How I Learned to Crave Criticism
Written by Caroline McNally // Photo by Andrew Neel
I crave criticism on my work. Not the harsh, mean kind that serves only to make the creator feel like a bad person who should never try to create something again, but the good kind. Constructive criticism.
Like many people, I went through years of peer-editing on school papers. From middle school to AP Literature senior year of high school, there was always the dreaded day where every student had to bring in a printed copy of their first draft of an essay, put in a pile to be shuffled up, and then receive a peer’s paper to edit. I would sit there with my colored pen (usually purple), scanning my classmate’s work and feeling both excited and nervous. Excited because I love to edit. I love discovering grammar mistakes or suggesting an alternate word to give a sentence more impact. I’m a total writing nerd.
But I was nervous because somewhere else in that room, someone was reading my essay. Someone else was evaluating whether or not my conclusions on Romeo and Juliet made sense, or were too much of a reach. Someone else was reading my counter-argument paragraph and judging if it was strong enough to contrast the rest of my persuasive essay. Someone else was deciding if my work was good enough.
Of course, they weren’t grading it. We would all get our papers back and decide which notes to incorporate before turning the paper in to the one person who actually determined the quality of our work, the teacher. But it was the first time I was exposing my writing to someone else. It was the first time it existed outside of my laptop and my brain.
Some peer edits (okay, most) were useless. Many times I got an essay back and all the person had done was caught a few typos and written “great point,” and “nice transition!” - nothing earth-shattering or extremely helpful. I knew I was a good writer, so it didn’t matter too much to me if no one gave me notes. In fact, in my middle school poetry class, I hated getting notes back, because I thought that my first drafts were masterpieces, finished works that were already perfect.
When I went to college, we were more on our own when it came to our work. Even in some of my journalism classes, we wouldn’t always read and edit each other’s work. But my friends and I would still trade articles and give each other feedback. I had a few great professors who would have us turn our first drafts into them for feedback, and that is when I truly became addicted to constructive criticism.
Those professors made me realize that if someone reads your first draft and has no notes, they’re holding back. I became a much better writer because I was no longer attached to my work. I wasn’t married to my first draft anymore, I was begging for someone to tell me how much it sucked. Then, I could burn it all down and start over and write something better. I didn’t trust that my first draft was good enough, because I knew that all of the best writers never turn in their first draft. All the best writing is usually draft four or six, save for a few geniuses.
Constructive criticism also helped thicken my skin, an especially important quality to have when you’re planning to pursue journalism. If you think your work is untouchable, you’re in a for a rude awakening when you started to get rejections. Getting criticism and rejections taught me a lot about writing, but mostly that good writing is hard work. It doesn’t come naturally to anyone and no one gets it right on the first try.
Now, I crave criticism on my writing. I send drafts of my work to friends before submitting it to websites or publishing it on my blog. Instead of being afraid of someone judging my work, I’m afraid they won’t. My fear that I’m not a good enough writer has turned into the fear that nothing I do is good enough unless it was gone through rounds of edits. I know I’m good, but without constructive feedback, I can’t be great.
Caroline is a writer and digital media specialist from San Francisco. She majored in journalism in college and is always writing something - from "The X-Files" fanfiction to lifestyle blog posts. She loves many things, including green tea, memes, classic rock music, true crime and Netflix binging. You can usually find her quoting pop culture, tweeting about intersectional feminism or hugging other people’s dogs.