Does Critique of Your Writing Hurt?

Yesterday my new writers group held our first session of slow torture  helpful critique. Since it was the first, members were hesitant to volunteer. I stepped up as I have pretty thick skin when it comes to my writing (or so I thought). One of my editors told me years ago she loved working with me because I was perhaps her only client who was not “married to every word.” I’ve always been open to learning how much work can be improved and never took the corrections personally. I wasn’t even sure why any writer would.

Until yesterday.

The sample I offered was an excerpt from Tales From the Family Crypt. I chose the chapter where my father dies in my house. I felt it showcased the humor, (yes, even at the death scene) poignancy and overall tone/style of the book. Group members had read the excerpt in advance and came prepared to share their feedback. It started well. The first reader said “I love Sid!” Sid is my dad and from the little bit she read, she was enamored with his peculiar and spectacular character. As he’s been dead for 20 years it was lovely for me to know he still had it and I succeeded in painting a compelling picture of him. So that made me feel warm and fuzzy.

Two more members spoke and praised the work overall. Said they completely enjoyed the excerpt and wanted to read more. (I gave them copies of the book on the spot!)

The next reader basically said he questioned the narrator’s (aka me) motivation for being, well… somewhat bitchy in telling this story of family dysfunction in the first place. He said he wonders about anyone who tells a story in which the narrator is sane and everyone else is crazy. I responded I understood his point and perhaps if he had been able to read the entire book he wouldn’t have felt the same way. That’s the difficulty in working only with an excerpt and not a complete work, I suggested. But, then I had to ask, “But what if the narrator (aka me) IS the only sane person in the group?”  I mean I had no control over what the siblings in this story did. It’s nonfiction.

The next person was complimentary about my writing. She said she loved the way I wrote; my style is easy to read and wonderfully descriptive. She asked a plot-related question I attempted to answer graciously. She added she thought I could have developed the death scene in more depth. I agreed to look at it again.

Here’s the thing, I thanked each speaker for the feedback and I thought I was accepting all criticism gracefully.

But then the group moderator suggested I stop being defensive and perhaps wait until all the members had spoken before I responded.

What? I was defensive? I thought I was just responsive. So I’m left wondering what happened to my thick skin? Have I become married to every word? Or is writing a memoir a whole different animal from what I’ve written before — parenting books and children’s books?

How do you handle critique?

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15 thoughts on “Does Critique of Your Writing Hurt?

  1. Reblogged this on Brett P. S. and commented:
    I’ve been in this situation a couple of times and reacted similarly, unfortunately. I tend to think it’s a reflex to want to explain to somehow how they should just read a little further. At least, for me it is and being married to every word is something I’ve had to work on steadily over the years. I think I reached a happy medium where I can handle criticism most of the time and I can reflect on it to make appropriate changes in my work.

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  2. Although I haven’t really had my writing criticised since high school seeing as how this is the first place I started writing again, I tend to take it pretty well in general. That is, unless it comes from my husband, from him, it gets to me and I feel the need to “defend” myself. Sounds like your reaction to the critique was more of a defense to explain yourself because it felt like the man was attacking you more than your writing.

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    1. I suspect you might be right. I mean logically I knew he wasn’t attacking me but maybe emotionally I reacted without logic interfering. Thanks for commenting and trying to help me.

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  3. Let’s give this group the credit of the doubt. It was the first time. However, if the moderator or group expectations were that all comments would be given prior to your response, that should have been stated at the outset. Frankly, I think that approach is fine when it’s a lecture, but a bit much if the goal is to have a discussion. Having read the book myself, you really don’t set yourself up as being perfect. There are a places when the family members make you a little crazy (an appropriate response), though certainly not to the degree of insane actions exhibited by many others. My suggestion is that ground rules should be established at the beginning and that if a writer has created 3 pages and is stuck, you all read the 3 pages. If it’s a book, then the book should be read in its entirety.

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    1. I don’t mean to disparage the group, they are remarkably open and helpful. But I agree the procedure probably should have been outlined before we began. However, I did volunteer to be first so I have to take some responsibility. I appreciate your reaction after reading that you don’t see me as having portrayed myself as perfect. I was trying to be honest and I know I had some part in everything that happened. It’s nice to know you see me as at least not being as crazy as the others in the family! That’s a relief. We did discuss in the group that excerpts might not work well as samples for critique but overall the group decided that an excerpt should be able to stand on its own as to the quality of the writing. I still think, though, that maybe excerpts aren’t the best choice. Thanks for taking the time to comment. You are always a voice of reason!

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    2. I completely agree. It it’s set up as a discussion then some back-and-forth is to be expected, and for you to explain why you’ve written something as you did (and there’s always a reason) should not necessarily be interpreted as defensiveness. There are rarely black-and-white answers, and you might still acknowledge that the reader has a good point and may still make changes as a result. The writer shouldn’t be too precious about their writing, but neither should the readers be too precious about their views. It’s all a matter of opinion; and at the end of it, after listening and discussing and then reflecting afterwards, only you, the writer, can decide what to do about it.

      Taking criticism can be hard, but you did take it, so well done. It’s essential, because there are almost always ways your writing can be made better. And at least you had some positives from it too – if there was no praise at all, that’s when you should worry!

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      1. I appreciate your taking the time to write this. You make a number of salient points. I did, as you say, reflect afterwards and make some changes so in the end it was a worthwhile experience. I’m glad you understood I wasn’t being defensive. I really didn’t think so. Maybe it was the speaker’s feeling that she would have been defensive in the “hot” seat but I didn’t feel attacked so much as part of the discussion. Sounds like you know whereof you write! Thanks.

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  4. I rarely have a problem with criticism because I tend to be my own worst critic. In my journalism career, I edited far more than I wrote, and since retiring and starting to blog, that practice has continued. Most everything I write is revised from 35-50 times before I ever hit the Publish button. When I do seek outside opinion on something I’ve written, my reaction is usually one of surprise for not having already considered that particular viewpoint myself. I’m certainly not averse to making changes. Even when I don’t agree with a particular critique, I’ll often make changes, not as a concession to the critic, but out of recognition that it doesn’t have to be my way or the critic’s way, but that there might be a third option that will improve the result. I see criticism as an opportunity to revisit everything. Yes, negative criticism can sting a bit, but in the end, it’s more valuable than praise. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy positive feedback now and again!

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  5. Before yesterday I would have said I completely agree and I am the same way. While I do completely agree, I guess I just had to accept I’m not exactly who I thought I was when it comes to criticism. That’s why I was surprised when the moderator told me not to be defensive. I thought I was just responsive. I love working with editors. I enjoy learning how little tweaks of word or even punctuation can make the work so much stronger. And you are totally right — it is more valuable than praise. By the way, 35-50 revisions! Impressive. I’m off to check your blog. I suspect it’s beyond well written! Thanks for taking the time to comment here. A comment feels almost as good as praise.

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    1. Well, keep in mind that some of my 35-50 revisions might just be changing one word. And then I might change it back again an hour later! My last post — the one you commented on — was probably the most heavily edited piece I’ve written because I wrote it three weeks prior to posting it. There were many opportunities to tweak a word here or add a sentence there, and believe me, I was still tweaking up until the day I published it, and even changed one more thing afterward! In a format like this, you usually don’t have anyone to rely upon but yourself. That’s scary!

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  6. I tend to be my own worse critic…. I shake as I push the publish button. And it is hard for me not to go back and edit after I publish. But I do think we feel a little out of sorts about criticism, we are only human. I take it to heart but knowing I need to realize it’s not the end of the world.

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  7. I tend to only take criticism seriously if it is give by someone I consider a better writer than I am or with more experience than I have, then I will listen and try and learn from it. I have many people say they will edit my work for me but have no experience or writing ability so i say politely, no thank you. I’m sure they think I think am all that and a bag of chips but I wouldn’t go to a car wash attendant for medical advice…

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    1. That is an excellent point. And while the folks in my writers group may be wonderful people (they are) I have no idea how good they are at the art of writing. And, by the way, I bet you are all that and a bag of chips! Thanks for reading and for commenting.

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