Many years ago, I took Tae Kwon Do lessons from Grandmaster Don Wong Kang. I was not exactly one of his success stories; I was more curious about martial arts than motivated. But I did learn a mean sidekick and survived long enough to earn a yellow belt. More to the point, I learned from him something even more valuable, as a writer: When someone takes the time to correct you, or to give you constructive criticism, you should not take it as an insult, but rather as a gift. Each of us has a finite amount of time on this earth; that person has just spent minutes, hours, days, or more of their own precious life to help you improve and do better in yours. It’s a gift of time, knowledge, and expertise.
Granted, that was the 1980s and Internet trolls hadn’t been invented yet. But I believe this is true of most people. They mean well, even if their criticism stings. They have spent time out of their own lives to give it; if they don’t mean well, then the joke’s on them.
Too much praise – particularly when constructive criticism is what’s needed – can have unintended, negative effects. Think back to the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The “innocent child” is the most honest critic (as children often are!), and the emperor – swindled and duped – has little choice but to stand up straighter and move forward. Doubtless, he has learned valuable lessons about honesty and trust. They will serve him well. He doesn’t crumple or yell “Off with their heads!” and he doesn’t wail and moan and throw his crown to the ground, but one can imagine that he later hires the child as Chief Fashion Designer or Head of the Royal Fraud Investigative Service.
When we receive criticism, it pays to consider the source. For writers of fiction, the most valuable criticism comes from readers – not colleagues, literary experts, professors, or book critics, but from our “target audience.” And it pays to remember that “readers” is a large group of people having widely varied tastes in what they read; they may be reading a classic work of literature in the living room; a romance in the bedroom; and a cheeky vampire thriller in the bathroom – all on the same day. They generally have one thing in common, if they’re honest about it: They want to be lifted out of their own daily routine for a few hours and whisked away into a book. Good storytelling goes hand in hand with excellent writing and editing; neither matters much if the other element is missing. A good story can be destroyed by poor spelling and grammar, but even impeccable writing cannot fix a boring, monotonous story.
For writers of non-fiction, the first most valuable criticism comes from experts in the field, who will judge its accuracy, then from readers whose aim was to learn new facts or skills. How well they are able to accomplish their goals is the measure of how well the author met their own objectives.
For poets, it’s a bit more like abstract art. Some will see the vision, hear the music, share the moment with the poet; some never will. Poetry is the universal made personal – or the personal, made universal. Poetry that is merely the evisceration of the poet’s soul in public takes on the quality of a train wreck; poetry that reduces universal truths to trite, rhyming verse is cringe-worthy. Everything in between is a matter of skill in balancing the lilting notes of language with form, meter, and rhyme; its “success” overall becomes a matter of whether it grabs a reader by the head, the heart, or the soul and drives a glimmer of human experience home.
This is where learning to value constructive criticism and compliments comes into play: We must learn to identify and take from them what rings true and discard the rest (along with our hurt feelings about it or the momentary ego-puffery it gives us). It’s equally important that we learn how to accept praise – to enjoy it thoroughly, say “thank you!” and move on. Every blogger knows the value of a comment that says nothing more than, “Great post!” A few words of casual praise require little time and less effort. Few of us hate a little pat on the back if it comes from friends. But praise is valuable feedback only if we learn from it what we did right; the more specific the positive feedback, the more useful it is.
According to the Harvard Business Review, it has been shown that teams perform better when their leaders give them more praise than criticism. This appears to be the case for married couples, and there is no reason to think that writers or athletes or politicians or our next door neighbors would be any different. We are all human. The ideal ratio is about five positive statements to every critical statement. It is just as important – or maybe even more so, according to these studies, to know what we should keep on doing as it is to know what we need to change or stop doing.
Some people are adept at providing this kind of feedback, but most of us struggle with it. We tend to focus on the few things that really stood out to us – good or bad – and ignore the parts that we may have even skimmed over. Rather than try to turn everyone into a professional critic, my goal is to remind all of us to take all criticism as objectively as possible. Don’t argue with someone over their honest opinion. Say “thank you for sharing that with me,” even if they were critical. Use what you can use; let go of the rest. And poets – all artists – especially, beware: In trying to revise a poem or a work of art to please one critic, you may fix one aspect of it but, in the process, lose the essence of what makes it good. There isn’t a lot of room for error. Ask lots of questions of anyone willing to spend their precious life minutes to help you. Then try it from different angles; get more feedback. Never crumple up the original and throw it into the trash.
I’d love it if you subscribed to my blog (see the sidebar for two ways you can do that), but if you prefer to use a feed reader, here’s are a couple more ways:
Latest posts by HollyJahangiri (see all)
- A Brand New Blog with a Fresh Perspective! - September 15, 2017
- If We Were Having Coffee, I’d Tell You to #WriteBravely… - August 12, 2017
- A Taste of Home for the Next Generation (Interview with Sapna Anu George) - August 9, 2017