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.