Anyone in any creative field eventually receives feedback that is hard to hear. Not everyone will like your work, be it visual arts, music, theatre arts or writing. Bad reviews are not such a problem when they’re someone’s personal opinion—no worries, they just don’t like it. It’s not their thing—but when they critique your craftsmanship, you’re likely to feel it as a punch in the gut, especially if you’ve done your best to make sure your work is the best it can be.
For most people, the first reaction is to be defensive.
Because art is such a subjective field, we can always say that we have done something for which we’ve been criticised for a creative reason. In writing, we would say that it is a matter of style, or voice. This can be the case, but unless we have a full understanding of the point seen to be lacking and have a good reason for why we’ve ignored what is considered good technique, we’re likely to be saying it out of defensiveness. If that is the case, then no matter how erroneous the critique may be, the artist/author is blinding themselves to something they could learn from. And it’s the same in any situation where you’ve received a negative critique, artist or not.
Defending your work makes you blind. It closes you off to what may be the truth and it prevents you from improving.
Do you really know everything?
Is your work really perfect?
What are you defending really? Your artwork or your bruised ego?
Even a critique that on first glance appears to have completely missed the point of your art has value if you consider it objectively.
I have had several situations where beta readers have made suggestions that are completely wrong for the voice of the character. To me, the suggestions look absurd. ‘My character would never say that,’ I say. But even where that is true, the fact that the reader has suggested a need for an improvement, no matter how misguided their solution may be, does indicate that there is something there worth looking at. So instead of rejecting the comment out of hand, I look to see if there is a problem with the expression. Can I say that in a clearer way? Perhaps the answer is ‘no’. It may be a matter of a cultural difference in expression, but in an international market, it is worth considered whether I can say it in a way that will be clearer for readers in other countries. Or maybe a glossary would solve the problem.
Where it comes to comments on grammar and punctuation, we need to ask ourselves, is our defence coming from a definitive understanding of the rule or from our sense of injured pride. ‘But I had it professionally edited’, we may cry. ‘Are you saying that my editors don’t know what they’re doing?’ Or more likely, ‘How dare you say my editors don’t know what they’re doing!!’
Grammar is pretty set. We’re not talking about split infinitives and fragments here, or about dialogue where our characters speak with poor grammar. We’re talking about instances where if you don’t follow the grammatical rule, your sentences don’t actually make sense. And even the best of editors miss things, so there’s no reason to feel that the critic is criticising the ability of your editor.
There are areas in punctuation where even the most knowledgeable of editors may disagree. Sometimes several rules could apply depending on how you look at the sentence, and in these instances, the editor will choose what is best for the meaning, clarity of expression and flow of the prose. But we’re not talking about things like commas after introductory phrases here, or about setting off non-essential clauses with commas. We’re not talking about the fact that if you’re using a semicolon you need a full sentence on both sides of it, or that if your independent clauses are very long you need a comma before the conjunction.. These are simple situations where the rules are clear be it UK or US English. Yes, you can ignore rules, but why? How does ignoring a rule make your prose easier to read and understand? If someone has pointed out a lack, it’s likely that your choice isn’t making it clearer. If it was, they wouldn’t have noticed.
And be honest, was it a conscious choice made in full knowledge of the rule you’ve broken? At the writing stage, this doesn’t matter, but at the editing stage, it does. You really do need to know the rules before you can break them effectively.
Trouble is, we don’t know our own ignorance. And we won’t remove that ignorance if we ignore the very thing that can educate us—feedback from other people. The knee-jerk reaction of being defensive in the face of criticism is a sure way to keep us stuck in our ignorance.