Most of us don’t handle criticism well. And yes, I’m certainly “one of us,” too.
In high school, I was the girl who could write. The writer. My teachers never offered an ounce of criticism, constructive or otherwise, on any of my creative writing projects. I guess they figured their job was to at least get the students to produce passable creative pieces (It was Creative Writing, after all, and therefore not as important as, say, Algebra). Since my writing was already Pretty Darn Good, there was apparently no need to rock the boat. I sailed through high school believing I could do no wrong; at least not where writing was concerned.
In college, I had the privilege of learning the craft from an actual, published writer. All of us bright-eyed writing students had heard rumors about this demanding, supercritical professor, and we were all dead-set on impressing the guy.
I wasn’t too worried. Given that I had never received a negative writing comment, I figured my soon-to-be mentor would be blown away by my work.
“I have nothing to teach you,” he would say, sometime before the end of our first class. “Now, I’d love for you to teach me.”
As anyone (other than my 19-year-old self) could imagine, “Into to Creative Writing” was not a smooth ride. My teacher did indeed believe I had promise (I’ll never forget the day he stopped me in the hallway to tell me how glad he was that I was choosing to major in creative writing) but he was always ready to tell me why my story or creative essay was not as good as it could be. Some of my stories were labeled “overly-cartoony” or “little more than beefed-up punchlines.” And when I did try to write more realistically, the characters were wooden and the stories didn’t quite hit home.
I finished my creative writing classes with A minus after A minus. And the crushing feeling that I still had not written that perfect story.
And because I had come to associate no criticism with talent and success, I could only conclude: criticism = failure. I left college with my writer’s ego severely damaged ego, and I’ve been fighting ever since to recapture my old confidence.
Recently, a good friend asked me to read the first rough draft of her latest novel. She was very interested in what I had to say, because she felt sure that I would not turn into a “Pollyanna” and tell her what she wanted to hear. This may not sound like a fun use of time to anyone else, but I tend to enjoy projects like this. I eagerly agreed to help.
The story (about a futuristic society in which people must learn a new way of life in the wake of natural disaster) had promise, but suffered from a few too many extraneous details. On top of that, the story meandered along at times without really building up steam, and led to a too-sudden ending after a lack of the necessary build up. Zestfully, I made notes of all of this.
When the reading was over and the initial excitement had subsided, I perused the heavily marked pages and wondered if perhaps I had taken things a little too far. Did my friend really want such detailed criticism? Yes, she had asked me to be completely honest, but this sort of request is generally followed by, “I expect your honest opinion to be that I’m awesome.” (Although that last part is generally not spoken out loud.)
I decided, however, that I hadn’t spent all that time editing just to punt with “Looks good—congrats!” and I sent my comments as they were originally written. I had a feeling my writer friend would peruse the comments long enough to decide that I didn’t get her vision, then stick the marked pages in a drawer and forget about them. Yes, I figured I wouldn’t be hearing from her on this subject again.
So imagine my surprise (and fear) when I saw her name pop up on my cell phone a few short days later.
“I was so excited to get your feedback,” she said, in a tone that suggested that she actually was. “No one else has gotten back to me yet, so you’re the only person who’s actually given me something I can use.”
“Oh, really?” I said, with some hesitation. “And you liked my comments?”
“Oh, yes. See, I knew something wasn’t working quite right. Now I can see that I need to cut some parts and develop others more. I can’t wait to go back in and start working on the second draft. And maybe, when I get the second draft done, you can take another look at it for me? If you have the time, that is.”
In all the years I’ve been teaching writing, I’ve yet to see anyone take criticism so well, or use it to their advantage so fully.
My friend was grateful for my assistance, but I hope she knows that she helped me more than I can say. She reminded me of an important truth that some of us never fully understand: Criticism is good. Without it, we can’t learn. We can’t change.
We can’t improve.
Praise is safe. Praise is comforting. But praise rarely pushes anyone from “Pretty Darn Good” to “Great”.
The next time criticism leaves you feeling like a failure, swallow your pride and ask yourself the following important question:
Do you want to be safe? Or do you want to be great?
Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.