On Criticism

Back when I thought I knew everything (see Arrogance blog), getting criticism from others was a dreadful experience. Heat would rise up in my chest, I would get defensive, I would use my best fast-talking techniques to get myself out of it. Normally, it would work, possibly because I could make a good case but more likely because no one wanted to deal with correcting me.

I can be quite a handful.

Then, I got my “big boy” job as a technical writer. And like I discussed in my previous blog, suddenly I wasn’t the “A” student who knew how to write good papers. Suddenly I was the kid fresh out of college who thought he knew everything and in reality, didn’t have a clue.

No adjectives? But those make my sentences more beautiful!
No adjectives? But those make my sentences more beautiful!

A large portion of my job is spent trying to gather information. Oftentimes, the information is spread across multiple files and locations, sometimes it exists only in the software code itself, and most often, it exists only in the developer’s head. This leads to a lot of digging for information that may not actually exist. However, because the developers are so busy, the best way for technical writers at this company to get work done is to write the information we found, make our best guess on parts that are missing, and have a developer review the work, ripping it to shreds.

In other words, take what may have been a few days of work, and tell me that everything about it is wrong.

I remember the first time this happened. The developer ripped my work apart, telling me that I missed the fundamental basics of whatever it was I was documenting, and basically telling me that my time was wasted. I remember feeling the heat rise in my chest, my hands getting clammy, and my mind racing for excuses of how this wasn’t my fault.

I think we can all relate to that. Shifting the blame and whatnot.

Looking back, that reaction wasn’t really warranted. The developer was not angry at me, nor was he angry with my writing. He was just pointing out that I missed the point because I didn’t have all the pieces of information. Information that (since we had him all but duct taped down in the room) he was more than willing to provide. When he provided the information, I was too busy coming up with excuses to truly listen, but when I heard the meeting again on recording, I realized that there was no need for such excuses. How could he expect me to understand every detail when those details hadn’t been put to paper yet?

Is it the most efficient system? Nah. Is it the one we use? Yes.

This became a regular occurrence at work. Write something, making my best guess at what was happening, get told what was wrong and right, and fix it up next week. This was the pattern.

Why am I telling you all this? Because this has helped me more than just in my work. As a writer, I’m going to get criticism. A lot. Back when I first started, I had a fairly typical reaction to such things. Heat in chest, anger, shifting the blame, etc. But because I get so criticism at work, I’ve learned to take it in stride. The goal of good criticism after all is to help you grow as a writer. The work I hand in to the developer on Friday is never perfect, so I should welcome the chance to improve it rather than try to find excuses as to why it’s wrong.

Same with my fiction. I welcome criticism of my writing. In fact, more comments in my book shows me that the person reading thought hard about my book. I do not take every comment as fact but I do weigh each one in my head. It gets me to see my book from a new perspective, to see things that I wouldn’t normally see on my own. Sometimes I can’t separate the forest from the trees, and criticism helps me do that.

And the goal of any good criticism is to help you improve. Why should you try to shove that away by being defensive and angry?

Writers tend to be sensitive about the work, and while I cannot explain why, I do know that feeling. We’ve worked hard on our work, and we don’t want to be told it is anything less than perfect. But like when the developer gave me information I didn’t have, an outside perspective can shred fresh light on your work and help you make it better than ever before.

I think everyone should welcome constructive criticism with open arms (there is such a thing as useless criticism, but that’s a topic for another day). And become all the better writers because of it.

How do you take criticism? Have you taken any steps to take it better?

Image of Confused Teenage Girl with Laptop courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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