Vultures, Ducklings, and Not-So-Constructive Criticism

We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in class, minding your own business. Maybe you’re staring at the clock, or trying to figure out how to draw a horse in your notebook, or wondering where the heck your friend is since she was supposed to bring your pencil. Maybe you’re even sitting quietly at your desk, waiting for class to begin. Whoever you are in this situation, we all know how it feels when the teacher walks in, turns on the lights (because, for some reason, the lights are always off), plops a stack of papers on her desk, and announces that, today, we’ll be workshopping.

UGH.

Don’t get me wrong: workshop is great. At least, it’s FUNDAMENTALLY great. It sounds innocent enough: you just sit there while everyone around you critiques your work.

Actually, that doesn’t innocent OR great.

For some people, (usually the rare few who are actually comfortable in their own shoes, the jerks,) workshopping is a great way to receive instant feedback about a piece of work. For writers especially, it provides a much-needed “THIS SUCKS” if the writer is too close to the project to see it themselves. For the rare few who can receive, understand, and process critiques without feeling at least a little crappy,  workshopping is a necessary-even welcome-part of being a writer.

HOWEVER. For those of us who ARE plunged into a near-constant state of panic regarding our talents, workshopping is kinda the worst. I mean, who would CHOOSE to invite even MORE criticism into a project we’re already criticizing ourselves?

Listen-I’ve been there. It’s no fun being at the mercy of a bunch of other writers who desperately want to feel better about their own work. Because I’m going through this right now, I thought I’d give you all some tips for how you can avoid some of the stress and panic associated with seemingly-“constructive” criticism:

1.) Usually, the hungry vultures looking to peck-at and devour your innocent script/story/poem are actually little ducklings in disguise.

Okay, I know that was a weird analogy, but bear with me.

Basically, don’t go into a workshop expecting everyone’s aim to be to tear you down. Don’t forget that, eventually, EVERYONE’S work is going to be discussed. Underneath the indifferent stares are young (or old) writers who are simply trying to get through these damn workshops, too. Sure, you have the odd bad egg who feels better about their own work by pointing out every single little flaw in yours, but compared to the amount of ducklings out there, you hopefully won’t come across them often. In the end, everyone is scared, everyone is self-conscious, and everyone is just hoping that THEIR piece isn’t the worst.

2.) The vultures/ducklings aren’t criticizing YOU, they’re criticizing your WRITING.

As I said, try not to take it all so personally. The best way to receive criticism is to detach yourself from your writing and to look at it through the eyes of someone else. What about YOUR WRITING could use some work? Could the story benefit from some more dialogue? Would the ending be more effective with more scene description? Whatever it is someone criticizes/suggests, they’re not doing it to be mean, they’re doing it because, in their eyes, it would make reading your writing a more enjoyable experience. If you freeze out anyone who has anything bad to say about your writing, then who are you gonna talk about writing with? Your Grandma? Let’s be real: Nana’s great and all, but she knows next to nothing about characterization.

Think about it this way: when YOU criticize someone’s writing, are you doing so to hurt them? No. You do it because you hope that your suggestions will improve their writing. Usually, the same can be said for them. Losing friends or workshop buddies because your feelings were hurt by a critique is pointless, and will eventually lead to you asking the check-out lady at Walmart to read your manuscript because no one else will. Not good.

Plus, your writing will probably never improve, which sucks.

Moving on.

3.) Don’t allow not-so-constructive criticism to swallow you whole.

Whether it was an accident or not, we’ve all dispensed some not-so-constructive criticism in the past. What is not-so-constructive criticism, you ask? It could be when a comment/criticism made about your writing is merely an insult in disguise. It could be when someone says “your writing sucks” without offering up an exact example of said suckage. It could be when someone DOES point out the exact suckage location in your story and then walks away to cackle into a corner, providing nary a suggestion as to how to repair what sucks. It’s when a vulture pecks and devours your writing and then leaves the carcass to rot in the hazy, unforgiving workshop desert.

It happens to the best of us.

As I wrote before, not all vultures are, well, actual vultures. Sometimes, you have a really bad day. Like, a you-tripped-and-ripped-your-pants-and-spilled-your-coffee-and-accidentally-kicked-a-puppy bad day. It’s hard to read something and respond constructively  when you’re feeling down about yourself, your writing, and the world in general. It’s easy to say, “This whole opening is boring and I have zero interest in what happens to these characters.” But since when have writers taken the easy way out of anything?

Instead, say something like, “The excess scene description makes the opening lag a little. Perhaps condensing some of the description and adding more dialogue between the  characters would help the story flow and would spice up the relationship between the characters.” Try not to be grouchy on workshop day; as I said earlier, everyone is nervous, and insulting rather than offering up solutions to weak points in a story only makes things harder for the writer, and more awkward for everyone else.

And what to do when you’re on the receiving end of some not-so-constructive criticism? Writing is usually an extremely intimate thing; it’s hard when someone bashes characters you’ve grown close to or a sentence you’re really proud of. Just try to keep in mind who is spewing all the nasty criticism: are they known for being a little jerk-y during workshop? Are they needlessly pretentious in class or in general day-to-day life? Are they typically a chill person who may be having a bad day? I’d say that this is the one workshopping scenario when it’s okay to look beyond the writing or the criticism and into the mind of the critic/writer. Try to give the critic the benefit of the doubt: you don’t know what they’re going through in their personal life that may have caused them to be jerk-y.

And if they’re just pretentious or mean-spirited? Ignore them. Move on. Don’t bother listening to criticism if it doesn’t help you improve your writing.

4.) You don’t always have to take criticism into account.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sometimes, it feels like we’re conditioned to accept all forms of criticism and to then change our stories accordingly. But you don’t have to.

Writing is truly a personal act. It takes guts, it takes time, it takes passion, and it certainly takes a toll on your natural good looks (too many coffee-fueled writing binges can do a number on your under-eye bags). If you don’t agree with what someone has to say about your writing, or if you simply like your writing the way it is, then don’t change it. In the end, what you write and what you erase is totally up to you. It’s YOUR baby; if you want to go to Six Flags and ride that big scary roller coaster with your new puppy, then it’s your business.

HOWEVER. Constructive criticism-especially in its “constructive” form-can really, REALLY benefit your writing. Like, if your friend, or your mom, or PETA or whatever, tells you, “Yeah, um, maybe you should take your dog to the park instead of Six Flags”, it might not kill you to listen to them (by the way, DO NOT ride roller coasters with your dog at Six Flags. Do not do that).

What I’m saying is, you never HAVE to change something about your story if you don’t want to, but if everyone and your grandma (who knows NOTHING about characterization, remember,) thinks you should consider changing something about your story, then maybe you should consider it. It could benefit your story-and your writing-in a big way.

SO. The moral of the story is, as writers, we face criticism every single day, whether from our families, our coworkers, random people online, or (most likely) from ourselves. But taking criticism-especially not-so-constructive criticism-doesn’t have to be painful. I hope this post helps anyone feeling particularly bummed out about workshopping. I know it helped ME, and I’m the one who WROTE this darn thing.

WHEW. Thanks to everyone who stuck around. If you have any CONSTRUCTIVE criticism (heehee) about this post, I encourage you to leave it in the comments below. I look forward to reading it! If you only have not-so-constructive criticism, then I encourage you to bring it to the check-out lady at Walmart. I’m sure she’d love to hear it.

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