Taking the Thorns: When Not to Defend Your Work

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Criticism is never easy for anyone to take. Whether it’s a real estate agent coming through your house to tell you what you need to “fix” or a family member with lots of “helpful” advice about things you could do to raise your child better or a suggestion from a coworker about how you might do a project differently, hearing criticism is not easy.

While no one really loves criticism, it may possibly be even harder for the creative types, of which I am one, when it is in relation to their work. Why? Because we think the criticism of our writing, the same writing that we carefully chose every word to express ours or our characters thoughts and feelings, is a criticism of our talent. Very few of us have enough confidence not to doubt our ability every day at least a little.

It is important to remember that criticism, in most cases, is meant to take your natural talent to the next level. It is not an attack on your ability but instead a coaching to improve that talent and hone your skill. Is it fun? No. Does it frustrate and bewilder you? Absolutely. But once you get over the initial reaction and absorb the criticism, you usually end up with a stronger piece as a result.

Take my recent reading of a book a friend of mine wrote. He asked me to tell him what I really thought. Generally, I thought the book was a great story with a lot of interesting characters and an exciting premise. But I had a couple of criticisms that I shared with him about a couple of minor parts of the book. Not surprisingly, he defended himself back to me (extremely pleasantly). Clearly, he disagreed with my criticism and to be fair, that’s his right. But as my criticism was only intended to make the strong parts of his story even stronger, is he missing the point by defending the parts that are a little weaker? Time will tell.

Of course, today I just did the same thing. Only it was to my mother, the only person in the whole world who thinks I am more talented than I do. She explained to me that my latest children’s book was hard to follow in the beginning. She mentioned a couple of specifics that she was confused about. Instead of listening to what she was saying, I said, “It’s on the first page!” Of course, since you are reading this you’ll have to imagine my snotty tone. In my defense, I am a little sick so I tend to be whinier and more negative at times like these.

But sick excuse aside, instead of receiving her well-thought out advice to me, I deflected it. Feeling like she was wrong and didn’t read my first page carefully enough, I didn’t stop to think that maybe the first page was confusing. Or that possibly since I am awfully close to the story that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t say what I thought I said on the first page.

A better strategy might be to say, “I never thought of it that way.” Or, “I’ll look into that.” In order for criticism to actually help you grow, you have to hear it. If you don’t allow your critics to help you grow, you will stay right where you are, possibly making the same mistakes you are making today years from now.

So what’s my point? Simple: take the criticism. In my acting classes in college (Oh, yes, before I was a writer, I was a professional actress. You can only imagine how fun criticism is as an actress…), we used to say after a scene for the class, “you have to take the roses with the thorns.” This is true. Thorns can hurt, but you would never have the roses without them.

For writers, criticism is an important part of the creative process and hearing it is certainly a high priority in order to be any kind of help. So don’t defend your work when you are having a discussion with your editor, publisher, colleague or even your own mother. In most cases, particularly the last one, they usually only have your best interest at heart.

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