Constructive Criticism: Not Everyone Will Find Your Writing Perfect…Or Even Decent

A few days ago, I gave a copy of one of my short stories to a rather erudite business partner. I mistakenly thought that she would appreciate it, especially since I was rather fond of this piece, believing it to be one of my best works of short fiction.

I was convinced that this short story had a great deal of merit: the innovative voice of the protagonist; the experimental nature of the prose; and the content’s challenge to the middle-class values that dominate the literary world all appeared, from my vantage point, to have been executed rather well. I proudly crowed that the story had already been rejected by a certain publishing house that claimed to be in the market for edgy fiction, but balked at the content of this story as being far too offensive to publish.

To say that my business partner disliked this short story is a dramatic understatement. She hammered me about the lack of merits of that particular piece. It reminded me of when I was a creative writing student at Beloit College, how I felt like I was in front of a firing squad when my fiction was critiqued by my professor and classmates.

However, my business partner’s point made a lot of sense. She told me that she had a lot of misgivings about the fact that my protagonist was not redeemed in any way at the end of the story. Essentially, what she did not like was that there was no arc to the character’s trajectory, despite the fact that the short story was roughly 4,000 words (flash fiction can get away with no arc, it being able to rest on being a “snapshot” far more easily than possible for more expansive short fiction). I took her advice into consideration. When I revise the piece, I will address this concern.

My partner, unlike me, has a particular worldview that colors her lifestyle, and this extends into her reading preferences. She is a firm adherent to the school of positive thinking. In my professional pursuits and overall lifestyle, I am not the stereotypical gloomy writer. However, though I maintain an enormous amount of positivity at all times, my fiction can hardly be described as “positive.” She and I argued for a bit about the purpose of fiction. She claimed that it should, as all things should, uplift. I don’t hold that particular viewpoint. In fact, I believe that fiction that is inherently moralistic is usually quite awful.

The point is, she, just like that one particular publishing house, did not like that piece because of their particular biases. Not everyone will like your writing either. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t good. I can’t recall how many people I know who have lambasted Stephen King, Dan Brown, or J. K. Rowling, yet they are among the highest paid and most successful writers. While my own tastes are more inclined to realism of the school of Raymond Carver and John Cheever, or the Southern Gothic works of Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, I can acknowledge that King, Brown, and Rowling have talent, and every book that I’ve read by them I have enjoyed. It’s as simple as different strokes for different folks.

When you get harshly criticized by someone who reads your piece, remember the following:

  1. Not everyone likes that particular type of literature. It’s not a personal attack. It just means that your writing does not happen to be that particular person’s cup of tea.
  2. Most people have good intentions and their criticisms are designed to help you improve your writing. Unless you are associating with bottom of the barrel types, when individuals critique your writing, it is out of a desire to see you grow. Listen to their criticisms, and if you find them valid, take heed.

In short: As a writer, there is no way around it—you will deal with an extreme amount of criticism. To stay sane, please don’t take it personally. 

How do you feel when others aggressively criticize your writing? Do you find it helpful, or does it seem like an attack? I’d love to hear your perspectives.

In success,

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