A study of Criticism: Taking or Ignoring Criticism

In my previous article, I talked about understanding intent before giving criticism. While this is essential, it can also be misconstrued as an excuse to disregard valid negative feedback. Therefore, this is what we'll talk about today. When is it okay to ignore criticism?

I have two general rules that I apply to criticism. The first is that every point raised is ultimately subjective, and the opinion of the person giving it. The second is that ignoring any piece of criticism should be justified.

I'll start with the first point. Any form of art is ultimately subjective. Music, books, video games, they're all very different. I've seen poorly written fanfiction develop its own dedicated fanbase, and some works that are today considered masterpieces were initially ignored or plain rejected. Appreciation for anything creative depends on one's personal taste. It can be influenced by one's past, political position, religious upbringing, age, gender, a number of different factors. As much as we all want to say we're open-minded, everyone has prejudices.

When I give feedback to another writer, I try to be as aware as I can of my own subjective preferences, but it's still my view of the story. It's always nice when the person providing feedback points out when something is just their own subjective opinion, but it can't always be the case. A lot of times, we're not even aware of it. Be mindful that an opinion being subjective isn't by itself a reason to ignore it. If something annoyed one reader, it could very well annoy more of them.

And that takes us to the second point. Ignoring criticism should always be justified. That sounds simple in theory. In practice, it'll lead to a lot of uncertainty. There's really no way around that. Sometimes, someone will leave feedback that we never thought about, and it'll tear us up, wondering how we should approach it, or if we should change anything at all. The only thing I can do here is talk about my own process.

The first thing I do is ask how the points raised fit within my vision. I return to my original intent. Would following the recommendation help or hinder that intent? Sometimes, it's as simple as a piece of feedback that doesn't fit with my vision and would take the story in a direction I don't like. These comments, I disregard it as not working out for me. Still, it's important to keep an open mind here. If following a recommendation won't interfere with the intent and only add more realism. It's worth considering.

Another thing I like to try is to find the root cause of the issue. Very often, I find that the issue isn't as much what was pointed out, but rather a failure on my part to communicate the intent of the scene. Maybe a proofreader pointing out that a character is unnecessarily rude really means that said rudeness wasn't properly established in earlier chapters. This is something I do a lot. I'll leave a line someone disliked as-is, but change something else so that line makes more sense.

Finally, there's the big one: pride. Taking criticism is hard. There are days when I just can't do it, and I believe that's true of everyone. We all have our own threshold to how much of it we can take. Try to take some distance before you react. If a comment makes you emotional, skip it and move ahead. Go back to it the next day, and see how you feel about it with a fresher eye. This brings us back to my original point. It's okay to disregard feedback, but only with a good reason. If you can look at it from a non-emotional perspective and name an actual reason why your work should remain as-is, then you're probably fine.

If you feel like someone is being unfair to you in how they give criticism, it's perfectly okay to thank them and move on to someone else. I know that some people will consider my take to be controversial here, but no one should harm themselves to the point where they lose all motivation. I personally have a zero tolerance policy with my proofreaders when it comes to cynicism. If I feel like someone can't help themselves but attack my story or characters, then I just don't work with them. Just be aware that you can ask your proofreaders to be nice in how they voice their dislikes, but critics are a different story. Once you release content, some people will leave feedback that can be downright harmful, sometimes cruel. Criticism from friends can help prepare you for that.

I recommend trying out suggestions when uncertain. I mentioned such an instance in my previous article where I tried to follow feedback I felt uncertain about. I hated the result, but I learned from it. It helped me get a better grasp of my story, and what I liked about it. Time spent experimenting is always good, and criticism is one of the best ways to experiment in ways you might not have thought of.

Hopefully this helps. There isn't any sort of global rule on what to do and what criticism to follow. I should also point out that if you're currently in school, follow your teacher's advice and don't ignore it as subjective opinions. It's useful in the long run to learn from an experienced individual and fully understand their way of doing things before deciding what to use and what to disregard.