You may have heard that a time or two. And if you have, there’s more than a chance that the person saying it had a gleam of triumph in his or her eye. You asked them what they thought of your work—and oh, boy, did they tell you. Such a reader isn’t shy. Indeed, they have a talent for bringing you to tears of distress. They’re free with judgments like “ugh”, “cheesy” and “cringe”, but short on specifics.
Press such a reader for details of what they meant by “it just doesn’t work” and they’ll exclaim “Don’t ask me! You’re the writer!” Readers like this behave though they occupy some kind of moral high ground, regardless of their blunt rudeness. And up there, they clearly seem to believe, there’s no room for minced words, pulled punches,or…feelings. No, instead you must let them rain down upon you with a barrage of vague, yet devastating,truthbombs—because, they’ll point out—you asked for their opinion.
It’s hard to reply to this. Unless you caught this reader in the act of scoping your work without permission, you did ask for their opinion. So make any peep of argument, show any sign that their comments are hurtful, and you’ll find yourself in the rapidly growing shadow of the biggest bombshell of all: “You know what your problem is? You just can’t take criticism!” It’s a blockbuster. Since a professional is supposed to welcome honest opinions and have a hide as thick as armor,” can’t take criticism” seems unanswerable. Did your rude reader just destroy you?
No. Wait. I’d like you to consider the possibility that you absolutely can take criticism—but what you just experienced was no such thing. It was a volley of noise, not a legitimate critique. Critique—not mere disapproval, digs disguised as advice, shouts from a soapbox, or any of the thousand other varieties of noise—is the only kind of criticism you should be expected to “take”. Critiques are perhaps best known to art students. In their essential form, they consist of three-to six-hour sessions where students pin their latest assignments toa the wall and listen as their classmates describe what succeeds and fails in each piece, using agreed-upon terminology that their professor teaches them alongside their creative skillset. There is no place in a “crit” for jabs or snark; the students are there to defend their creative decisions, not their dignity. The fact that art students do not, as a rule, exit critiques in despair, vowing to hurl their materials into a ravine and never draw again, shows how effective it is to limit the discussion to that which can be expressed in targeted, technical vocabulary.
So back to your truth-bombing reader. If ever you find yourself under fire, don’t panic. Ask yourself: is this person, at a minimum, able to speak properly about writing? When a reader is capable of using dispassionate terminology to point out specific examples, it gives you confidence that their opinion has value—and that, in turn, makes it easier to believe they aren’t just out to annihilate you. A reader becomes far easier to listen to if, instead of pouting “this reminds me of that stupid book from high school!”, she has the ability to recast her comment as “I can’t tell whether I’m supposed to sympathize with this character or not… remember how upset I was when that happenedin[bookfrom high school]?”. A respectful, properly worded statement such as “[Trope] is overused… look at [examples]” is far less likely to frustrate you or hurt your feelings than unactionable snark like “OMG, so hokey”. And you may safely give yourself permission to ignore readers who blurt “Ugh. That’s like a bad sitcom “without being able to tell you what makes a sitcom bad, or why they made that comparison.
When you were writing, you had countless choices. Not every piece of research you uncovered made it into your final draft; you didn’t use every possible plot device; every potential combination of words could not possibly have been considered. In each and every case, your decision was guided by some analysis—conscious or not—of the value choice would bring to your work. Those choices extend to what “criticism” you take. Be choosy—not in the sense that you refuse to entertain any doubts about your work, but in that, you won’t waste energy reacting to comments that don’t meet your minimum requirement. You’re a pro, after all, with better things to do than be a target. Don’t engage with inferior forces. Just let their stinkbombs pass you by.