Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Embracing the Critique

It is, pardon the phrasing, a critical skill for any profession. And it is a skill. It is not about toughening up, it is not about having no ego (or being all ego), it is a skill you can learn. Painfully, usually, but you can learn it.

Once you have it, the pain of critique dulls down to a bruise you keep poking from its initial screaming skin-peeling horror. After you hone the skill, you will start craving the critique, seeking out more and more sharp, incisive critiques across everything you create.

The key skill is being able to objectify the input so you can see the underlying truths in it instead of reacting to the tone, the person, or the ever-present internal monologue that says you're not a good writer.

Separate You From Your Work

In all cases, you have to divorce yourself rapidly from believing that a critique of your skills or writing is somehow a judgement on your value as a human being. This is by far the greatest hurdle you will have to overcome in order to develop the skill of embracing a critique. 

You are not your work. Your work, is, however, a part of you. So is your poop. And your snot. And the hairs that shed through the day. Your urine, and other excretions. Not everything you produce is awesome. You do not, I am certain, save every hair, every tear, every ejaculation (verbal or otherwise) and hold them sacred and untouchable, so do not hold every word that way either.

As you evaluate your poop to determine if your diet is balanced and health is good, so too should you evaluate your writing -- with clinical and objective distance. 

Understand the Source

Like in many things, the critique says more about the critique-er than you or your writing. Some people focus on the nitty-gritty, the details, the layout, the structure of your writing. Others, the arc, the meaning, the overall effect. Some get hung up on their own pet peeves (I would wager that is actually most, if not all of us), and some of those pet peeves come from years of valuable experience. 

Understand who is offering the critique, and you will know what the highest value will be within it.

Neutralize the Input

There is, of course, a world of difference between "I didn't like it" and "It sucks", and accepting that is one of the tougher parts of accepting a critique.

Like separating yourself from your work, separating what is said from what is meant is a vital skill. There will be people, possibly many people, who will not bother differentiating. If they don't like it, it therefore sucks. The question becomes how do you know whether they dislike it because of personal preference or because there is something wrong with the writing that you can fix?

Dig deeper! You're always seeking the underlying issue, and to see if it's something that you can adjust in your writing, a continual panning for critique gold. Ask what they feel sucks, where they didn't like it, where they fell out of the story.

You are looking for the truths, not how they are stated, no matter who offers you the critique.

Sometimes You Will Miss the Mark

It is an unfortunate truth; sometimes the writing misses the mark. Sometimes you don't communicate what you think you're communicating. Critiques, or feedback, help you see what is still stuck in your head, what isn't making it across that barrier clearly.

Accepting that missing the mark is just one moment in a long line of moments -- not a prediction of all futures, nor a measure of all pasts -- makes the whole process of writing and getting critiques easier to handle.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

What do you want from the critique? Focus on that and let the rest of it fall away until you can use it. You may want to know:
  • Did you succeed in communicating what you intended to communicate?
  • What is the trend across all of the critique/feedback? 
  • What was hidden to you before the critiques about your writing?
  • Where do you need to focus your growth? 
  • Is the story arc clear?
  • Are the characters believable?
  • Is the format ready to send to a publisher?
Ready? Go get 'em!

(And in the spirit of bravely inviting critique, please let loose the feedback in the comments to let me know if this post met its goals of making critique less painful (more desirable). What could I fix? What did I get right? All types of critique are welcome!)

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