Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How to Understand Criticism

Writing Wednesday

A good friend was recently kind enough to read and comment on my manuscript. She also provided an editorial letter.

It's difficult, of course, to be told that your child isn't the most perfect in the world. It's equally difficult to hear that your manuscript could be improved.

As with most difficult things, one tends to go through the five stages of grief:

Denial - That's not a problem.
Anger - They missed the point.
Bargaining - If I made this small change, would that fix it?
Depression - I can never give them what they want.
Acceptance - Maybe I can if I work at it.

Others have observed the same pattern. What I want to point out is that understanding is usually a part of acceptance. I had a hard time reaching the stage of acceptance with some of the criticism because I didn't understand. Oh, I understood the words and the concepts behind them, but I didn't understand how to make the suggested changes.

And then, on the third morning, I woke up, reread the letter, and I understood. It felt like a miracle.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Writing is the process of encoding thought with marks on a page. Reading is the process of decoding marks on a page into thoughts. There's plenty of room for error in both processes. Because of that, understanding the thoughts of another and how they apply to your own thoughts is hard work. Fortunately, it's the perfect sort of work for your subconsciousness.

So, after all of that, here's the punch line: the best way to understand criticism is to study it and then sleep on it, perhaps for several nights. I suggest three nights because, according to School House Rock, three is a magic number.

Image: Simon Howden /


  1. Ah School House Rock! Yay.

    You make a great analogy about feedback and grief, but for some reason I've never had that problem. Sure occasionally feedback doesn't fit but with my critique group I have generally applied the majority of suggestions right away. Maybe it's because I spent a long time wallowing in my ego before finally joining a group and realizing my writing needed work. Once I accepted that I was ready and even yearning for help to make it better. Now I love constructive criticism.

    Am I crazy? Probably.

  2. Crazy about constructive criticism? Probably not.

    I also love the constructive criticism I receive. Most of the time the issue is clear and the possibilities for improvement obvious. In terms of the grief cycle, I arrive at the acceptance stage (often skipping intermediate steps) in a matter of minutes.

    In the case that prompted this post, there was a request for more of something I thought I'd already done. For the first two days I couldn't see how to do more without making the manuscript significantly longer (and running the risk of making it tedious). I understood what my friend was driving at and agreed that it would be a good thing, but didn't see how to proceed. I was stuck in the stage before acceptance. Then, on the miraculous third day, I finally understood how to make the improvement with only a modest increase in the overall word count.


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