Taking It With a Grain of Salt

Glenn Hetrick, judge on Face Off.

A witty remark makes for good television, but criticism like this is far from constructive.

Criticism, whether giving it or taking it, is tricky business.

I used to be an English instructor in college, so I’ve given my fair share of criticism. Freshman composition students are notorious for not caring about feedback, but it’s an important part of teaching.

The best advice I ever received was from a veteran professor who told me to focus on one problem at a time. “If you mark everything that is wrong in a paper,” she advised, “the student won’t learn anything.”

I’ve taken this same approach when critiquing in writers groups.

I started participating in my first writers group in 1997. At the time, I was new to the art of the critique. I made a lot of mistakes, but my biggest mistake was a simple one. I tried to fix everything.

I tried to fix grammar, spelling, point-of-view, characters… well, you get the idea. With some writers, my suggestions were taken with a nod and a smile. But there were some writers who fought me tooth and nail over every point. It made critiquing every manuscript into a battle.

Once I learned to dial back my suggestions, I did better at helping others. And I learned the same thing worked for me.

In one critique group — a large online collaboration that I abandoned after six months — I submitted two stories for review. The first was a little long (over 6,000 words) and I received less than half a dozen critiques. For my second submission, I sent in a shorter piece (under 3,000 words) and I was flooded with responses. Everybody loves to critique a short short story.

Each review I received had a dozen suggestions. Some were small things — typos and such. But many were concerned with motivation, plot holes, or story structure. Even my character’s name was up for debate.

After the 20th response, I gave up.¬†All that feedback shut me down. I couldn’t — wouldn’t — look at my story again for months. When I did come back to the story, I decided the best approach was the simplest. I put aside all the responses. I revised my story based only on the two or three suggestions that I remembered because they had been noticed by multiple critique partners.

Sometimes, it’s not the quality of the critique but the quantity of it that does the most damage. If the feedback is vast, don’t let it overwhelm you. Breathe deeply, take it with a grain of salt, and move on.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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