So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test.
-Changes, David Bowie
Now that I’ve talked about how you shouldn’t try to make everyone happy, let’s talk for a minute about criticism. Now, I don’t mean reviews, although certainly reviews may contain criticism. Usually reviews are just critical, which isn’t the same at all. When I say ‘criticism’ I mean an honest appraisal of one’s work, made early enough to actually do something with the information. When an author sends a book off to a beta reader or a story editor, they are looking for critical feedback. This is about that, especially when someone tries to skip that step.
We tear ourselves down all the time, don’t we? We succumb to the tiny goblin voices whispering insecurities into the dark corners of our souls. Writing is about ignoring that voice, and pressing on regardless. The problem with teaching yourself not to listen to that goblin who constantly tells you that you’ll never be good enough, never finish anything, never succeed, etc., is that you can deafen yourself to a smaller voice that tells you when something genuinely needs refinement. This may be hard to hear, but sometimes, what we create really isn’t good enough. If that idea doesn’t scare you, well, you’re lucky.
It scares the hell out of me.
After many years as an illustrator, now a writer, I know that voice is effectively gagged when I’ve finished a piece, the murmur too soft to be heard over the shouts of triumph and that giddy intoxication that comes with completion. (This is why we’re all told to put that piece in a drawer and not look at it for six weeks — it gives that critical, editorial voice a chance to be heard.) It’s an unpleasant but unshakable truth: most of us (I count myself in this group) are incapable of judging our own work while we’re in the middle of it. We’re too close to it. It’s the whole reason writers have editors and artists have art directors, because we need someone to step in and tell us to make it better.
So this, then, is the trap of the freelancer, whether that be artist or writer. Criticism — good criticism — is a skill, and we rarely have access to someone else who has that skill. Everyone has opinions, but that’s not the same thing. One of my friends on Facebook might tell me they don’t like something I’ve written, but they can’t necessarily express why. As an artist, I show my work to other artists, because they will not only be able to tell me what I’ve missed in a piece, but how to fix it. This is why every writer is told to find an editor. I have to agree with that advice. There must be someone who can critique your work, and whose advice you feel is sound enough to follow.
Okay, so what am I dancing around? Just this: I think it’s easy for people to blind themselves to the genuine flaws in their own creations. I do it. I darn well know others do it. And the only fix I’ve ever seen is find someone you trust, someone who will be honest, someone with some expertise, and let them be your mirror. Don’t try to look in that mirror yourself (you’ll turn yourself to stone, I swear) — let them do it for you. You don’t have to follow everything that person says, but I think being forced to defend your choices is ultimately good. You will learn something.
The whole world is going to see your work eventually. There’s no sense to not getting a little feedback early.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve known a couple of people in my life who fall into a category I shall call Dorian Grays (because I’m all literary like that). A Dorian Gray doesn’t try to look into a mirror and they don’t have friends who look into a mirror for them. They instead hide all their flaws under a sheet in the attic and metaphorically kill anyone who tries to suggest said flaws might exist. They won’t listen to criticism and they won’t take advice. Why are you harshing on them? Their work is perfect! It’s the opposite of being crippled by anxiety. It’s being crippled by narcissism, a totally inability to realistically appraise their own work or listen to anyone who might be able to do so for them. And personally, I find this attitude both incredibly frustrating and well-nigh incomprehensible, being as I am so often crippled by my own anxieties that my work isn’t good enough. Frankly, so is every author I know who’s doing this professionally, so I’m always a little guarded around anyone who asks me for feedback and then refuses to listen when I take the time to give it.
This has happened more than just once or twice.
I’m increasingly convinced that the really good writers not only allow for criticism, but actively seek it out, cultivating a garden of trusted editors, friends, and beta readers. Not all advice will be listened to (nor should it) but they don’t just throw up their arms and scoff when someone suggests, ‘hey, this story has a problem.’
Criticism is an opportunity to level up, to ‘git gud,’ to hone your craft.
Don’t shy from that opportunity. Embrace it.