There is little else that’s harder than to make something, especially something inducing pride, and have another person tell you that there’s a problem with your creation. I’ve come to learn that both giving and receiving criticism are skills, just as much as writing.
In joining a writing group, I’ve had to learn how to really give criticism. It didn’t come naturally; I’d read through the entry, read through it again, and the most I might have to say at times was “There was a typo here, here, and here.” In listening to what my group members said to each other and said to me, there was a gradual shift where I began to try less to just enjoy the story, where my willingness to overlook problems was quite high, and developed a critical eye. I can’t tell you how to have a critical eye; it’s something you have to learn for yourself, to practice and develop. I can, however, say that it helps to go in with the mindset that everything could be better.
When you read through a passage with the intent to critique, ask questions whenever you can. If your questions suck, don’t worry about it, as you practice, your questions will get better. Think of word choice, flow, structure, but also think of the character’s actions and possible, better actions, of the presence of setting, and the plot. If a character is making a decision that is stupid, is that in line with the character or is it just because the writer didn’t realize that was a stupid option for the character to take?
Then, of course, there’s delivery of criticism. Delivery is always as tough as initial reception, I think. Most people I know just look me in the eye and say, “This is a problem.” “Why is Tristan doing such-and-such?” “I feel like we’re in a white box.” However, different people just laying it out feels differently. I think inflection affects this, and behind that, intent. If they’re being ranty, “I felt this was wrong and this and this and I didn’t like this and Rinlin is really annoying and that fight scene was stupid,” then my feelings get hurt on initial reception. Geeze, tell me how much you hated it, then. Sure, I could grow a tougher skin but I’m just not going to because my writing is my pride and to grow a tougher skin I’m going to have to distance myself from my writing somewhat and I’m not doing that. I can get over my hurt feelings, I do, but what would be better is if we could not slam dance others’ works when the writer asked for criticism. Remember that when someone says “Could you read this and tell me how to make it better (or, tell me what you think),” what they’re saying is, “I don’t know if this is where it needs to be/know this isn’t where it needs to be, please help me get it there.” They already know it’s not perfect, there’s no need to imprint how imperfect it is in your words.
With the intention of just laying out the problems because you know they can do better and want to help them do so, your words can still hurt, but that’ll be if the writer doesn’t know how to receive criticism. Of course you can also be kind and gentle, but the point of criticism is to say what’s wrong with the piece so don’t sabotage that ultimate goal with kindness. It’ll always be hard to hear that there is something wrong with your writing even if you know that’s the case. If you know you need to be soft, pad each “wrong” with a positive review, a “right”. If your writer is a child, this may be a good idea. If your writer is an adult, that’s at your own discretion to decide, but it’d be good for them to learn to buck up a little because once it’s published, people will love and hate it very ferociously because that’s how our culture does things.
As for receiving criticism, again, I believe it to be a learned skill. I don’t want to be babied with padded criticisms anymore. I mean, it’s nice and pleasant, but it’s so much more rewarding to me when my writing group says something positive about my writing not because they’re being nice but because it was actually good enough for them to say something good about it. They don’t say things just to be nice. We’re adults and trying to be/actually are professionals. Padding is for newbies and youngsters, we need to move on to more productivity.
That’s not to say that when my writing group points out problem after problem, I never get defensive and have to struggle not to bring out the justifications, or that my feelings have never been hurt. I mean, initially, when I was still leaning to take criticism. Sometimes a criticism is a question or a misunderstanding and there’s room for justification, though on the latter end, if there’s a misunderstanding that’s a different problem that needs to be fixed.
Here’s the thing about receiving criticism: unless obviously otherwise, you have got to remember that the people criticism obviously care enough about you and your story to help you. When you hear someone say, “this is a major problem” and that hurts, take a deep breath, take a moment to gather yourself, and then say, “Okay.” Think if you need to, “They didn’t say I’m a bad writer. They didn’t say this is a bad story. They said I can do better, and they’re right. I can do better.” If the critic is really trying to help you, they will allow you to have time to do this because taking offense to criticism helps no one. Do this enough times and you get the skin you need to receive helpful, constructive criticism.
If you feel like someone is flat-out wrong about your story, take a moment to think why they criticized the way they did. Just taking offense or getting defensive is always the wrong way to react to constructive criticism. Really, it’s the wrong way to take any criticism because it’s unprofessional; if a criticism isn’t constructive, it’s not worth your time. If you think about the criticism and you still feel like it’s wrong, get a second or third opinion. Find people who read and enjoy the genre you’re writing for those second and third opinions. Do not ask your mom, your BFF, or your spouse – I mean, unless you know they can be subjective. My best friend can be and in fact her criticisms are pretty harsh sometimes.
Learning to give criticism well can help you to find mistakes in your own writing better. Learning to receive criticism allows you to maintain a vital resource to your improvement, as no one wants to criticize someone who gets sore over criticism. We can all improve and we can help each other do it.