhaps you’d be the best of friends. All that they know are the words and marks on their computer screen. Try not to take it personally—take a step back and look at what they’ve said about your words with a discerning eye.

2. Did you catch the word discerning in the first pointer? The fact is, not all of your critics will necessarily be correct in what they’ve said. If they have pointed out a writing error--some mistake in spelling, grammar, usage, or punctuation—this is something that you can confirm for yourself. Do a bit of research, or ask someone else who you know to be knowledgeable. If your critic was right, then she has taught you something valuable that you can use to improve your future writing. If your critic was wrong, simply disregard what she said.

3. It’s a little bit trickier if your critic has blasted the content of what you wrote—if they found it improbable, or boring, or childish, or any number of other negative adjectives. Since this is a subjective critique, it’s more difficult to determine if your critic was “right.” Still, there are some things you can do. Look at your critic’s writing. Does she write in your genre? If not, it’s possible that she lacks appreciation of your form or your style, and you can disregard what she said. She’s not your intended audience. If she does write in your genre, determine if she’s good at it. If she is—if her writing appeals to you—then consider that her criticism had some merit, and work at improving, according to her suggestion.

4. Remember that your critic is, like you, a human being, who may be going through any number of situations and trials of her own. Perhaps what you wrote triggered a negative emotion in her or something that she’s been avoiding dealing with. She could be bitter or angry for any number of unknown reasons, and using your writing as a “safe” way to vent. Pray for her.

5. There is a difference between criticism and critique. If you were critiqued, you were given specific things to work on, and hopefully you were given some positive feedback as well. If you were criticized, and it’s obvious that what was said was not delivered in a spirit of helpfulness or kindness—let it go. Give it to God, and put it behind you.

6. I can’t tell you how many FaithWriters have told me some variation of this: I only write what God has told me to write. I can’t believe that people criticize/critique it—I got this writing from God. I’m not particularly interested in learning how to improve my writing, I only want to write what God tells me. How dare you/he/she tell me that there are ways to improve this? God’s words can’t be improved. That always makes me shake my head in disbelief. I don’t doubt that God has inspired them to write—but unless they are writing actual scripture, it seems to me that they’d want to present their inspired words in the best possible way. So if this line of thinking has occurred to you upon receiving critique, please re-think it. Colossians 3:23 (NIV) says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” We need to work at everything to make it worthy of the Lord, and that includes our writing.

How have you dealt with critique, and particularly with negative critique? How have you dealt with criticism?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by Verna » Sat Jul 26, 2014 10:04 am

Jan, that's really a toughie for us thin-skinned ones. Your suggestions are good. I think I have used a number of them. I especially appreciate constructive criticism from someone who writes in my genre. (I do check them out on Faithwriters.) I have found that when someonel unfamiliar with poetry said my meter was off, I noticed some of the lines were longer than others, which didn't affect the meter; however when you suggested it was off, I took notice, got busy studying meter and began to improve in that area.

Once in a writing class, the instructor told me, "Verna, don't try to write about your grandchildren; it comes off sounding sappy." I read a few things I had written, and she was right. I just wrote less on that topic and tried to be less sappy!

I have felt inspiration sometimes for writing, but I've never felt that my presentation had no need for improvement. Maybe when I go to heaven, I can write a perfect one.

I read recently that a poet said a poem is never finished. I think most who write poetry would agree.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by glorybee » Sat Jul 26, 2014 10:18 am

Verna wrote:
I read recently that a poet said a poem is never finished. I think most who write poetry would agree.
And those who write prose, too!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by Allison » Sat Jul 26, 2014 11:36 am

A lot of times, I really don't respond to negative critique, because often, I KNOW that was a weak area in that particular entry. So my response (to myself) is just kind of "Yeah, I was afraid of that." and I try to improve on that the next time.

There are definitely times when someone has pointed out something and I've thought "Oh. Wow. I never even thought about that.Whoops!" and again, I try to take the general critique and apply it to future entries. In my very first challenge entry ever, I had a character holding a rose and moving it around in her hand, even talking about the thorns, but never once getting poked by one of those thorns. Whoops!

And Jan, I think you will remember my infamous criticism. It was most definitely NOT a critique, and I'm not the only person she "got." That piece ended up playing in EC that week. She basically accused me of being on the wrong site, because this was FAITH writers, and I was clearly NOT writing about faith. Even though I had my character praying. It wasn't clear enough to her that he was praying to Jesus/God. I must admit, I kind of wish that comment could be deleted, but oh well. Honestly, at this point, I just ignore it completely or shake my head in disbelief while laughing a bit. I did get affirming comments after that, which helped, but that one definitely stung.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by glorybee » Sat Jul 26, 2014 11:44 am

Allison, I don't remember your infamous critique (sorry), but I had a similar one on my piece that went on to place in the BoB that year, and one on a silly little play about Noah. Both were not "faithy" enough for their critics. In one case, I had an extended email conversation with the woman, pointing out to her the Challenge rules that a piece need not be overtly Christian as long as its consistent with a Christian world view. She wasn't having it, and eventually I just let her have the last word and moved on.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by Allison » Sat Jul 26, 2014 12:28 pm

glorybee wrote:Allison, I don't remember your infamous critique (sorry), but I had a similar one on my piece that went on to place in the BoB that year, and one on a silly little play about Noah. Both were not "faithy" enough for their critics. In one case, I had an extended email conversation with the woman, pointing out to her the Challenge rules that a piece need not be overtly Christian as long as its consistent with a Christian world view. She wasn't having it, and eventually I just let her have the last word and moved on.
Jan, it's this one, 4 from the bottom. I have a feeling it's one of the two you mentioned above who commented on yours, because I still have a PM from you on the boards here about it that I keep as encouragement. :D

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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by WriterFearNot » Sat Jul 26, 2014 1:50 pm

Jan, what great timing...right when I'm receiving the strongest criticism of my life :wink:

Number one says it all. It's important to remember that your writing is not YOU. Writer's become so attached to writing, it can be like walking into a restaurant to meet a bunch of people and they're all like, "I don't understand why you paired those shoes with that skirt. Do you think the scarf was necessary? And next time, I'd go with a little less mascara." But it's not the same. Writing is meant for other people to read. It took me a long time to get that. Early on, my attitude was that "I'm writing for me and you know, if anyone else gets it...cool." But I don't believe that anymore. My writing is meant for other people to read, so I'm interested in how other people "hear" it. And Getting reliable feedback is the best way to know how it sounds outside of my head.

So what is "reliable" feedback? As mentioned in number two, discernment is vital to determining which feedback is reliable. In Allison's example, there's lots of glowing reviews and one sour apple. And the piece placed well. It's clear that the one sour comment is not reliable. (And for the record, that piece was very well written. Tugged on my heart. IMHO, it's false to believe that to show God's glory you have to show that He always, easily turns a frown upside down. I believe it's a crime for writers to simplify God like that. Life is hard on this fallen earth. And it's when we're suffering that we most often turn to Him, and when we're most often blessed by him. One of the most beautiful aspects of God is that He remains at our side through our suffering...not that He makes us happy.)

Which brings me to number 4. Pray for the sour apples. I love that, Jan, because yes, they are human, too.

Regarding number 6: For a writer to believe that he/she is incapable of error (under any circumstance) is delusional. Uh, was that too strong? What I mean is, we're still human, and still prone to error, whether or not we're receiving inspiration from God. I fully believe in divine inspiration for writers. I've received it myself. I've been forced out of bed in the middle of the night because God is telling me to write something, and the thing comes out almost in whole and I can't go back to sleep until it's done. But if God tells me to write something, it's my belief that I should give that piece up to Him. It is not mine. So I wait and see what promptings I receive. So if I should receive critique on it, it would only be because God prompted me to receive critique and if God prompted me to receive critique, I should at least consider the critique I received.

My overall comment: Receiving critique that suggests any kind of improvement is never easy. But I can think of nothing more valuable to a writer than receiving critique suggesting improvement that comes from a reliable source.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by Shann » Sat Jul 26, 2014 3:08 pm

I'll admit I'm paranoid, but also a realist. I'm aware that some of the people who have been hurt by a critique are talking about a comment I left.

I truly believe that most people here leave comments truly come from a place of love and honest desire to help others become the best writer possible. At least, that's where I come from. I guess not everyone does, but I believe on this site at least 95% come from a place of love. I also try to pray before leaving a critique. I think it's important to tell at least 2 "positives" for every negative. That tends to limit the negative comments. If you can only think of two positives, then leave only one negative. (I do it differently for the Critique Circle.)

The most horrible experience I've had is when someone actually wrote a challenge article about me being the reason FW was going down hill. Though he didn't use my name, he described my techniques enough that it was obvious. I had a horribly hard time dealing with this. I sobbed for weeks, almost left FW, and found myself in a dark and dangerous place.

Many people stood up for me. I think what hurt the most was that I hurt someone that badly. It ripped me apart. I've accidentally hurt people before. If they let me know, I immediately apologize. I also explain it's just my opinion and I could be wrong, but my words came from a place of love. Almost everyone has accepted my apology over the years. I've left hundreds of critiques, but only had three people (that I know of) who didn't accept my apology. I've had many people tell me my words stung at first, but after some time they realized the truth in them.

It's not always easy to give critiques, but I believe the challenge is a wonderful tool. If not for the wonderful feedback I've received over the years, I never would have improved as much as I have.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by oursilverstrands » Sat Jul 26, 2014 3:52 pm

I will put on my angel's wings when it comes to receiving negative critique of anything I write. As a writer who is ever learning, I say bring it on. When someone takes the time to read what I write and more time pointing out areas of improvement as they see it, I am always grateful.

However, Satan will try to have his way with me :) when I receive negative criticism, not of my writings but my critiques, (and I've received them aplenty). It's almost like a slap in the face for trying to do a good deed, even though you may have bungled it a bit in one area. Resisting the evil one at such times as that by not internalizing negative responses is not an easy task for me. So I avoid him by steering clear of critiques/comments, except when personally asked.

Your post, Jan, should be a Faithwriter Manifesto and required reading for anyone asking for critiques. Thanks for your insightful words of admonition.



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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by Shann » Sat Jul 26, 2014 5:43 pm

Thanks for sharing Lillian. I truly thought (duh) that I was the only one who had such a hard time when someone was upset over my feedback. It really has crushed me, yet I clearly hear God telling me again and again to leave feedback. Like I said before, I pray before each time. I've often wondered why God doesn't tell me no don't write it when I do hurt people. I guess he has a reason. I've always found your comments to be kind, honest and spot on.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by tomoral » Sat Jul 26, 2014 6:59 pm

I just let it roll off my back. I have learned so much here at Faithwriters from constructive criticism, and if somebody says something I don't like, I check them out, and if they are experienced in such matters I give their advice its due respect. If I don't agree, I just don't agree, but I have never gotten anything from Shann that hurt my feelings. She basically has taught me how to write in the three years I have been here. :bow

However, I do have some genuine friends that take criticism to heart. I try my best to make them see that 99 percent of critiques are meant to help, not hurt, the writer. There is always one or two that just like to criticize, but those I take with a grain of salt. :roll:

Life is just too precious to waste worrying about a critique, people! :superhappy

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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by glorybee » Sat Jul 26, 2014 8:51 pm

I've been gone all day (anniversary outing with my husband), so I won't respond to each of these wonderful posts individually. but I'll thank you all for sharing. I'm particularly interested in those of you who've added your own suggestions and examples of times when you dealt with receiving critique.

Anyone else have something to add? I'm sure I've left out some great ideas.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Sun Jul 27, 2014 12:43 pm

Just lurking. :D

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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by Come forth » Sun Jul 27, 2014 7:26 pm

I think it is important to remember the motive that should be behind every critique... to help.

Sometimes, and I have been guilty, a critique giver can be thoughtless or perhaps over step the mark... but they are only trying to help us to improve as writers. If we can get past the personal hurt then there is normally some good advice in what has been said.

Unless we are taught, practice and study our craft we cannot expect to grow.

I really have needed to develop a heart of thanksgiving for every comment made; perhaps I should make that more present than past tense... learning to develop.

I was frustrated over all of the positive comments for a long while, especially when my rankings didn't reflect the comments. And yet, I've come to see that EVERY comment is helpful in one way or another. Even the most negative and just plain wrong, and I've had a few, were used by God to grow me up and lead me on.

I have a choice... to be in a cloud where I believe I'm God's gift to the writing world and every word comes from Him (I'm putting my name forward for the next pope) or to accept the loving and very precious gift He has given me -- which isn't my writing skill but is the brothers and sisters He has given me to help me grow as a writer and a person.

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Admitting our need to be drawn in,
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Re: Be a Better Writer--DEALING WITH NEGATIVE CRITIQUE

Post by GeraldShuler » Sun Jul 27, 2014 8:20 pm

I have, as have we all, received far more positive feedback than negative. There was one entry, though, that blew me away. It was the first time I had written about a very personal experience in my childhood without putting any fiction candy coating to it. I bore my soul to the public and for the first time the public let me know how horrible I was for writing this article. Some felt I should have ended the piece differently and some even left comments saying they didn't read it at all because of the beginning. I finally had to get in the Challenge forum and explain to faithwriters that I had not intended them to be the audience. I was writing for and to the unsaved who may still be holding unforgiveness in their hearts for past horrible experiences. It took me a long time to get to where I could sit down again and write anything at all. And I still haven't written a non-fiction story for fear of a repeat experience.

But here is the bottom line... I learned. I learned about target audiences and how putting a piece in the wrong market will never be received well. I learned that some people really care when they read and some just read without caring. I learned that even the most negative feedback can be constructive if you critique the critique. I learned that Jan is right in the advice she gave in this lesson.

It really SHOULD be required reading on FaithWriters.

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