Do what you feel in your heart to be right –
for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned
if you do, and damned if you don’t.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.

Last week I mentioned I take a three-prong approach to dealing with criticism: First, I remind myself that just because people criticize my work, it doesn’t mean they are right. Second, I carefully review what they said to see if I can learn anything from their criticism that will make me a better writer. Third, I listen carefully to my inner voice for guidance.

In my last article, I explained how I take criticizers with a grain of salt. This week, I’d like to touch on the other two ways I deal with criticism.

Reviewing criticism

Constructive criticism can come from the most unlikely places. Certainly, we are attentive to “experts,” who provide their views; but often, if we listen carefully, someone we might not expect to have a great deal of insight may surprise us. I try to take the approach of not categorizing whom I get the criticism from and, instead, look at the content of the criticism. I try to take what has been dished out, weed out unfair criticism from anyone who has an agenda that has nothing to do with my writing, and then sit with all the other comments to see which ones make sense to me. If I see everyone says my character’s decision to leave her husband doesn’t appear logical, then I know I need to go back and develop her thought process, so it doesn’t come as such a shock to my readers.

I am also grateful when readers make suggestions about how they would handle a certain scene or piece of dialogue. While I may not use their suggestions, I find they are usually pointing out a section that needs my attention. If I open myself to their comments, I often see a new way of reworking that part of my story to make it better.

Sometimes, where I gain the greatest insight is from a little comment only one person has noted. If I find myself saying, “I knew there was something not quite right with this passage, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” I know my critic has just given me a terrific gift. I will go back and explore it deeply – what was said and what my feelings are about the passage.

Your inner voice

We need to make a deal with our inner editor: Tell it to be quiet during the writing process, but promise it can have a voice when we edit. If, however, you have one of those inner voices that is mean and sarcastic, kick it out until it can promise to be fair, realistic, and a little kind. The main thing is to listen quietly as you read through your draft. That passage feels unsteady? Thank your inner editor for pointing it out, then mark the passage so you can come back to it when you have time to give it your full attention. You laughed out loud in a section you meant to be serious? Figure out whether the humor might be a better way of handling the scene or whether you need to rewrite and make it more sober. Feel the dialogue is trite? Take it deeper. Your ending doesn’t feel like it does justice to the rest of the piece? Try thinking of all the possible endings that would be more satisfying to you.

Having people give their opinion about your work can provide you with valuable feedback; but the truth is, you know what works or not. We sometimes don’t want to admit it to ourselves, or if we hit a scene that doesn’t work quite as well as we think it should, and we become lazy and think we can let it slide. Train yourself to listen with your entire body – it will give you signs just as much as your brain does. Then tackle those sections with the clear understanding that you will keep rewriting it until you know it is right. Hemmingway was known for rewriting some of his endings as much as 60 or more times.

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