“Grow thick skin” is the advice often given to aspiring writers struggling to cope with the pain of rejection and criticism. Whenever I hear it, I cringe. The analogy is unhelpful and kind of grotesque. No one can grow new layers of real skin at will, any more than they can turn off hurt feelings at will. Besides, even the thickest skin feels pain sometimes.
I came up with a metaphor I like better than thick skin: a lens. Actually, I might as well go even further: What about super-specs that allow writers to instantly spot and disregard empty or destructive criticism, so we do not waste priceless energy worrying about what others think when we could be happily writing?
For a criticism to be worth considering, it must illuminate the way forward. There should be an “aha” moment. For example, if my writing has a plot hole, grammatical error, contradiction, or implausible character, I need to know about them. These are issues that hamper my goal of creating believable fiction. Since the problems are specific, I can imagine specific ways to solve them. But to spot the valuable criticism, I need to filter out emotional splatter that only distracts, upsets, and confuses me.
Below I have listed types of criticisms that are just useless, soul-draining noise. When I identify and label them as such I can discard them, saving myself a lot of pointless worry, and instead write something that makes me happy.
On Facebook, a reader of one of my free books compared my book unfavorably to a famous writer he loved, saying that the quality of my story was not anywhere near as good. Seeing the comment was an emotional gut punch.
As a result, I fell into an insidious emotional trap, mentally reviewing my story to “check” for anything that might not have been “good quality.” The game was a torturous waste of energy. My critic had given no specifics, and there was no way to guess what he had meant.
Besides, I hadn’t written my story for him, but for myself. In the end I had to take comfort in the fact that I had written the story I wanted to write – besides, some other readers had raved over it.
In Amazon reviews I often see the statement “the writing was terrible,” but most people never say why. I am always surprised when I hear people say The Hunger Games was badly written; they never explain. I thought the writing in The Hunger Games was good because it transported me to another place, enticed me with vivid imagery, and made me feel for the characters. In other words, it accomplished its goal. If someone says your writing is bad, but gives no specifics, ignore, ignore, ignore.
Attacks from The Political Correctness Brigade
The political correctness brigade has made it their job to “clean up” anything in writing that offends them. They must work hard because they are chronically and zealously offended about everything.
In fiction they want all minorities painted as a saint or hero. They want all women characters to be portrayed as “strong.” They want to see rape, violence and animal abuse expunged from all fiction because if they are bad in real life, they should be gotten rid of everywhere, including the printed page.
Stephen King said that in one of his novels, a villain kicks a dog. For this, Stephen King received an irate letter accusing him of being cruel, as if writing about the abuse of an imaginary dog was the same as hurting a real one. Stephen King asked, did his reader not know the dog was not real? Besides, Stephen King was not exalting people who abuse animals; in fact, if he had a villain doing it, that suggests he thinks animal abuse is bad.
People who seek to further their agendas by controlling what writers put into their fiction vary in their “ideals.” Some see it as their mission to clean up profanity or heresy or anything they personally dislike. But writing is not about being nice and pleasing anyone. It is about being honest. If readers object to that, they are not my audience anyway.
Heated Attacks Against Nonexistent Content
Recently a reader of one of my stories objected strongly to something I never wrote. In my story, a selfish mother moves a baby into the same room as her toddler son in order to get more sleep. On one night, the baby becomes violently ill and the toddler son, afraid of his irascible mother, fails to alert her that the baby is sick. The next morning the mother discovers that the baby is dangerously ill. Beside herself with fear and worry, she scolds her other son for not alerting her.
My reader wrote a passionate rebuttal arguing that it was not physically possible for a toddler to lift a baby. I had never said anywhere that the toddler son had lifted the baby or even tried, but for a few moments I felt just as chastised as if I had actually written what the reader found offensively implausible. The reader also argued that there was no way any sober parent would ever put a toddler son “in charge” of taking over the care of a baby; I had never written anywhere that my fictional mother had.
It seems obvious that this kind of criticism should be ignored, yet it can be incredibly unsettling. Writers want to be understood, and it is hard not to argue back, even when you know that defending yourself against a nonexistent literary crime drains away time and energy you could be using to write a new story.
Arbitrary Censorship of the Color Red
A website designer once told me about some of the horrors of his profession involving hard-to-please clients. On one occasion, he presented to a client a web design he had labored over and that others had praised highly. His female client took one look at his design, frowned, and said, “I hate the color red. Take all the red out and start over.”
Like web design, writing is notoriously subjective. Readers may react against your work simply because they hate a word you used, or because a scene reminds them of an unpleasant experience, or because they hate the first person perspective, or because a character wears red and the reader thinks red is an evil color that should be banished from the color spectrum. Readers don’t need good reasons for hating a work of art. That’s important to realize when deciding whether to take criticism seriously.
I’m not responsible for purely subjective responses to my stories that come from personal biases, personalities, unpleasant childhood experiences, or strange color preferences. Even if I could change what the critic hates, I wouldn’t want to. I wrote what I wrote for a reason. It’s impossible to please everyone; the most reliable touchstone I’ve found for determining whether I’ve achieved my artistic goals is myself.
Narcissists Accusing Others of Narcissism
I recently went to Amazon to check the reviews of a book whose author gave writing advice I strongly disagreed with and that I thought was harmful. I wanted to see if any other readers shared my complaints. Few did, but what I did see was “She talks too much about herself.”
I thought, “No, no, no, talking about herself is fine, first person perspective is fine. it was her advice that was horrible.” I had actually found her personal anecdotes somewhat amusing.
Everywhere I see critics who seem to find narcissism or self-indulgence in every written piece. Go to Amazon and you will see the complaint over and over, “The author talked about herself the whole time. So self-indulgent!”
There are extreme cases where the self-indulgent charge may be worth considering. Someone told me about a male writer who penned a book just to brag about his numerous sexual exploits in order to make himself look like a super-stud; perhaps the word “self-indulgent” has some meaning in this case.
But online all it takes to be accused of narcissism or self-indulgence is to use the word “I” more than once or twice. I love the first person point of view. It means the writer is brave enough to stand behind her words. I like hearing others talk about themselves as long as what they have to say is interesting and has a point.
I actually wonder about people for whom writers “talking about themselves” is their biggest complaint. I wonder, why would the reader not be interested in another person? In situations like these, I wonder who the real “narcissist” is.
However, I am using the word “narcissist” very loosely. Clinical narcissism is a personality disorder that leads people to selfishly exploit others. The label does not belong on a writer who merely uses the word “I” to describe her experiences. Except in extreme cases, the charges of “self-indulgence” and “narcissism” can be dismissed as invalid. Good thing I have super-specs that free me to ignore them and go write a poem about my cat.
Some critics accuse novels of being “bad” just because they evoke unpleasant emotions. Critics, agents, editors or readers may accuse a novel of being too bleak, too disgusting, too scary, or too sad. Here, the word “too” is an indication that some heavy subjectivity is at work.
In fiction, unless your goal is to write humor, any emotion goes. In fact, making readers feel is the job of fiction, and art thrives on contrasts between light and shadow; suffering and joy; despair and hope.
If the writer is trying to communicate the horror of war, the trauma of adolescence, or the death of a loved one, the injunction to avoid any unpleasant emotion undermines the art by draining it of all purpose, power, and substance. Intensity of emotion, whether positive or negative, is far more desirable than blandness.
Particularly in those cases, if someone accuses your work of being “too bleak” or “too sad,” you can go celebrate by eating something chocolate; you have accomplished your goal. Congratulations!
Valid Criticisms Dispensed in a Derisive Way
It has happened before, and it will happen again. Someday I will make a writing mistake. It might be a big typo that will send my lofty edifice of words sprawling into an undignified heap. Or there will be a glaring plot hole or inconsistency I somehow missed, despite my best efforts. Someone, an editor, reader, or a troll may bring it to my attention in a way that is not kind. For example, a trollish proofreader once attacked my awkward phrasing by writing “What?!?!”
Knowing that I made a mistake is bad enough, especially if I did my best. Having someone alert me to it in a derisive way makes me feel far worse. It can be hard to separate the acknowledgment “I made a mistake” from the feeling that “I am a terrible writer who deserves to be whipped, pilloried, and evicted from the human race.”
All I can do is learn from my mistake and strive not to repeat it, but I will have to forgive myself quickly so I can move on to exploring exciting new story ideas. Every writer makes mistakes. They are usually forgiven by the passage of time; a year later, the error will be forgotten because other projects, concerns, and victories will have formed a mountain of moments that will bury the error.
Beating myself up is destructive to the practice of writing. Self-forgiveness is essential because if I predicate my worth as a writer on my ability to be perfect, I will not be writing for long. I might even be tempted to escape into serial television watching or some other passive activity in which it is impossible to fail.
Success is built on a mountain of tiny failures called “experience.” These failures, whether big, small, or imaginary, will never be fun, and I cannot protect myself from all pain.
But that’s okay. I don’t want to become a human callous. What I do want is to survive creatively, which means continuing, despite any obstacles, to do what I love most: writing stories.
If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my new novel “The Ghosts of Chimera” will soon be published by the folks over at Rooster and Pig Publishing.
28 thoughts on “Seven Types of Writing Criticism to Ignore”
I remember that plebian who wrote that remark on Facebook about one of your free books. He’s probably the same person who read my article and wrote that “ETC was invented in 1995!” He needs to cut down on the peyote!!!
p.s. another brilliant, pragmatic post, and there are a myriad of reasons why that is the case. Trust me on this!
Thanks for taking my side against the plebian Dyane!!! And I thought the remark about ECT was hilarious! You should seriously print it out and frame it as a reminder that many “kraken” critics are not worth listening to!
I’m so happy you enjoyed the post! Thanks for your awesome, uplifting comment and the shares!!! 😀
My pleasure! I was using my Kindle at the time, otherwise I would have continued writing about how amazing your post was…and XANADU MUSE-FREE! 😉
No, no muses helped me with this one. One tried but I shoved it away and gave it an angry glare until it went away! 😉 Muses ruin everything if you let them!
I love that you loved the post!!!!! Your comments have made my morning!
Good post, Lisa!
Thank you Dirk!! ;-D
Putting oneself out there vulnerable to abusive criticism is tough. You write well. I did notice a typo, which in no way affects the quality of this post: “It is about being honestT.” Pointing it out in case you are as anal as I when it comes to correcting typos.
Yes Kitt, I am just as anal about correcting typos! I corrected it as soon as you mentioned it. It seems like typos and misspellings have been conspiring to sabotage my life lately. I’m seeing them everywhere. I’m trying to be more careful but sometimes typo blindness strikes. Thanks for telling me and I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!! 🙂
One of my favorite posts of yours, Lisa. So much truth behind this with advice that will help any writer move forward from painful criticism.
Thank you Carrie!! I am going to use it as a sanity-preserving guideline for myself, but I hope it helps other writers cope with painful criticism too. 🙂
Thanks so much for the awesome share with the quote by the way! You’re the best! 🙂
Aw shucks, twasn’t nothin’. 🙂
Excellent post. Specific criticism is good criticism, even if the reviewer didn’t like the book. Vagaries aren’t helpful.
I agree with you about mood shaming. I never know how to respond when people say that my book about a woman who has cancer made them sad. My gut wants to say, “Good, I wanted you to feel sad in that section.” but I end up babbling about catharsis. Books should evoke all emotions, not just the positive ones.
Love your last sentence! Well said. Thanks so much for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed my post. 🙂
This is all true and certainly illustrates one of the most daunting challenges modern writers face. Instead of being at the mercy of a few newspaper book critics or other industry folk whose purpose it was to educate the public regarding what constituted good form, writers are now subjected to “criticism” from every Amazon et al subscriber.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
I often use that quote in a positive context; it works here as well. As writers, we submit our works to the public court of opinion and must brace ourselves for the inevitable deluge of self-serving commentary. Would silence be worse?
As a proofreader (and writer), I was appalled at your last illustration. Far be it from me to shill unashamedly on your blog, however if you ever need a decent proofreader . . .
Wonderful article. Thank you for sharing!
I love your quote! Thinking of writing it down and making it my mantra. Getting “swept away” is a chronic fear. There is a constant tug of war between what I think readers want and what I want to see in my writing. Officially I always go with my own preferences but the temptation to be safe and inoffensive is always there. Maybe one day it will go away for good if I heed the wise advice given to Frodo.
Thanks so much for the kind comments!!! 🙂
Who reads these safe and inoffensive books?
Look at a list of Pulitzer- and Nobel-prize winning books; what do they all have in common?
As a feminist and a writer I find I sometimes struggle to balance out the two. Naturally I am going to prefer works that are more feminist in nature, but I also know that what makes a book ‘feminist’ is wide ranging and intricate.
A writer recently called me a ‘Butthurt Feminist’ because I commented that I didn’t like the idea of “he’s mean to you because he likes you” as a romantic notion. Any romantic story that includes that kind of thing (like Edward holding Bella against her will in Twilight to ‘protect’ her) will always be a no-no to me. However, I am completely aware that this is my personal preference and I made sure my comment was clearly expressing my opinion and not telling the person who wanted to write this kind of story that they shouldn’t do it.
You’ve brought up a very important point, and I completely understand your perspective. Like you, I hate reading fiction and seeing movies that portray women as passive sheep in need of masculine protection. That doesn’t mean books like “Twilight” should never have been written, but I reserve the right to slam them shut and hurl them across the room if I please.
My point wasn’t that readers shouldn’t be able to hate books or express their opinions. The job of art is to get a reaction, whether that reaction is positive or negative. For as long as there is art, there will be criticism, and that’s the way it should be.
But for that reason creating art takes a LOT of courage and the ability to censor out destructive criticism that comes our way, else we get blocked or give up or end up drinking a lot of Maalox as we shiver and fret over what people are thinking of us.
I think that honest art is worth doing even if it reflects out irrational unconscious biases. Art holds up reflections both of ourselves and our culture, and some writers may not even be aware they’re mirroring culture. I couldn’t get into the book “Twilight” myself, but the author did accomplish the task, unwittingly, of generating discussion about what some women consider sexy. Whatever flaws there might have been with the book, I don’t think the author should be vilified for writing it. She was merely creating a fantasy that appealed to her and in doing so she unwittingly raised questions about how women perceive themselves in relationship to men.
I don’t think you’re part of the “brigade” I talked about. We’re all entitled to our opinions. But writers do need a way to shut off the clamor of disapproval in order to continue creating, and that is why I made my list. 🙂
Thank you for bringing up an excellent point and sharing your insights!
To be fair I don’t give reviews for books based on how well they match my own personal morals and beliefs anyway because, as you say, it doesn’t really provide the author with anything tangible they can address and, as you have also said, books are meant to make people uncomfortable and open their eyes to the world around them. That’s why I’m also on the fence about trigger warnings. I understand and appreciate they are necessary to protect the vulnerable, but I don’t want others to use them as a means to keep their heads in the sand.
‘Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.’ — NOT Mark Twain
“When a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.” — Mark Twain
Great post this, Lisa. Lessons for both the writer and the critic here.
With your permission, I’d like to link to this from my blog rightplacerighttim.com next week.
Thanks so much Tim! I’m so glad you liked the post! Of course you can link the post to your blog. I would be honored. 🙂
Hi Lisa. Reblogged over on Right Place Right Tim: https://rightplacerighttim.com/2016/09/09/meanwhile-choosing-which-criticism-to-ignore/
Great post. In fact, consistently enjoying your blog.
Wow Tim, thank you so much for the share on your blog and the thoughtful Twitter mention!!! I also loved your intro on your blog. I signed up to be notified whenever you write a new post.
I’m so glad you’re enjoying my blog! Thanks again for the share and the kind words! 🙂
“In fiction, unless your goal is to write humor, any emotion goes.”
Interesting — humor and other emotions don’t mix?
I’m currently writing a book about human trafficking and castration and mommy issues. It’s laced with humor throughout.
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