The Dreaded C-Word

by limebirdmike

It’s been a funny few weeks in the world of Mike. Having cut 20k words from my latest attempt at a novel, I’ve been spending much of my Christmas holiday trying to put it all back together again in an order that makes sense, with my ending still not completely finished. Aside from what I do for “fun” (I challenge anyone to call what I do in my spare time “fun”), I’m still working hard for a small PR firm based in the south east. I won’t say too much about it here, for fear of Google picking it up, but sufficed to say, it keeps me busy if nothing else.

While it may not be the most interesting job in the world, what work really has taught me of late, is that criticism can come in all shapes and sizes – the trick is to take it all on the chin, and learn to distinguish justified criticism from that which has just been thrown for the sake of making a fuss.

A long time ago now, I wrote a blog on my website about criticism and how I was criticised – nay, insulted – at a party of all places, for the humour column I used to write for my university magazine. Receiving criticism at university however is quite different to receiving criticism in the world of work. For various reasons I currently work in PR – a form of work where to a large extent, you sell your “writing soul” to the client and must accept whatever they say to you, regardless of whether it’s justified or not. This point was exemplified to me on two occasions recently: in the first case, where my boss received an email from one client describing the work I had helped produce as “amatuer [sic]”, and a second instance where another client described something I had written as (I quote) “girly”.

In both these cases, I am quite proud to say I didn’t take the criticism to heart. When taken in the context of each client neither piece of criticism was justified and indeed, in the second case, the comment was taken back in an email that was sent the following day.

So, is it arrogant of me to automatically assume that the two comments were unjustified?

Well yes and no. To a certain extent, each of us as writers needs to take on a certain amount of, not “arrogance” per se, but more “confidence in one’s abilities”. It may seem like arrogance in one respect as we are all, given what we do, quite sensitive individuals, but at the same time if you want to make it in the world of professional writing, you need to steel yourself against criticism and learn to differentiate between that which is genuine, and that which is merely insult hurling. In the first case given above, I think it’s fair to say that anyone who mis-spells the word “amateur” when describing a writer’s spelling, grammar and punctuation, is perhaps not justified in their comment!

So there we have it – my take on the dreaded C-word. To end this blog in suitably thought-provoking style, I thought I’d leave you with one of my favourite writing-related quotes taken from Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796):

An author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom every body is privileged to attack: for though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them. A bad composition carries with it its own punishment – contempt and ridicule. A good one excites envy, and entails upon its author a thousand mortifications: he finds himself assailed by partial and ill-humoured criticism: one man finds fault with the plan, another with the style, a third with the precept which it strives to inculcate; and they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the book, employ themselves in stigmatizing its author. They maliciously rake out from obscurity every little circumstance which may throw ridicule upon his private character or conduct, and aim at wounding the man since they cannot hurt the writer. In short, to enter the lists of literature is wilfully to expose yourself to the arrows of neglect, ridicule, envy, and disappointment. Whether you write well or ill, be assured that you will not escape from blame.

Until next time,

Mike

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8 Comments to “The Dreaded C-Word”

  1. This is a great post, Mike. I, too, have suffered rotten criticism of my writing. I will say when I was new to sharing my work the criticism was very difficult to bear. It got so rough I stopped writing for a number of years. When I returned to writing I made a conscious decision to take the criticisms, but I don’t have to take the criticisms to heart. That was the turning point for me in regard to putting myself and my work out there.

    I also like how you differentiate between “arrogance” and “confidence in one’s abilities.” I always used the term “self-assured” to describe a writer who can withstand criticism and keep on writing anyway.

    I had to laugh at your savvy observation regarding the misspelling of “amateur.” That in itself is enough to tell you that you weren’t at fault, and that the critter obviously needed to take out his personal frustrations on the nearest target.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Another good post, and all true of course. You have to take it with a grain of salt. I want to know that the person who is “critting” my work at least has the credentials or experience to do it justice. Otherwise it often isn’t much more than opinion and should be read as such.
    I try very hard to listen to those who critique my work, and employ their suggestions when I feel they are warranted. Will I argue for my babies? Of course, but I will be the first to admit I’m not always right!

  3. It always makes me laugh when people completely negate their comments with poor grammar!

    I actively welcome constructive criticism that’s going to help me improve, but it can be difficult to come by. Friends and family will always be positive – or in my husband’s case when I put one of my tween girl books in front of him he’ll quite understandably say he has no idea! But people who I don’t know have no vested interest in giving me feedback.

    I’ve read self-published books where the author shows promise as a writer, but I really wish they’d got some genuine feedback because there are issues that desperately need addressing. I’m always kinder in reviews of self-published books, but rather than hiding behind anonymity to be honest when I think something’s bad, I’ll say nothing because: I don’t know if they’d welcome the feedback; I don’t want to criticise them in a public forum; it’s a bit late now they’ve published it anyway; who’s to say my view is ‘right’; and most of all I don’t want to hurt them. And that’s really not helpful!

    As aspiring writers I think it shows more confidence in our abilities to be able to listen to what people say. Obviously we’re going to get upset if it’s negative, but is there something we can learn from it? Although as you say, Mike, we’ve got to recognise where the person’s coming from – are they the wrong target audience; are they being vindictive for some personal reason; are they just a not very nice person etc.

    And I’m with you Mike – if they can’t get their heads around spell-check (or apostrophes, the difference between there and their etc.), what’s their view worth anyway?

  4. One of the hardest things I have ever done is push the publish button for my first bog post. It was new and scary for me and I worried what others would think. I was afraid either no one would read it, or if somebody did, they would critique it. Once it was done I continued on, building confidence a post at a time. What I finally have realized is that criticism shows someone is paying attention to your work. And sometimes how they respond to it has more to do with them and where they happen to be at the time than the actual nature of my work. Thanks for making me think about this–great post.

  5. So true. We write because we have to. We write because we love to write. We write because we are overflowing. If we write to be loved, then it might be wise to revisit that desire and its potential for devastation. Great post!

  6. Thank you for this. I’m not there yet, as I’m still very new to writing, especially writing publicly. I hope I’m ready when the time comes. I’ve never been known for my confidence. I’m definitely taking this post to heart.

  7. Great post about the “C” word. I welcome constructive criticism of my writing. Constructive criticism points out what works (and why) and what doesn’t (and why) in that person’s opinion, always leaving it up to me to decide whether I want to change anything. Any criticism that comes my way that is vague or snarky is criticism that I ignore. It’s simply not intended to help me become a better writer, while criticism of the constructive kind has the intention of helping me to improve the piece of writing or improve me as a writer.

    In the end, as you say, I have the final say as to what I change. I ask myself, “Does this recommendation improve upon what I’ve written and stay true to my voice?” If so, then I change it; if not, I don’t. That’s not arrogance; it’s knowing your voice.

  8. Great post. As my partner would tell you, I am not the world’s best at taking criticism! However, where writing is concerned, I try and accept ALL criticism up to a point. That doesn’t mean that I agree with it all, but I do listen. If something that I have put out there has so influenced someone to criticise, then I need to think about why (although, ultimately, I may stick with my original plan!).

    An example, there was a general call for stories for an upcoming anthology. I wrote what I thought was a great story 🙂 which met the criteria. The editors got back to me and said that they loved the story but it didn’t really fit with what they were planning, and suggested some changes. Rather than complaining that they should have been far more specific in the brief I made two re-writes; one which took on board everything that they said (but which I felt ripped the heart out of the story) and one in-between that took their views into account but kept in some of my meat. In the end neither of the versions were used, but I did learn from the experience.

    A process note: Keep ALL your drafts! I am planning to go back to my original version and bring in one or two things from the re-writes to make the final story. I have a folder for each piece and only trash things once I have a final draft that I am happy with hawking around.

    Oh, and a great quote!

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