Submitted Date 12/28/2019

Negative Criticism

This article is closely related to my previous article about reawakening your inner child. And this is because you cannot reawaken your inner child if you are afraid of being criticized.

Perhaps the most difficult moment as an artist is to be criticized by someone who has the appearance of authority, i.e., they seem to have the right and knowledge to judge you. Naturally, we all retreat a bit when faced with a blunt negative assessment of our work. Criticism can have a chilling effect. It can make us self-conscious. It can make it difficult to continue.

However, as artists, we must learn to deal with this. If you decide to show your work, for example, you have, in a sense, opened the door to criticism. Once you make your work public, then the public has a right to respond.

You, of course, can choose to not make your work public or only show it to some close friends, and that is your choice. But if you do want to put your work out there, it helps to know what may be involved.

There are several different 'flavors' of criticism which you should understand.
To keep it simple there is:
Constructive, sympathetic criticism
Destructive, uncaring criticism

In addition to these two categories, there is criticism with a hidden agenda. Some critics may be jealous of your work or your vision as you may have a clear vision, but are still working on making it visible or audible. Or you may be part of an art movement which they don't like, so in a sense, they are criticizing the art movement and not your particular art. The French Impressionists, for example, had this problem.

Some people have felt that my criticisms, i.e., when I assess another's work, are too gentle. My goal as a critic is to show you how to improve your art and to show you what I think are the best and strongest elements. I want to encourage people to create while giving them some pointers about strengthening the work that they are doing. I don't want to compare a first novel to famous first novels, for example, I want to show a writer how to make her or his work better.

Some professional critics relish cutting another's work to pieces. They seem to write with a kind of sadistic enjoyment. If you are ever subjected to this, remember that you are probably just one of many that this kind of critic has targeted.

Creative criticism is quite different. I believe it is more thoughtful because it tries to see how the piece works and doesn't work. This kind of criticism can be quite useful and this is often what you hope for when you show new work to someone and want some feedback.

Years ago, when I was in the Creative Writing Honors program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was subjected to the full spectrum of criticism at the beginning of my senior fall term. I was delighted that I had been accepted to this program because we met with a number of famous writers who lived in the area.

I had written a short novel -- more as an exercise than as anything else. I did not feel that it was particularly good and let my teachers and fellow students know that -- but it was the very beginning of the year so we needed something to be read to the class to get us started.

I reluctantly agreed and read my work for two sessions. At the end a quite famous writer lit into me and my work -- tearing it apart piece by piece. Oddly I was not as devastated as I thought I would be. She knew that I did not think it was my best work and that in a sense I was doing the class a favor. But immediately after the class ended, another equally famous writer came up to me and let me know that he thought it had promise and suggested some ways that I could improve it. Next, the teacher who was in charge of the class, let me know that she thought the first critic had gone too far and thanked me for reading it.

I also learned from this that the same work can be seen quite differently by different people.

So in just a few hours, I had experienced the entire gamut of negative to positive criticisms and all from accomplished writers who were well respected.

At the end of the year, my teacher, who was a positive critic, gave me the ultimate compliment. She said that as I continued to work, my work got better and that I produced more work than anyone else in the class. As a result, she considered me her best student of that year.

So this story had a happy ending, but that is not always the case.

A young man from Canada emailed me recently and wanted to use some of my artwork for a video he was making. I gave him permission and then looked at his website. It turned out that he had applied and then been rejected by a university in Canada when he wanted to enter the media program. Later I saw the video he made from my work. I thought it was excellent and told him so. Yet in this case, rejection may have stopped him in his tracks.

One author who writes about creativity said something like this: "Not caring what people think of your work is one of the greatest talents you may have."

I'm not sure I would go quite that far but being able to shake off negative cutting criticism is a skill all artists need to develop.

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  • Ashley Aker 1 year, 2 months ago

    During my time in college, I excelled until I didn't. When I had an editor rip into my work, I let it destroy my confidence. I questioned everything and lost my bearings on my craft. I became much more insecure about my writing. I still struggle sometimes but I try to remember that everyone's opinion is different. One person can like your piece and another may not. When I think about people as opinions instead of people that can help. I know they are people but if I can separate the part of it that makes it personal then it won't feel like an attack. It simply feels like that person is saying "I don't like the taste of aubergine," instead of "I don't like aubergines and no one else likes aubergines." thanks for sharing!

    • Rick Doble 1 year, 2 months ago

      I have always felt that really aggressive negative criticism had a hidden agenda. It certainly was not to help the person being criticized, but rather to make them cringe. These same people act as though they are guardians of a high standard which they know better than most people. And it is with this mantle of authority that they rip apart another person's work. I have one and only one main criteria when it comes to writing: is it clear? Does the writing say what you mean it to say? Anything else is style and opinion.

  • Andrea Hope 1 year, 1 month ago

    I want to show a writer how to make her or his work better.
    I agree. I try to keep this in mind with my editing. I'm there to help bring out their voice, not compare it to others. I'm a bit thin-skinned with my own work though. I've fantasized about having a personal assistant who could read any criticism of my work and rewrite it (keeping the advice but softening the blow). lol

    • Rick Doble 1 year, 1 month ago

      "I'm there to help bring out their voice, not compare it to others" -- Well said!