A critic is someone who can provide important and helpful feedback about your work.
They can give you specific insights and suggestions. This kind of criticism is excellent.
- It can show you ways to improve your work.
- It can help you understand how your work is perceived by others.
- It can help you understand your audience better.
- It can show you details that will raise the quality of your work.
- It can provoke ideas for expanding your work.
- It can point you in the right direction for increasing your own skills.
If you have genuine, helpful critics, listen to them.
No, don’t take every word they say as the ultimate truth.
But if they are giving you specific and thoughtful feedback, listen and be humble. No one’s work is perfect. We all tend to be blind in some areas. Think of your critics as assistants, as coaches: they give you a new set of eyes, ears, and impressions. They broaden your perspective.
Plus, learning to humbly receive criticism and pull value from it is a foundational creative skill.
It will help you improve. It will help you figure out what to learn next. It can help you understand who you’re really talking to. Often, the audience we imagine is quite different than the audience we actually have. A thoughtful critic can help you get to know the audience you actually have.
But then there are the other kind of critics. Let’s call them what they are: haters.
They don’t like your work. They probably don’t like you.
A hater is someone who will never be pleased with your work, no matter how many improvements or changes you make.
A hater’s negative reaction comes from their own internal issues.
A hater’s “criticism” will often include insults, personal nitpicks, generalizations, and challenges. Their criticism isn’t really criticism; it’s an attack. Their intent is not to raise your creative standards, or point out flaws and ways to improve; their intent is to belittle and provoke.
When you respond to a hater — to defend your work, to discuss their points, to debate their point of view — you’ve already lost.
Three characteristics make a helpful critic:
- They have valid expertise in the work and/or subject.
- They have paid careful attention to the work itself.
- They offer specific criticism and/or suggestions.
Critics have valid expertise in the work or the subject.
If someone meets the other two criteria for being a critic, but doesn’t have the valid expertise, then what they give you is feedback from a fan. It can be helpful; but it’s not the same as a critique from an expert.
Critics have paid careful attention to the work they’re critiquing.
They took some time to understand it. Otherwise, how can they offer you actual insights or specific suggestions?
Critics provide specific points of praise (yay!) or possibility (also yay, really):
- Praise feels good. Enjoy it.
“I like the way she opened the chapter with immediate action.”
Keep an ongoing log of praise and positive feedback. Read it when imposter syndrome comes swooping in.
- Specific insights and suggestions are full of possibility.
“I didn’t like the dialogue. It felt awkward and unreal.”
Use these insights to improve your work. In this example, you can now review and improve the dialogue. You’ve learned that it reads as awkward and unreal, to a qualified expert. That’s helpful. Now you can go back and make it better.
Patterns in criticism are helpful. For example, if you get negative responses to your dialogue multiple times, there’s an area to improve:
- Take a class on writing dialogue.
- Read some novels from masters of dialogue.
- Listen to interviews to get the rhythm of how people talk in your head.
When a particular criticism is repeated, pay attention to it.
It can show you how to improve your craft. It can help you gain the skills that will actually increase the quality of your work.
What if you’re not getting any genuine criticism, and you’d like some?
The best way to generate more is to ask.
You can ask your audience:
“I made this, and I’d love to get some feedback and thoughtful criticism. If you have a few minutes, please let me know your thoughts.”
Even better, include a few specific questions for your audience to answer. Or point them to a form or survey they can fill out.
You can also ask select people.
Think of folks you know who are qualified to critique the work you do. Then ask.
Be specific and ask for a small time commitment:
- “Would you critique this chapter?” rather than “Would you critique this book?”
- “Would you give me a few suggestions to improve my website’s home page?” rather than “What do you think of my website?”
Haters will show up.
Here’s how to handle them.
First, distinguish between haters, critics, and fans.
- Critics are qualified experts who offer thoughtful and specific suggestions to improve your work.
- Fans are people who follow your work, but aren’t qualified experts in the subject or type of work you do; they may have negative or positive responses to your work.
- Haters are people who have decide they don’t like you, or your work, no matter what. They don’t give feedback or criticism; they attack and seek to provoke.
When you find haters (or they find you), starve ’em out. They feed on emotion and reaction. Give them neither. That’s the way to handle them.
Either don’t respond at all or develop a one-line response and copy-paste it as needed:
- “Personal attacks are not helpful creative criticism.”
- “I can’t do anything with this information. Take care.”
- “Okay, have a nice day.”
- “Interesting response.”
Personally, I like the simplest example: “Okay.”
It’s a clear message: I’m acknowledging you, but you’re not worth my time or attention. I’m not emotionally upset or provoked by you. In fact, I find you kind of sad and funny. Bye.
When you respond to creative work by others, it can help to think of the role you play. Are you a fan giving feedback? An expert providing specific and helpful criticism? Or a hater spewing negativity?
It’s not worth your time to respond to haters, and it’s not worth your time to be one, either.