Most writers claim to crave feedback, a desire that has spawned numerous credit and noncredit writing programs and an even larger number of critique groups and writing partners. But bad feedback is worse than none at all. What makes critique useful? It must reflect the author’s purpose. Suggesting that someone turn a mystery into science fiction wastes everyone’s time, as do either excessive praise or excessive trashing.
Tip: Critique should be equal parts insight and inspiration.
Writers, being a sensitive and clever breed, have wittily railed against criticism. Here’s Kurt Vonnegut: “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Or John Osborne: “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs.” Franklin Jones pointed out that “Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger,” and Bob Dylan sang, “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”
Yes, of course, criticism can be inaccurate and obnoxious. It can also be invaluable. If we want to publish, we’re no longer writing just for ourselves. People get to review us, and if we want good reviews, we should seek worthwhile feedback and use it to meet reader needs. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.” If we’re writing for readers, we need to hear from readers. But feedback is dreadfully hard to hear if negativity seems its main thrust.
That’s the difference between criticism and challenge. However crucial, criticism can resemble masticating Brussels sprouts or whatever it is that might be good for you but doesn’t go down so easily.
In contrast, challenge signals growth—excitement. Writers gleefully pursue challenges: National Novel Writing Month, daily prompts, stories no longer than a hundred words. Challenge connotes a game, one you might win. So challenge yourself to hear every reasonable suggestion, and challenge yourself to offer all suggestions so that they sound reasonable.
Passive voice and all, Samuel Johnson had it right: “It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.”
That’s the challenge: what you need to give and receive. Here’s the reward: “This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.” -- Barbara Kingsolver