They Said WHAT about My Piece?! Navigating the Critical World by Josh Smith

Criticism is inescapable in the Internet age. In addition to the myriad news outlets, magazines, blogs, and personal pages that feature reviews, the distance and anonymity afforded by the web has turned criticizing one another on social media into some kind of national pastime. This, combined with so many websites requesting reviews and ratings for everything we purchase, see, eat, and experience, “everyone’s a critic” has transitioned from an old adage to an element of modern life.

While this “review everything” landscape has mostly been curated as a customer service tool, people often get caught up in the rush of trashing something publicly, which is usually less a result of something actually being bad and more related to a particular perception, bias, or trend. Full disclosure: I dabbled in album reviews that were predominantly snarky and negative from the outset, but I eventually realized that cracking jokes at the expense of someone’s creations was a lazy approach that did nothing for an art form that I truly love. It turns out that it’s so much more rewarding to sit down with something, whether it’s initially appealing or not, and give it a chance to affect you on the artist’s terms. Unfortunately, there’s still an audience for those scathing “cheap thrill” reviews, and anything we create that winds up in a public space is a potential target for some hack with a chip on his shoulder. It’s a difficult task, but it’s important not to let this permeating negativity crush you, especially when it comes to your creative endeavors. That’s not to say that all unfavorable criticism of your work will be inherently wrong, but identifying the difference between trolling and actual critique will save you a lot of sleepless nights.

No matter the source, intent, or validity, nearly all criticism is accompanied by the sting of failure. That sting never disappears completely, but you can learn to temper it. It becomes a challenge in this age of constant commenting, and there is a real threat that you can become so callous that you are unable to find merit in insightful critiques when they do arrive. The opposite can also occur—when your work is so close to you, you may feel personally attacked by every bit of judgment coming your way, making it next to impossible to get anything positive out of even the most gentle and constructive criticism. Both of these responses develop over time if left unchecked, so be mindful of your emotional response to critiques, whether they come from friends, family, writing groups, or randos on Twitter.

For many writers, the worst form of criticism is also the most common: indifference. Indifference in a review can be devastating, but when your work doesn’t even reach a platform upon which it can be judged, you start asking dreaded questions like, “should I even be doing this?” and “what if no one ever cares?” These crossroads are the ones that define you, and when you approach them, you must do so with complete honesty. If you can see a way onward without requisite praise or even much acknowledgement, hang in there, put in the work and pave your own roads. If critical reception, fame, and wealth are your primary writing goals, maybe it’s time to take some time off and consider a career path with a more realistic pathway to grand success. If you can’t help but work through the debilitating indifference that most writers experience early on, then you will develop the fortitude to handle any criticism that comes your way, and the poise to  allow it to improve your work.

One of the most important lessons in receiving criticism is giving it time to sink in. Quick reactions to tough observations can increase anxiety, causing you to overlook any helpful elements populating the critique. In writing groups, editor’s reviews, or other professional situations, this can lead to overreactions or outbursts that won’t advance your writing or your career. When you feel that sting, slow down, take a step back and ask yourself why it hurt and what comment struck the hardest. Oftentimes, it is because something has hit close to home. Specific pieces of advice might suggest things about your work or even your personality that are tough to face, but hard truths are often the ones we need to hear the most. Do your best to not be dismissive in these situations, as difficult as that may be. Sometimes you’ll learn important life lessons, and other times you’ll discover that the reader merely missed the point. That said, if you find that people frequently misunderstand what you are trying to do, you may need to reconfigure your approach. Use the results of past critiques, reviews, and comments to zero in on where you’re losing people and find a way to clarify what you want them to see. The subjective nature of art and perception will ensure that someone, somewhere will certainly receive different signals than you intended to send, but if you have made yourself as clear as possible without insulting the intelligence of your core readers, then you can rest easy.

You may not think much of every opinion about your work, but you can learn something from almost any critique. Even a cheap jab can train you to shake off thin attacks and can show you how to more thoughtfully respond if you are asked to chime in on the works of your peers. Take your time, keep an open mind, and prepare to get a bit uncomfortable. Being under the microscope is a stressful endeavor, but the quality of your work is sure to improve if you can allow yourself to see it from new perspectives.

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