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Everyone’s a Critic, Especially Me

This is totally inside baseball kind of stuff. Don’t want to read a post about criticism? Here’s a slideshow from Alaska instead. It’s pretty.

I made Some Random Dude mad at me last week. I posted a picture of what I thought was a travesty of an opening line from a travel piece in the Register-Guard, a paper out of Eugene, Oregon. The photo included the writer’s byline and the name of the paper.

Said line? “Recent reports of shark attacks on surfers not withstanding, there’s nothing like a visit to the coastal enclave of Seaside to rekindle one’s imagination of an early 20th century Pacific resort.”

My associated comment? “Worst opening line…. ever?”

What, exactly, was I doing wrong? I leveled some sharp public criticism at a piece of publicly available work. In a fit of weakness, I deleted the post from my Facebook page, something I now regret. It’s not that I don’t have the muscle for argument, it’s that I have a policy of not engaging when the argument is a fallacy. The defense was that the writer  was respectable and hardworking, people were uncool for making fun of his work. George Lucas is respectable and hard working. The Phantom Menace still sucked.

Some Random Dude was mad because the writer’s name was exposed and I was engaging in unprofessional hatchet jobbing on that writer. The writer was a hard working guy, it was disappointing for Some Random Dude to see supposed pros piling on him like this. Another participant in the conversation suggested that I should have obscured the writer’s byline. That’s when I pulled the post. I didn’t feel like getting into it on Facebook and the whole thing was making me depressed. How is it we are so tender when it comes to criticism?

In my career as a writer, I am grateful beyond words for my art school education. If you think art school is just some feel good love fest where everyone gets to express their genius and wander out in to to the sunshine feeling great about themselves, well, you did not go to school with my professors and classmates. You did not hear, repeatedly, “Yeah, I think that’s an okay start, but you’re nowhere near done yet,” after you’d wrung yourself out and decided it was laurel resting time. You did not hear, “Uh, I totally understand the words that are coming out of your mouth, but I don’t see at all how they’re related to this work,” on a weekly basis. You did not hear, “Look, it’s basic technique, but still everyone gets it wrong. That’s why everything has turned to that awful muddy red brown. You can save it, but you’re going to have to…” You did not hear, when presenting your final body of work, the stuff you knew was good and were proud of, this: “Yeah, this is some really great work. What are you going to do now?”

I’ll never forget the first round of reviews I went through when I started writing as a full time job. What a bloodbath. And so it’s been, not quite every day, but often, for the last 15 years. My stuff gets taken apart, before press, if I’m lucky, after press (both online and in print) if I’m not. I’ve worked with bad editors who change my meaning and intent, and good ones who refine my work and make it better. I take a blow to my ego weekly. If I’m lucky, it’s a small one, just something that says, “Yeah, that’s not clear.” When I’m less lucky, it’s a rejection letter, or a painful edit that calls out every single error in my work. It stings, and you know what? It makes my work better.

I’ve learned to evaluate criticism based on the content and the source. Sometimes, people just don’t like your work. It’s not personal, it just doesn’t do anything for them. We all want people to like us, sure, but that’s a losers game. Sometimes, though, your critics are on to something. You’re rambling, you don’t have a point, your story is lost. You’ve opened a story about how great a seaside resort is with reference to shark attacks.

If I can get out of my own way when I’m on the receiving end of the critics, I will take it for what it’s worth and act accordingly. Sometimes this means making changes to my work. Sometimes it means I have to explain my choices.  It’s not a bad thing to have your work questioned,  and it can be quite satisfying if you have a solid grip on the answer. Other times, it’s frustrating because some editor has made hash of your story and your name is still on it. That’s the worst for me, but at least I know why it happened. When people shake me down about it, I can tell them, “Yeah, the edits. Would you like to see the original?”

Criticism takes a lot of different forms. Sometimes it’s brutally sharp and satiric, sometimes it’s snarky and fast, sometimes it’s a thoughtful deconstruction, sometimes it’s a bloodbath of rev marks and red pen. If it’s not personalized — “You’re a jerk and your work is stupid!” — than it’s worth consideration. It can also be remarkably helpful in making us better at what we do. I feel so lucky to have had both a formal education and some serious on the job training in taking criticism.

I’m guilty as charged on snark attacks and I’m probably not going to stop. I’ve been on the receiving end too. Sometimes, it hurts. But most times, I’m wearing my armor, a thick skin I acquired in university.  I’m not claiming to always be successful at deflecting the barbs, not by a long shot. But I know the difference between what’s essentially a valid critique — “Uh, you might not want to start your glowing prose about the shore with shark violence” — and a personal attack. “You blog too much about blogging” is one I’ve received, in snark attack format. You know what? That’s a valid critique. It’s not personal, it focuses on my work, and it gives me something to consider. I’m okay with that.

Buck up, people. Weigh that criticism for what it’s worth. Pull your own ego out of the mix and listen to people who make good arguments, who offer valid counterpoints. You can ignore the stuff that sounds crazy or sloppy, but not every piece of criticism is invalid simply because it doesn’t support what you’re doing. Your critics could be totally wrong. If that’s the case,  you’ve been given another opportunity to stand solidly behind your work. But check it out, sometimes, your critics are right. Then, you have the opportunity to do something amazing. You have the opportunity to be better.

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42 Responses to “Everyone’s a Critic, Especially Me”

  1. Eva says:

    Thanks for this, Pam. I’m glad you revisited this topic.

    Like you, I’ve had lots of practice taking (sometimes listening to, sometimes ignoring, but rarely objecting to the very existence of) criticism of my work. One of my high school writing teachers was known to write comments like “This is stupid” on our poems and stories. Once, another teacher held my short story up in front of the class and declared it the very worst of a bad bunch. Now, you could argue (convincingly, I’d say) that that’s not a particularly helpful critique for a 15 year-old aspiring writer (and yes, I did cry after class), but it’s been valuable in the long run in terms of thickening my skin.

    True story: The very first time David Remnick’s name appeared in the New Yorker, he was being called out for a bit of embarrassingly bad prose. Now he’s the EiC.

  2. kimba says:

    I’ve actually been thinking about this (off and on) ever since it happened the other day. You know how I feel about critiques – mutual art school graduate here, not once for me, but twice.

    I have to admit that when I first saw the photo on facebook, I cringed when I saw that the writer’s name/byline was included. I don’t know why. Is it because I fear the day when someone calls me out that far on my crap writing skills?

    On the other hand, we put ourselves out there in public, just like celebrities do, and they get criticized constantly for every little thing, whether it relates to their work or not. So on the other hand, your critique was no big deal.

    The only other thing that came to my mind was that usually in a critique situation, the critique is often asked for by the artist/writer/teacher. I don’t recall other students just walking up to my easel and calling my work crap for the heck of it … not that you called this guy out for the heck of it – his work was obviously finished and ready for discussion since it was printed in public.

    So, what’s my point? I don’t have one, really. Other than I think that travel writing in general has jumped the shark.

    • Yeah, it was the guy’s name that made me reconsider, but hey, here’s a link that you can click through and see his name, so why is that different? And if you have your work in a gallery, and the people looking at it call it crap, well, you didn’t ask them for that information either, did you, and there they are, calling your work crap regardless, right?

      But check it out, there are any number of critical publications, literary or otherwise, that discuss work done by folks who put their name on it. Like I said, the Phantom Menace sucked, and I didn’t ask Lucas if he wanted my opinion. So why should I coddle another stranger? Because some guy who knows him says he’s a decent hard working guy? Lots of people are decent hardworking guys, and their work is… crap.

      I don’t think travel writing has jumped the shark at ALL. I read an amazing thing in Afar by a blind traveler (Man, that was something) and I got a review copy of a book by Doug Mack that I found utterly charming. You’re just reading the wrong stuff. :)

      • kimba says:

        I totally agree with you.

        Actually – I’m not even reading. I’ve stopped altogether. I don’t think I’ve even cracked the last five issues of Afar. They just come in the mail and sit there on the table. There is just so much travel writing crap out there I don’t have time, or the stomach, to sort through and find the gems.

  3. So, I’m quite sure that isn’t the worst opening line ever, Pam. READ MY BLOG – you’ll find it ;) Just PLEASE don’t put it on Facebook!!!

    Seriously, I am jaded. My brother tweets mean things about people all day and has 30,000 happy twitter followers for it. You observed a snippet of weak writing and… well, how are these the same worlds? They’re not. I get unfollowed for my sharp wit (ok snark) all the time, and my brand of snark is milktoast to your Kahlua! And everytime I think the same thing: Buck up, people!!

    And you said it.

  4. Nick says:

    1. If your comment had been, “BEST opening line ever”, I suspect the fallout would have been somewhat different.

    2. Writers *who want to improve* should thrive off criticism.

    3. People need to realize that criticism is subjective.

    4. SHARK ATTACKS NOTWITHSTANDING

  5. Interesting. My take is, if you’re going to be critical in any public forum (and even in private!) there are some people who will criticize you for that.

    I don’t really see a big difference between the people who expressed their dislike of what you posted on Facebook, and your post about disliking that guy’s lede.

    I get what you’re saying here, the the sentiment regarding your Facebook post was “we shouldn’t be having this conversation about this guy’s work, it’s not very nice”, and you’re arguing otherwise.

    But a certain amount of defensiveness strikes me as totally normal, even if it’s by proxy.

    • Nice reduction, Alison. Yes, a certain amount IS totally normal. But I think that the ability to process criticism tempers that, or at least separates it from the response. Just to be perfectly clear, I do sometimes feel burned or defensive, but then, I think through WHY.

      As usual, what you said.

  6. Nancy says:

    I didn’t see your comment, Pam, so I don’t know what my first reaction would have been upon reading it.

    Personally, though, I would just as soon do away with the word “criticism.” Nobody likes being criticized. But helpful feedback? You bet. If your only comment was: “Worst opening line . . . ever?” then I would say, “Ouch!” with or without the writer’s name attached. You know how sensitive we writers are . . . :-).

    BTW ~ Congrats on getting published in AFAR!

    • My comment is above, and I’ll rewrite it here. It was this: “Worse opening line… ever?”

      • Nancy says:

        Ah, yes, of course – I meant I thought there might have been more to your comment, Pam.

        I just read a Buddhist response to the question: “What’s the best way to give criticism?” (Jan./Feb. 2012 issue of Whole Living), suggesting three questions to ask yourself before giving criticism: Is it true, is it necessary, and is it kind? I agree with the writer who likens “kindness” with “constructiveness.” Is it helpful?

        Maybe it’s because I’ve had my share of drive-by feedback that’s anonymous or uninvited. I value constructive feedback when it can help me be a better writer – or person. Otherwise, it’s just hurtful.

        Just sayin’ . . .

  7. Caitlin says:

    “Recent reports of shark attacks on surfers not withstanding, there’s nothing like a visit to the coastal enclave of Seaside to rekindle one’s imagination of an early 20th century Pacific resort.”

    You have to be kidding me! Your criticism is spot on. That IS shitty writing. It’s not just the shark thing, it’s the sentence construction and word choice too.

    Let me break it down for the doubters…

    1. If you are trying to evoke an image of a peaceful, historic coastal town, leading with the shark attacks is counter-productive. If you’re trying to evoke an image where sharks are appropriate, then the rest of the sentence is counter-productive. It’s a juxtaposition that doesn’t work here.

    2. Note, I’m NOT saying the writer shouldn’t write about the sharks further down the article. They probably should since a) it’s useful info for the reader and b) it adds an element of drama and interest to what might otherwise be a bland story.

    3. Starting a sentence, especially the lede, with a subordinate clause slows the pace. As a general rule, it’s not good style.

    4. The word ‘notwithstanding’ has no place outside a university cultural studies essay.

    5. Absolute statements such as “there’s nothing like” are lazy writing and probably untrue.

    6. Why does your imagination need to be rekindled? Can’t it just be kindled? Who says we all have images of an early 20th century Pacific resort to be rekindled?

    7. The third person impersonal pronoun should not be used outside a university cultural studies essay unless one is using it intentionally for a specific effect, such as irony.

    7. The phrase “rekindle one’s imagination of an early 20th century Pacific resort” actually doesn’t make sense. You don’t have imaginations OF things. You have an imagination. Maybe visiting the resort can evoke images or something – except that if you are there in real life seeing the real thing, you don’t need to imagine it.

    8. The best thing is that the town is actually called Seaside. That’s awesome. Write a lede about that! You can get inspired by Vendela Vida’s piece in Afar. http://www.afar.com/afar/spin-the-globe-vendela-vida-in-the-dutch-caribbean

    As for whether you should dare criticise another writer? I wouldn’t get stuck into another blogger publishing on their own blog. But someone who is being paid for publication is fair game. I have no sympathy when so many good writers struggle to get published, even in some tiny Oregonian paper. Let’s banish mediocrity!

    • pam says:

      Actually, I don’t think indy bloggers should be given a carte blanche for sloppy writing either. It kind of depends on who they are. If I put up something really lame, I’d expect to hear about it, and oh, I have some old posts that are really pretty bad. Though I don’t know that the kind of vivisection you’ve engaged of here is appropriate, really, on a “Me and my awesome trip” post. Lord knows, I’ve been tempted. Especially when I see that blogger’s name on a speaker agenda.

      Sidebar: It devalues the medium when we say “It’s just a blog.” There’s no reason an indy blog can’t be a place for kickass writing.

      See also: http://velamag.com/

      • Caitlin says:

        Absolutely, you are entitled to criticise the writing on blogs. I do it all the time in a kind of generalised way – I criticise the popularity of listicles, for example. Readers of blogs are especially entitled to criticise specific pieces of writing, though I would think they would generally use the comments section rather than a forum like Facebook.

        I am just saying that I would not personally get stuck into the writing of another blogger. Not that you shouldn’t. I am also a professional writer so I think it would come off as snobbery against bloggers even if that wasn’t what I intended. Also, travel bloggers tend to know each other and it can get personal.

        Anyway, didn’t you go through and cull your Facebook friends list so it was more strictly personal? (You could always open it up to subscribers now, by the way!).

      • Caitlin says:

        Ooh, just been checking out Vela Mag. Nice!

  8. Caitlin says:

    PS I am a writer and a blogger and a lot of your readers are writers and bloggers. I enjoy your so-called meta posts and I’m sure a lot of other people do too.

  9. David says:

    I think the only thing you can justifiably be called an EvilbadINYOURCAGE person for is not researching the long and glorious history of probably worse introductoy paragraphs to travel articles. Seriously, that will look like a cute, tickle-the-tummy critter in comparison to some of the crap out there. It may be howlingly inappropriate, but hell, at least it’s vaguely interesting.

    Anyway, criticism’s a tough one. Does everyone deserve it? Even down to the talentless write who’s only really writing for friends and family? I think it has to be at least approximately commensurate to what you’re trying to be and present yourself as.

    And for your example, the real criticism shouldn’t be aimed at the writer; it should be aimed at the editor that allowed it to go into print.

    Me? I love everyone. No bad words here. Uh-uh.

  10. Look at it from another perspective…we have become a culture that is afraid to be honest with each other. We pad egos and tell everyone they are doing a great job, even when they aren’t. Just so we don’t “hurt their feelings”. Everyone is so sensitive. If you are putting your stuff out in public, then you have to be prepared to be criticized. It sucks, but it will only make you a better writer in the long run. Maybe that’s why I am glad my blog isn’t that popular…don’t have to deal with the criticism! :)

  11. Corey T says:

    The word critique seems rather heavy for this situation. I don’t seriously consider a caption of a snapshot of an article a critique any more than I deem a four word sentence on TripAdvisor a review.

    I saw the photo (should note that I saw it on Instagram which had a different caption), and didn’t even pay attention to the writer’s name… see, even bad writing is about the content.

    • pam says:

      I’m not saying that my remark is a full on critique, though you’ll see in the comments that Caitlin has done one. That’s sort of peripheral to my beef here, which is that in my experience, folks get wound up all too quickly when there’s perfectly valid feedback.

      • Caitlin says:

        Yeah, for whatever reason I was in the mood to critique, so I did. Probably uncalled for.
        Pam’s comment was not critique (I don’t think she said it was) but criticism.

  12. Lori says:

    One of the reasons I trust your judgment is you’re willing to call it as you see it. I think that’s called “integrity.”

  13. The writer’s bad. The editor’s worse. And s/he’s got away scot-free. Blame where blame is due, Pam.

    Journalists get edited (supposedly). Bloggers don’t (mostly). Big difference.

  14. carel says:

    You’ve touched a nerve with this diatribe, and I’m completely on your side.

    As a speech instructor, it’s hard to explain to students the whole concept of criticism which should be a means of reflection, improvement, and future development rather than “what you did wrong” or “what I didn’t like.” Students don’t know how to accept or cope with criticism. To them, it only means a lower grade.

    Unfortunately, our society has moved towards an illogical criticism mode. Politicians quickly move to ad hominem attacks. Pundits respond to one another with ad hominem attacks. Bill O’Reilly calls protesters “idiots.” Almost any discourse and debate turns in to character assassinations rather than a dialogue about the issues.

    In our schools (and especially higher education), we’re experiencing the backlash of the “t-ball” generation where everybody wins, and each member of the soccer team gets a trophy. Johnny’s a success because he participated. Sally’s an excellent public speaker simply because she spoke in front of people (and you didn’t!). I don’t know the answer, but I do know that the “entitlement generation” is frustrating. I’m just glad that I’m only trying (!) to educate them and that I don’t have to actually hire or work with any of these people.

    And by the way, any of my journalism friends would also agree that the writer’s reference to shark attacks is as ridiculous as any “It was a dark and stormy night…” novels.

  15. I’m with RenegadePilgrim here. I actually asked a select group of folk to pick apart my last CD (like, down to the nits) and got a lot of “ohhh… yer jes’ awesome!” back.

    I like egoboo as well as the next creative sort, but really, it’s not what I want in a critique.

    funny thing was, comparing the online sales/downloads of it to the first one sure showed me something was wrong, but I’m too close to the project to see it.

    so I think that if you have people who are willing to give an honest critique, you’re lucky.

    • pam says:

      YES. THIS. It’s not easy, but it’s so necessary. I feel really lucky that I have a handful of totally trusted people to help me produce good work.

      And hey, I asked one of them to read this post before I published it.

  16. Traca says:

    I value your writing for many reasons, but primarily because you sidestep “unicorns poop rainbows in my world” trend. I saw your comment about that piece and agree. Keep up the authentic work. Those looking for rainbow-colored dung…can go elsewhere.

  17. Suebob says:

    I worked at a newspaper, and thank God I did, because it toughened me up. Before that, ANY kind of criticism sent me into a tailspin and turned me into an awful, whiny bitch. Now I take it in stride. I consider the source, evaluate the criticism, and make changes if necessary.

    Now I work in an extremely polite corporate environment where people are afraid to be critical. I tell people PLEASE let me know what you really think – I can handle it. But no one will say a word.

  18. Michael says:

    On a loosely related topic, I wonder if others are concerned that the financial demise of the newspaper industry will lead to more poor writing and editing. I looked up the article in question and agree with your assessment. The closing line was not much better.

    I notice the byline reads “for” The R-G meaning this is not a staff writer. This only has bearing on my point because I suspect The R-G pays little, if anything, for freelance travel articles. Thus, the newspaper industry is becoming less-interesting to skilled writers seeking fair compensation for their craft (in fairness, I know nothing about the Seaside writer’s credentials).

    In the absence of competition from writers who earn their living from the craft, can we expect to see the void being filled by less-skilled individuals who equate being published with success?

    As a photographer, I’ve seen many examples where amateurs are just giddy to see their work (and by-line) in print. I always ask if the sale was lucrative and frequently find they gave their work away for the privilege of being published. Some of this work is good and some… not so much. I fear that, out of necessity, newspaper editors have become less critical.

    • Your point is very well taken, Michael, thanks for making it. I’ve been an amateur, giddy to see my work in print. There’s always one out there eager for the slot if I won’t take it because the pay is too low. When you can’t give your writers much pay, you end up, in most cases, getting what you pay for. Trite, I know, but true, also.

  19. There are times when I am grateful I’m such a harsh critic of myself. Makes it easier when someone writes, “ZOMG UR SO STUPIDD.”

    I can only think, “Yeah. What else you got?”

    Don’t stop critiquing, Pam, and don’t stop being open to critique (I know you’d never do that). We’re all better for it. :)

  20. […] each other. I find unthinking consensus far more troubling than debate. Pam says we should all learn to take criticism and I quite agree. But we’re not very good at […]

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