by Holly Jahangiri
Perhaps the best advice I can give a young writer is, “Learn to love constructive criticism. Don’t tie your ego up inside your writing; you are more than your work.” A Tae Kwon Do Master once made the point well, telling his class, “Praise is nothing – it feels good for a moment, but it takes no time or effort or thought. When someone takes time from their busy day – spends precious minutes of their life to help you improve, you should take that as a compliment. They think you’re worth it.”
Watching writers get all emotionally soaked and wrung out by a few words of honest, constructive criticism is painful – well, painful the way watching a train wreck is painful. You know you shouldn’t look – but you just can’t tear your eyes away. A few examples of the genre:
-- Weirdly Similar… from Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light
-- The Greek Seaman / Jacqueline Howett from BigAl's Books and Pals
As several commenters pointed out, this kind of thing has a tendency to “go viral.” It gets ugly, spins out of control, attracts anonymous hecklers, and is rarely a credit to anyone involved.
Watching critics perform acts of literary contortion in an effort to sugar-coat the obvious and make it more palatable so that no one will yell at them and call them meanies is also cringe-worthy. Where is Simon Cowell when you need him?
Seriously, one of the best comments I ever got was from a colleague who wrote, in bright red ink, “This reads as smoothly as a pig walks on stilts.” I didn’t cry; I didn’t get defensively outraged. I looked at the paragraph in question, and I laughed. His description was creative and accurate. He’d taken time from his day to give it, meaning he had my best interests at heart. He trusted me not to go ballistic – there was no need to sugar-coat the truth. What the comment lacked in tact, it made up for in accuracy and humor. I wanted to frame it and hang it on my wall.
Learning to just take it on the chin, bravely – to smile and say, “Thank you” – is one of the most valuable skills a writer can develop. Even if someone says, “Your writing sucks,” they’re not saying, “You’re a horrible, inadequate, pathetic excuse for a human being.” That’s what some writers hear, of course. But that’s not what’s meant. Neither is it particularly constructive, so the best thing to do is say, “I’m so sorry you didn’t enjoy it,” and move on. No writer’s work is universally lauded and liked. But learning to separate the useful from the irrelevant is also a skill – learning to set aside pride and apply knowledge gained through critique is a skill that will yield real value, in the long run. Consider every bit of criticism – some of it, if you’re honest with yourself, will ring true. What doesn’t can be set aside – without bitterness. Learn to smile and ignore it.
Authors who feel compelled to argue with reviewers never win. In the end, they look unprofessional – if not mentally unhinged. Though a negative review can be good publicity for a book, nothing good can come of the kind of negative publicity where an author grabs a loaded gun, aims it at their own feet, and shoots. It’s career suicide. We shouldn’t watch – but we do. And the more the author rails against the injustice of it all, the more it turns into a participatory sport. And that’s when amusement turns ugly, because we don’t like having our petty schadenfreude shoved in our faces. It makes us onlookers feel a little guilty. And we will never thank anyone for that.