Pardon the Entrails
Will Ludwigsen


Nothing Personal, but You Suck:
Accepting and Delivering Criticism with Openness and Integrity

I'm writing this column from my dorm desk at the 2006 Clarion workshop. This week, we began the dreaded process of critiquing stories.

Clarion has a reputation (perhaps exaggerated) for producing either award-winning authors or crushed spirits. Each weekday for six weeks, the students sit in a circle and comment in turn about each specific story. Traditionally, the writer can sit wringing a stuffed blue mascot bunny if he or she chooses.

I saw the bunny yesterday. It has patches. Which means it had holes. Which means that some of these critiques were so intense that people tore or gnawed HOLES in a stuffed bunny.

Partly to save the bunnies, I offer you these hard-learned tips on giving and receiving criticism.

Giving Criticism

Criticism is hard to take. It may be even harder to give--correctly.

I'm convinced that several of my classmates from the Borderlands Boot Camp earlier this year would stab me with a broken bottle if they ever saw me in public again, mostly because by the end of reading all those stories, I was writing things in the margins like, "Why would somebody write this? Better still, why would somebody read it?" I rose from my chair to humorously perform the illogical action from an ungrammatical sentence, and the writer flinched like I was going to hit her.

That's when I figured out that I had to work on my critiquing style.

What can I say? Writing is important to me, something done with full dedication and passion. When I detect a lack of caring, a desire to just rattle off a story to get in a magazine or impress the other kids in the death metal band, it sets me off.

I've had to learn how not to take critiques personally. Not the ones I receive so much as the ones I give.

After research and contemplation, these are my personal guidelines for offering criticism:

  • The mediocre writing of others does not threaten your work or the body of literature.

    It is not a crime against humanity to write terrible things--just against the person who wrote it and those damned to read it.

  • Even great writers create bad stories.

    They just think of them as "lessons" or "experiments."

  • Point out what works, however accidentally.

    A flash of eloquence, a sudden striking insight: these might be clues as to what this story can really be about.

  • In a passionless work, look for any sign of energy.

    Circle it and tell the writer that it might be the focus he or she intended.

  • Look for anything idiosyncratic and personal in the story that makes it interesting and unique.

    Advise the writer to accentuate that, to make this a story that only he or she can write.

  • Be careful with specific advice on how to fix a problem.

    Sometimes it is best to point out what didn't work, and trust the writer to find a solution consistent with his or her own vision instead of yours.

  • Stop reading and critiquing when you are tired.

    The last story in a batch always gets the hatchet job.

  • Each story is its own entity independent of previous good or bad stories from the same author.

    Maybe there aren't good or bad writers but just ones writing consistently good or bad stories.

  • Avoid the football pile-on, however tempting it may be.

    Yes, we've all said that the character isn't believable. After the third person reinforces that idea, let it go.

  • We say it all the time because it is true: criticize stories, not writers.

    These are pieces of paper, and we should focus on what they do or fail to do, not on what the person who made them can or should do.

Receiving Criticism

This week, I was one of the fortunate recipients of criticism. My story received the drubbing it deserved from all present, and I soon understood the desire to twist a bunny in one's hands until it snaps in half. I sincerely hope the Michigan State groundskeepers never find that real rabbit.

So here, then, are the lessons I learned about taking criticism:

  • Better to be taken seriously with true negative feedback than to be flattered with false positive feedback.

    I'm frankly disappointed that I'm only this year getting a level of insight that can actually help me grow. Other teachers and peers have encouraged me, but none have said, "Will, this sucks and you know it. What can we do to make it worthy of you?"

  • Whatever other people say, the work is yours.

    You apply your own critical judgement, either accepting their advice as helping purify the vision you had in mind, or rejecting their advice as distracting from that vision. You're an idiot to accept everything a person tells you to do, but you're an idiot to ignore it, too.

  • Even the least helpful critique has value, if only to indicate a portion of a story where you failed to lull the reader into your hoax.

    If someone can find something negative to say about a passage, chances are you haven't created as tight a dream as you can.

  • Never explain outside of the story.

    Your work must be a message in a bottle, self-sufficient and complete. Don't apologize or describe what you were trying to do. Try again to do it.

  • Consider the curve of comparison for your work.

    If you're the best monkey in the zoo, you're still just flinging feces. Worry about feedback that is too positive or too negative. If the work of your peers is consistently out of sync with what you're aiming toward, consider finding more compatible peers. Never look for people who will flatter you, but make sure that they are at a level close to your own or a little above it.

  • Accept the vague comments of taste in their proper context.

    "I don't like time travel stories," "I hate child characters," "You need more gore in this story," all say more about the reader than the story. That isn't always a bad thing, especially if the reader represents an audience you're trying to reach. Just remember that there are factors other than the ones on the page that affect the critique such as reader experiences, prejudices, preferences, and expectations.

  • Keep yourself busy while you're paying attention.

    Nod, take notes, look up from time to time. Don't shiver in your chair like an interrogation victim or stare or scowl.

  • Remember that this is not the last story you will ever write.

    It might be a snapshot of your current emotional state or stage of professional development, but it isn't a statue carved for the ages. If it's great, amplify what works in the next story. If it fails, fix what doesn't work for the next story. You're making a career, not an epitaph.

Accepting criticism of your art is a delicate balance. On one side, you need open-mindedness to improve. On the other, you need integrity to reject criticisms that deviate from your vision.

Part of indoctrination into the military is a breaking down of a recruit's previous mental order to make way for a new one. So, too, will criticism shake your confidence, turn your thoughts inward, and make way for growth. It is natural to fear this uncomfortable process, but remember that you are always in control. You choose whether to change, and how to do so. You choose how criticism affects you. At a certain level, you are indoctrinating yourself, allowing certain new ideas to come through and rejecting others.

You'll do best at both ends of the critique by being open-minded, positive, and dedicated to a single goal: taking whatever horrors you see and making the best of them. When you read a terrible story, help the writer's salvage efforts. When your own story crashes against the rocks, accept the help of others in putting it back together.

I've discovered this week that I have a long way to go with my writing, and I'm grateful. I wish I'd known that before--that I'd been critiqued more heavily, that I'd been competing more with myself than with others, that I'd been treated more like a craftsman with potential than an artiste to be encouraged.

It hurts to be criticized. It hurts worse, though, to never know your full potential because nobody ever prodded you into achieving it.


Will Ludwigsen is at Clarion, atoning for the stories he inflicted on readers in a variety of magazines. You can follow his progress and learn more about him at his website, www.will-ludwigsen.com.

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