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  • Diana Schneidman

The power to critique is the power to destroy

I used to welcome input on my writing from others. I saw it as free help. The more negative the advice, the more it was a test of my character and my ability to remain open minded to criticism.

I examined each point of criticism and seriously considered amending my work to incorporate it. I was really in a bind when multiple people gave contradictory input.

However, over time I recognized that I’m a sensitive person and criticism hurts. Plus I am highly discriminatory (in the positive sense) in distinguishing between valid and invalid input.

It’s especially annoying when the critique is wrong—correct the person critiquing and you’re seen as too defensive. Entertain the criticism and you may well be compromising the quality of your work or at least wallowing in indecision.

All in all, blunt critiquing can cripple writers. Yes, the power to critique is the power to destroy.

Hot seats. Ugh!

Hot seats are really bad. A paid leader or a group of paying participants, often with no or very little advance preparation, pile on the criticism. In my experience, they tend to find the very problems I have been wrestling with, but their solutions are perfunctory, not unique to my work or my situation.

Some fee-based, multi-session programs are built around lots of member critiquing. The organizer makes big bucks for organizing the program, while the work is done by volunteer members whose only qualification is coming up with the cash for enrollment. The more people critiquing and the less qualified they are, the worse the process.

As a professional writer, I am reluctant to put in a lot of unpaid time to fix the work of other participants, but being torn down by unqualified readers is even more upsetting.

I once sat in the hot seat at a self-publishing group where I presented my book on how to market freelance services. One loudmouth boldly told me my book would never sell. It needs a better title about how to make a fast fortune as a freelancer.

I was offended and the advice still rankles today. My book isn’t about how to get rich quick. She was actually saying my book is hopeless and can never sell because it is fundamentally a dud.

Sometimes there’s some positive feedback. However, I tend to hear negative comments more loudly than the positive. This is a negative trait I am trying to correct.

Critiquing book drafts

I see a different critiquing trend in the publishing world. Writers—especially self-published authors—create a “tribe” and ask members to proof and edit their book that is under way for free. Then they stack up the proposed revisions and review each and every suggestion.

I’d jump out a window at the tediousness of the task. When I want outside editing, I ask a single qualified person to do the job and gladly pay them.

In addition, much fan development and networking in the self-publishing world (or even traditional publishing) centers on voting on silly things to strengthen readers’ identification with the tribe.

Authors post six covers, all identical except for slight variations in font, element placement and color, and ask for a vote to choose the best. I have no consumer research to rely on and I have no idea what will sell. Nor do I care. I do not participate.

And then there’s Toastmasters

Aside from writing, I also experience critiquing in my Toastmasters club. Each speech is thoughtfully critiqued by one speaker. Other members submit written suggestions directly to the speaker.

Most evaluators tend to a certain critiquing style: the sandwich. Say something good, say something negative, conclude with something good. Don’t pick out every fault, especially for a beginner. Choose the most helpful suggestion; avoid the laundry list.

There are also “professional” clubs where the gang points out every little flaw.

The latter approach may be beneficial to some professional speakers but it’s not for me. I am more concerned about developing confidence than beating myself up over every word choice.

Certainly input can be highly helpful if we want to grow in our talents. But if you are sensitive, I believe it’s important to guard against having your confidence shaken so badly that you step away from your work.

Originally posted 11-13-16

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