On Writing: Dealing with Compliments and Criticism

I feel as if I am a war correspondent on the front lines, taking flak and dodging sniper bullets. With only a few days left in the first round of the Court TV’s Search for the Next Great Crime Writer Contest, contestants are giving the top runners what are called drive-by ones – a single star without a comment to explain it – in the hope of lowering those scores. A futile activity at best, because only 10-star votes count. And then there are all the nasty comments that are being left on the chance that others will take heed and also give bad ratings.

See what you missed by not entering that contest?

You also missed some valuable lessons. I didn’t realize until today how much I have learned about evaluating criticism. If you’re like me, you will have been given some meaningless compliments and equally meaningless criticism on your work. Oddly enough, the criticism (or compliment) is more of a reflection of the criticizer than it is the criticizee. If it comes from a family member, you should ignore it, good or bad. Depending on your family dynamic, you will be treated contemptuously or as if you were the reincarnation of Hemingway, neither of which reflects your true skill.

A friend’s comment should also be discounted. Because of course they give you high praise; and if they didn’t, why are you friends? 

A comment from a stranger is more difficult to evaluate, but can be put into its proper place by a bit of investigation. Who is the person? What have they written? If you admire their writing, whether an article, a story, or a comment left on another contest entry, then pay attention. If you see that they are leaving a similar remark on all the entries, disregard it. If it comes from an agent who is trying to sell her services as a book-doctor, then definitely ignore it.

There is no point in beating yourself up for unearned criticism; nor is there any point in puffing yourself up with unearned compliments. If you are a real writer, you are in it for the long haul. Contests come and go. Rejection letters too come and go. What is left after all that is you, your writing, and how much you improve. That’s what counts.

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