You have only to spend a short amount of time with writers, perhaps in writers’ groups or personally, to realise that most of them are terrified of criticism. Sometimes, they are so full of fear that they haven’t even admitted to themselves that they are writers, and the thoughts that they scribble down in their own time are not considered to be potential works of fiction for others to read, but a kind of therapy, inwardly directed, never to be viewed by another.
It’s a huge area for discussion, and very important. And there are answers that will help.
But it might help to start with a small clarification of terms. The word ‘criticism’ comes from Latin criticus, from Greek kritikos, from kritēs ‘a judge’, from krinein ‘judge, decide’. Right from its roots, then, it possesses a different vector than the writer, in the sense that a writer writes in order to be free, to step away from judgement or restriction, to indulge and to weave and to create. The idea of ‘deciding’ or ‘judging’ only appears when one has to introduce a context. If one wants to be read, one has to go through some kind of process to match one’s writing with some sort of external criteria. There are two broad sets of these criteria: the first is to do with mechanics - are the words spelled correctly? Are they put together in a comprehensible order, with recognisable punctuation? In other words, will a reader be able to understand what is written on a technical level? This is where ‘criticism’ is initially encountered: judgement, decision, an outside person telling the writer whether or not he or she has accurately used the language. This level can be bad enough: I’ve seen people ripped to pieces in some writers’ groups for a minuscule misuse of a dash or a slightly inaccurate interpretation of a word. I’ve seen pages and pages of social media feed all about the placement of commas. And much of this, unfortunately, was underlaid by someone’s ego, some frustrated or irascible ‘expert’ demonstrating a supposed superiority over others by crushing the tiniest error underfoot.
In a sense, though, criticism of the mechanics of one’s writing is not that difficult to take. It can be introverting, and I have seen many writers become totally backed off from the act of writing by being forced into becoming obsessed with word placement or grammar. But in the end, the accuracy of the use of words or other aspects of language is less personal than what we are trying to capture or convey with them. This is the second and most serious level of criticism: the judgement of the work itself, its ideas, its images and themes, its style and direction. Criticism of that is much harder to take because it is so much closer to the writer’s heart.
Such a thing has to happen, though. Quite apart from getting one’s mechanics right, a writer needs to know what readers think about what has been written. Do the ideas come across? Is the story well-paced? Are the characters appealing? Is the work any good?
And here comes a hard truth: even when we have corrected all the technical inaccuracies in the use of language, our writing may not be any good.
What does that mean? It means that, even though we have been free, and stepped away from judgement, and indulged our imaginations and created to our heart’s content, what we have written may not be of any interest to someone else, or may be considered unappealing, or even poor in terms of quality. Some editors or commentators use this cruelly, to attack and belittle; even the kindest of them can come across as harsh because they speak the words that we don’t want to hear. ‘Who are they to judge?’ we can shout; ‘My work is my own, I write from my heart!’ we can protest. But it may be true that our writings do not communicate and will therefore fail with readers.
‘Communicate’ involves a distance: it implies a transition from one point to another. We create something as writers, but that has to get across to readers in some way for it to succeed as anything more than a personal journal or exercise. When it is greeted by rejection, it can be more than disheartening: it can be crushing, it can throw us into shame and despair, and make us feel as though we have not only failed as a writer but as human beings - not only did we not succeed in getting our ideas across, but our ideas themselves were inadequate. Where we hoped for a marriage of minds, we are destroyed by a rejection that seems so intense as to feel like a mini-divorce.
Criticism, nevertheless, is an inevitable part of being a writer, if one hopes to have readers. So what can be done? Do we have to endure such agonies every time we reach out with something that we have written?
Normally, yes. But there is a way of approaching this which can minimise the pain.
It goes back to the core of what being a writer is all about. Writers tap into their own experiences, including other things that they have read and their whole cultural heritage, and then they transform that body of material with a magic uniquely their own. What we read in the form of stories is the result of this ‘sanctification’ of individual experience: writer plus world equals fiction. At this level, all writers are beyond criticism: the ‘other’, whether it be an editor or a reader or even just a friend or relative, has absolutely nothing to do with this sanctification process. The magic that takes place deep in the heart of the writer belongs to the writer alone - in a way, it is the writer. A human being perceives the world around them, other stories, culture, personal perspectives, and processes that into something exceptional, something that is authentically distinctive and singular: that is the act of writing, whether the work is a fantasy or a realistic novel or a western or a piece of poetry in its outward form. No other writer can do what each individual writer can do; no other person has a right or even the ability to enter that inner sanctum.
But when a writer emerges from that inner space, seeking to communicate what he or she has created, then it is a mechanical truth that others are automatically involved. This is where ‘criticism’ enters in, harsh or gentle, accurate or misguided, as part of the process of transporting what has been made from one point to another, from the writer’s innermost world to the reader’s reality.
Here’s the thing, though: if a writer understands this, if a writer truly appreciates that what he or she has accomplished is perfectly and inarguably unique, then an editor, or advisor, or beta-reader or friend can also begin from that same appreciation. If that is used as a starting point, criticism potentially becomes a friendly companion, an aide, a source of strength - because the editor, or whoever, recognising the uniqueness of the work, strives to make it clearer, to bring out that voice, to strengthen its power.
If on the other hand the special magic that takes place within a writer is not used as a starting point, criticism potentially becomes a destructive enemy, an antagonist. Even inadvertently, criticism which fails to understand what writing is acts as in opposition to the best interests of the writer and the work.
So the answer to our terror of criticism? Recognise the rightness within; embrace the fact that what you are doing no one else can do. Yes, it is possible that your work will need adjustment and alteration, but it should always be in the direction of making your uniqueness even more unique, your voice stronger and your work more powerfully yours. You need to find someone who can see that specialness and work with it - then you have some hope of communicating it to others.
Courage, then, is not so much bravery in the face of the enemy, as belief in one’s own act of inner sanctification that is ‘writing’.