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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Everybody's a Critic: dealing with unsolicited criticism

by Anne R. Allen

Early into our journeys in wordsmithing, most writers discover our chosen art form has a major drawback: everybody’s a *&%! critic. For some reason, folks who happily offer praise to fledgling musicians, quilters, sculptors, or Star Trek action-figure painters, feel compelled to launch into scathing critiques of the efforts of the creative writer.

I remember showing an early story to a boyfriend. He returned the manuscript covered with red-penciled “corrections”—changing characters’ names, dialogue, and much of the plot. He’d barely finished high school; I had an Ivy League degree. I asked why he felt the need to edit my story. He said, “What else would I do with it?” I said, “The same thing I do when you show me your woodworking projects—say something nice.”

He looked at me as if I were speaking Klingon.

Even my years of professional writing credits don’t deter a compulsive critic. Recently, a visual artist who’s always e-mailing me .jpgs of her latest work—which I dutifully download and praise—asked me about my latest project. I sent her the first chapter. She replied with a 100% negative critique.

Maybe this behavior is perpetrated by those grade-school teachers who had us read aloud our poems about “What Thanksgiving Means to Me,” and invited class comments—which often devolved into verbal spitball attacks. I don’t remember the same free-for-all judging sessions for our construction-paper Pilgrim hats or renditions of “Over the River and Through the Woods.” Maybe some grade-school teacher can tell me why.

Gratuitous criticism is often so clueless, we can laugh and ignore it. It can even be helpful. An untrained eye can sometimes help us look at problems in a new way.

But if it’s derisive, hostile and/or entirely lacking in praise, energize your deflector shields. It has nothing to do with your work and everything to do with the “critic.” An amazing number of people, even decades out of adolescence, still think negativity sounds smart. But it’s good to remember that any Bozo can look at a Picasso and say, “My two-year-old paints better than that!” Appreciation takes education.

We do need feedback. If you don’t have an editor or trusted beta reader, find a good critique group, preferably writers in your own genre. A good critique is a gift. You know when you hear one. It may sting, but it gives you an “ah-ha” moment that improves your work. Good critiquers know “not my cuppa” shouldn’t be expressed as “your story sux.”

Plus they’ll always give positive comments to balance the negative. Nobody can take undiluted criticism. The brain registers it as an attack, which triggers a fight or flight response.

Here are some suggestions for dealing with self-appointed critics:

1) Avoid showing first drafts to non-writers.

2) Consider the source. If Mr. Judgmental hasn’t read anything but the TV listings since he dropped out of Bounty Hunter school, this is not his field of expertise.

3) If someone asks to see an unpolished WIP, be clear you aren’t inviting critique. Say something like, “My editor prefers that nobody else edit my material. However, I’ll be happy to hear about what you enjoy, and please let me know if you catch any typos.”

4) Give the critic a sweet smile while plotting her murder in your next novel.

5) Think of this as practice for when you’re successful enough to be reviewed by snarky professional critics.

6) If something feels like verbal abuse, consider the possibility that it is. Ask yourself if the critic is:

a) Feeling neglected. Writers can be selfish with our time. Take him out for a drink and catch up.
b) A writer-wannabe: she’s dying to write, but too terrified/ blocked/lazy. Envy makes people mean.
c) A narcissistic bully. We writers are magnets for them. We pay attention, which is what they crave—and we’re solitary, which makes us easy prey. They lure us with praise and fascinating stories; keep us enslaved with threats and/or self pity; then try to erase our personalities and make us mirrors for their reflected glory.They will do or say anything to destroy a victim’s sense of self. Remember NOTHING a verbal abuser says has value. Win a Pulitzer, and you’ll hear, “What, no Nobel?” You’ll never please them by doing better, because nothing pleases them but having power over you.

Good criticism is necessary to any art form, but the unsolicited, negative variety is poison. If comments are unhelpful, ignore them and boldly warp into the next galaxy.


Blogger Mira said...

Anne - this is really good. It rang really true. Very funny in parts, and helpful in others. Dealing with excessive critique is definitely something writer's have to cope with. I really enjoyed reading this. I'm going to refer some writer friends to this as well.

Thanks! Good piece, really appreciate it.

July 4, 2009 at 11:37 PM  
Blogger Emily Cross said...

Excellent post anne!! alot of home truths there too!!

I think some professional writers and critics should read this article lol. . .

July 5, 2009 at 4:03 AM  
Blogger Laura Martone said...

As someone embarking upon the beta reader phase of her first novel, I very much appreciate this advice. Very helpful, encouraging, and amusing. Thanks for posting the link on Nathan's blog.

July 5, 2009 at 4:53 PM  
Blogger A misinterpreted wave said...

I especially like the comment that lots of people think that negativity sounds smart. I think you're right. It's good to keep things in perpective and really press people to fully explain their comments so that they are actually useful.

Thanks for a great post

July 6, 2009 at 4:24 AM  
Blogger Watershed Mark said...

In an attempt to broaden my horizons I thought I would stop by and share this, although you are all probably way ahead of me on this subject…

July 6, 2009 at 5:06 PM  
Blogger annerallen said...

Thanks for sharing that link to Quote Shack, Mark. Couldn't help checking today's writing prompt and it sure is apropos (spoiler alert): "A person has to fight the meanness that sometimes comes with you when you’re born."

We all have to fight that inner bad critiquer sometimes. I know I've given mean-spirited critiques on occasion, especially before I started writing seriously myself. Envy really does bring out that meanness.

July 6, 2009 at 7:52 PM  
Blogger christineA said...

Great piece. Very true. My critique group is invaluable. As a visual artist and a writer I get lots of unsolicited criticism. And, you are right, everyone thinks they "know how" at least as well as you do and you should be so grateful that they took the time to share!

July 7, 2009 at 7:08 PM  
Blogger Churadogs said...

Bwahahaha, too true and not only in the writing world. Old canard at art school: No matter how great a portrait painter you are, beyond genius, somebody will invariably look at your masterpiece and say, "It's nice, but there's something funny about the eyes." Another canard: No matter where you are in the world, your easel and paintes set up on an ice flow in the middle of the North Pole, pretty soon you'll feel some eyes on the back of your head and somebody will be standing there and they'll look at your work-in-progress and say . . . "It's nice, but there's something funny about the eyes . . . "

July 9, 2009 at 6:23 AM  
Blogger ElanaJ said...

This is so very true. Excellent advice about crit buddies and beta readers. Thanks!

July 10, 2009 at 2:30 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Knight said...

Great advice, especially the points about verbal abusers. I think a lot of writers need to hear that, so we can find critique buddies who will be honest but also helpful.

Now, after reading this post I find myself wanting Tea. Earl grey. Hot.

Weird! ;)

July 13, 2009 at 11:12 AM  
Blogger annerallen said...

Thanks Rebecca. I just tried to post over on your blog--talking about social networking (I'm kind of over Twitter) but for some reason, it wouldn't allow my post. Weird. Nice looking blog, though. And easy to read.

July 13, 2009 at 5:29 PM  
Blogger SavvyD said...

Once someone asked me to read her stories. I thought they were terrible--not well written, not well executed or well crafted. The dialogue lagged and the descriptions were lame. I tried to find what she was trying to say. I complimented her on putting it all in writing because that took alot of focus. I told her to watch out for typos.

Makes me wonder the same about my style--serialized, fictionalized versions of what really happened.

July 16, 2009 at 8:50 PM  
OpenID juliepierce said...

Love it! Need it! Well, all writers need it. What do we do without you? Now, finding the right critique group -- there's a challenge. How about an article on that, please.

Thanks, Anne!

July 25, 2009 at 6:26 PM  

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