Here’s a guest post from Tanaz Bhathena, who writes Middle Eastern and South Asian fiction. If you have a great idea and would like to contribute a guest post of your own, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: Guest Post Idea for No Rules.
Eight years ago, when I took my first creative writing course at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, I went to a workshop run by a Canadian writer whose work had been nominated for the Giller Prize. At the end of the workshop, I stuck around with a few other stragglers to ask a question about something the writer said. In the process, I overheard a conversation between the writer and another workshop attendee – a woman who confessed to not having written for five years after being brutally critiqued by her former creative writing teacher.
Though this was new – and shocking – to me at the time, it was only the first among many stories that I heard from other writers who confessed to their work being ripped to shreds at a workshop or by a teacher in a classroom or in a writing group.
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A few years later, I submitted a personal essay idea for a writing project. The writer in charge of the project bluntly told me it wasn’t going to work. Swallowing the sting that came with the feedback, I was quick to thank her for it and instantly proposed another idea that I’d personally rejected earlier. The writer loved this idea and, in return, thanked me for being professional. She has, since then, become someone I turn to from time to time for advice.
Her words however struck a chord and I realized how differently I might have responded just a few years ago. Writing is such a personal act for many of us and it makes us sensitive to criticism. Rejection hurts everyone – from the newbie to the most seasoned of writers – and a critique can often make or break a writer, depending on what it is and who gives it.
Over the years, I’ve looked for various ways of handling criticism without letting it overcome me. Here are four ways that have stuck, that I continue to fall back on when it comes to workshop criticism:
- Listen without defending your work
This, for most writers, is perhaps the hardest thing to do. But when receiving feedback, the golden rule is to remain silent. Do not speak, unless asking for clarification. Do not defend your work, no matter how tempting. Despite the horror stories that exist about writing groups and programs, not everyone is out to tear you down. Most times the person giving you the feedback has put a great deal of thought into your work and can provide a fresh perspective. A trick I’ve learnt is to take notes while being critiqued so that I can go over them later at my own leisure.
- Thank the reader for their time
Naturally, you don’t need to thank anyone for ripping your work to shreds or being unnecessarily brutal, but thoughtful, critical feedback from a reader should always be acknowledged. The reality is that some readers will “get” your work and some won’t. But every critique – good or bad – brings you closer to the story you want to tell, the essay you want to write.
- Absorb the critique: What’s useful? What isn’t?
The best way to treat a first draft is to let it sit in a drawer for a few weeks before picking it up again to see it with fresh eyes. Many times, critiques work in the same fashion. A critique, when looked at two weeks after it’s given, can sometimes make a lot more sense.
Remember that the point of joining a class or a critique group is to improve. And the only way to do so is to ask yourself questions about the comments given by your readers: What flaws are visible in the writing? Do multiple people have the same issue with this? Is there a way you can make things clearer without compromising your vision for the story or essay?
If you’re writing from the perspective of a culture different than yours, always defer to the expertise of a reader who belongs to that culture. Try to get more than one sensitivity reader in these cases. This is the time to completely detach yourself from the work and view everything with a critical eye. It’s often worse to publish a badly written or poorly researched book than be put off by a bad critique.
- This above all: To thine own self be true
In the end, remember that you are the writer. If your gut tells you to leave a scene the way it is – in spite of a critique – go with it. If you’re experimenting with a new style of writing, do it. Rules, after all, are only meant to be followed until it’s time to break them.
Tanaz Bhathena writes Middle Eastern and South Asian fiction. Her short stories have appeared in various journals, including Blackbird, Witness, Room Magazine and Himal Southasian.
Her novel, Qala Academy, will be published by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers / Macmillan in the fall of 2017.
Find more great No Rules posts here:
- What I Would Tell My Younger Writer Self.
- Improve Your Writing Platform in 30 Days.
- 8 Blogging Tips for Writers to Find Success.