Critiques–The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Does A Writer Really Need Them?

As you start your creative apprenticeship and begin to master your craft,  you will most likely ask your friends and family to take a look at your work.  You’ll tell yourself that they will give you an honest critique.  When they say they “love” your work, you’ll be surprised.  You will bask in their praise.  It will be heady like champagne.  You’ll want to bottle it for those darker moments of doubt.  It will be a tonic and elixir.

But eventually, you’ll want a deeper analysis of your work.  You’ll realize that “I love it” may feel good at first, but it doesn’t address the deeper, key issues, such as:  Is the plot working?  Are the characters complex and realistic?  Does the dialogue ring true or does it seem stilted or false?  You’ll also realize that it’s difficult or maybe even impossible to be objective about your own work.  You’ll need an expert’s honest, impartial opinion.  That’s when you’ll work up the courage to ask a “real” writer for his/her opinion and you’ll hope for the best.  At the same time, you’ll brace yourself for a blistering review.  Fears will go round and round in your head.

Blam, Art Prize 2014

2-D, Art Prize Entry, 2014

You’ll wonder what will happen if the review is so damaging that your ego is badly bruised or even crushed.   You’ll wonder what will happen if the reviews confirm your worst suspicions–that your work has little merit and you have no talent.  Do you dare risk it?  Is it too late to ask for your manuscript back?

To help you tame your concerns and put them in perspective, I’d like to share two stories with you.  The first happened in a creative writing class at a prestigious program in Manhattan. Fifteen of us were selected from dozens of applicants.   We all had submitted manuscript samples, which were used to winnow out the less-experienced writers from the more accomplished ones. I was thrilled to be among the “chosen” ones.

On the first day of class, the teacher handed out the same manuscript samples we had submitted.  Our task was to write a brief review of our peer’s work in the next half hour.  I focused on the short story in front of me, reading it several times and jotting down my impressions.  After a half hour or so, the teacher asked for volunteers to read aloud the manuscript and their review.  To my chagrin, the person who had my story volunteered first.   He should have been an actor.  He embellished my dialogue with dramatic sighs and flourishes, worthy of daytime soap opera.  At first, the class listened in silence. But then laughter rippled across the room. It multiplied until it seemed like the entire class was roaring.  His review was no better.  He claimed my work was trite, overly romantic, and silly.  My chest was tight.  Tears pricked my eyes.  I wanted to bolt from the room, but a stubborn pride kept me anchored in my seat, refusing to admit defeat.

The Interview, Art Prize 2014

Job Fair 2, Chelsea Younkman, Art Prize 2014

The teacher listened to the review and smiled briefly, but even I could see that she looked uncomfortable.  She quickly moved on to the next review.  And the next, until the class was over.   My head down, I raced from the room.

When my embarrassment receded, righteous anger took its place. It was unfair for this guy to humiliate me and belittle my work.  After all, who was he?  We were both still mastering our craft.  But I also blamed the teacher for giving us the assignment without including rules about how to critique with respect and fairness.

It took another week to talk myself into going back to class.  Although it was tempting to rage and demand a refund, I think deep down I wanted to prove to the teacher and the idiot who trashed my work that my writing was not trite or silly. I had something to say. And I had some talent. I’d be damned if I’d let this pompous, opinionated and arrogant guy have the final say about my writing.

And so I went back.  Even though the teacher apologized for not stepping in and allowing the other student to embarrass me and mock my work, the damage was already done.   I stayed angry for the rest of the term and paid scant attention to the teacher’s insights and critiques.

Perhaps you are thinking I should have asked for a refund.  It would have been far less painful.  But even though I took the harder route, I learned a great deal from this experience.   At first, it confirmed my worst fears–making me question my skill as a writer and my goal to be a creative artist.  I had to take a hard look at myself, my talent, and my goals.  Once I confirmed my willingness to still pursue my creative dreams, this potentially career-ending experience spurred me to take a hard look at my writing.   Only then, could I admit the truth–that in the creative glow, I had overlooked some flaws.  In my eagerness to get my work “out there,” I had been sloppy at times.  I needed to take the time to perfect my craft.  Cultivating my own editorial objectivity and editing skills were vital to my writing success.

This brings me to my second story about Florence Foster Jenkins, who was a famously awful opera singer who still achieved stardom.  Born in 1868 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Florence was determined to reach her artistic goal–to perform at Carnegie Hall.  To do this, she had to overcome tremendous obstacles, the least of which was an apparent lack of musical ability.  Ignoring her father who told her point-blank that he refused to pay for her musical training because she had no talent, Florence persisted—even with the threat of being financially cut adrift.  On her own, she sailed to Paris and received operatic training.  After marrying a wealthy industrialist, she abandoned her singing career, but returned to it after her husband died and bequeathed his fortune to her.  Returning to New York, she rented a suite in the Biltmore Hotel, hired a pianist to accompany her and resumed her operatic training.

Florence Foster Jenkins from Wikipedia.org

Florence Foster Jenkins from Wikipedia.org

Over dozens of years, she hosted private recitals for her friends who raved about her singing and her lavish costumes, often custom designed for each aria.   Florence believed their praise.   How awful was her singing?  Click the video link below to find out.

Despite her lack of talent, her fame grew, expanding beyond her circle of friends.  Promoters persuaded her to give more performances in larger venues.  And so Florence sang to polite Victorians who stifled their laughter behind their handkerchiefs.  Some ran out of the theater and burst into laughter in the lobby.  Florence sang on.   Even though her biographers disagree about whether she was delusional about her singing ability or simply chose to ignore criticism, Florence achieved her goal on October 25, 1944.  That night she sang to a packed house at Carnegie Hall–the Mount Olympus of musical venues.   Florence didn’t disappoint them.  Once again, she tortured the music.   People in the crowd laughed and clapped at her mistakes.  The critics posted their damning reviews the next day in the local papers.

The play Souvenir,  which is based on Florence’s life, makes the point that she never heard the truth about her singing until her last performance.  Only then, did she doubt her talent and her hubris of performing at Carnegie Hall. Other biographers disagree.  They claim that Florence was buoyed up by a huge ego and she was impervious to the critics’ comments.   They say that she attributed the laughter to “professional jealousy”  and was still convinced  that she had achieved greatness.  They quote her as saying, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”  In the end, they say that Florence died happy shortly afterwards, knowing that she had attained the ultimate goal—of singing to a full house at Carnegie Hall.  On the flip side of the argument, other biographers claim the critics wounded her so deeply that she suffered a heart attack and died less than a month after her performance.

From Florence, I learned several things:  it is dangerous when creative artists insulate themselves from criticism because they won’t grow.  Most literary critics agree that T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” was a stronger poem once Ezra Pound edited it.  The same holds true for Maxwell Perkin’s judicious editing of Thomas Wolfe’s novels.  But at the same time Florence is like many creative artists who hope to prove the critics wrong.  How many literary agents, for example, turned down J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript, claiming that the book was flawed because it didn’t fit any neat literary genre, it was too long, and it would never appeal to children?  How many of us have had to endure the “rubber stamp” of rejection from agents and editors?  How many of us dream of the glorious day of our vindication?

If Florence died of a broken heart, I can fully sympathize with her.  Writers (and other creative artists) need a thick hide, which can’t be pierced with every negative comment.  In fact, we need to be judicious when we evaluate reviews of our work.  We need to give ourselves time to absorb the comments and select the one(s) that we feel are justified.  In the end, our work must please us first and other people second.  It’s also true that artists need to persevere despite overwhelming odds and endure the censure of others, including their own family.   Finally, Florence also brings to mind the hard truth:  the greater our aspirations, the greater the risks.

In closing, I’d like to share with you a few critiquing guidelines, which have served me well throughout my artistic career:

When Giving a Critique:

1.  Be respectful.  Resist the temptation to get on an artistic “high horse” and make value judgements.

2.  Judge the work on its own terms.   Consider the genre and the writer’s artistic aims.

3.  Include your general impressions of the work, its strengths, and its weaknesses.

4.  Provide specific examples to support your point.

When Receiving a Critique:

1.  Try not to be defensive.  Listen first.  Try to hear the message in its entirety before reacting.  It’s tempting to take the comments personally, but remind yourself that the critique is about your work and not you.

Arms Crossed, from the Permanent Collection, the Art Institute of Chicago

Arms Crossed, from the Permanent Collection, the Art Institute of Chicago

2. Ask for specific feedback as well as overall impressions.  If the reviewer simply says, “I liked it,” ask follow-up questions that dig deeper.

3.  If the reviewer doesn’t include specific suggestions to address weaknesses, ask for them.

4.  Don’t act like a martyr.  Your reviewer isn’t really interested in how long you’ve been working on the story or how hard it is to get it just right.

The Martyr, The Art Institute of Chicago, Permanent Collection

The Martyr, The Art Institute of Chicago, Permanent Collection

5.  Take some time to mull over the advice.

6.  Judiciously select portions of the feedback to use in your next revision.   It’s likely that some of your reviewer’s suggestions will “resonate” with you and strike you as true.  Others won’t seem “right.”

Now, it’s time to turn the conversation over to you:   What do you think is a fair and unfair critique?  Have you had to “recover” from a negative review?  Did it ultimately help or hurt you and your work?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

To learn more critiquing tips  or to read the essay Criticism and Self-Criticism, click on the links.

To learn more Florence Foster Jenkins, click on  Queen of the Night or The Peculiar Endurance of Opera’s Greatest Awful Singer.

For other posts on the craft of writing, click the links below:

Why Do You Create?

How to Create a Compelling Fictional World: Part I

How to Create a Compelling Fictional World: Part II

Don’t Let Them See the Duct Tape: Part III of Creating a Compelling Fictional World

7 Tips for Writing Great Dialogue

WPC:  Thresholds in Fiction and In Real Life

8 Common Plot Mistakes You Can Avoid

How To Create a Believable and Terrifying Villain

10 Myths about Writers and Writing

12 Ways to Find Inspiration

What’s A Writer’s Relationship to His/Her Characters?

Curing the First Draft Blues

4 replies »

  1. An interesting post with some really good advice. Perhaps, the other thing that would be useful is to get writers who are interested in the same themes/genres as you are to critique your work. The I don’t like the vampire genre, for example, so while I may appreciate a well-structured piece of writing in the genre, I’m unlikely to enjoy it much or want to review it. The idiot that “reviewed” your work was really not the right person to do so on a number of levels. I’ve had a similar experience with my poetry, but in my case, the reviewer was a published poet who, although rather arrogant and egotistical, did have some good advice. So after the public humiliation receded from memory, I came to appreciate his comments as valid.

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    • Hi Bee. A great point. It’s important to look for advice from people that you trust and people that understand your genre and your artistic aims. And yes, sometimes after the first “sting” of injury and insult, we can find some merit in the review. Thanks so much for sharing your insights! –Patti

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