Write or wrong, critics belong

By Elizabeth Coss
Jambar Contributor

With finals around the corner at Youngstown State University, numerous classes will sign off with a final paper or research project. From peer reviews to an editorial process, criticism can come in many forms.

In many cases, writers can be their own worst critics, but for published authors at YSU, criticism can be much more than negative comments — it can be a tool for development.

Christopher Barzak, an author and English professor, said dealing with self-criticism can be a struggle for many writers, including himself.

“That’s true, that old saying that someone can be their own worst critic,” Barzak said. “When it comes to self-criticism, I’m criticizing even as I write. There’s this advice that you have to turn off your own internal editor to get the first draft down, and that’s true. It’s really hard to turn that editor off.”

Barzak recently published a novella, “A Voice Calling,” in March, as well as a short story collection titled “Monstrous Alterations” in September 2023. While Barzak said editorial feedback is his favorite kind of criticism to receive, navigating it requires understanding why edits are suggested.

“If I find problems or difficulties or technical kinds of mess ups in what I’ve created, [editors are] going to be able to reflect that back to me before that book becomes a public item, and then it’s open to criticism from everybody,” Barzak said. “I take that process very seriously — I love to work with editors on my books — I like getting that insightful perspective from somebody who’s worked on tons of books and with writers of all kinds of different calibers and backgrounds.”

Thomas Welsh, a nonfiction author and adjunct journalism professor, recently finished his latest book “The Ursuline Sisters of Youngstown.”

With many of his works, Welsh said he gathers information on a narrative’s subject but sometimes collects more than is needed. While a lot of what may be found can be interesting, Welsh said a writer may need to “kill their darlings” and remove unnecessary information.

“When it comes to self-criticism, I found that some of the things I enjoyed [writing about] — and this goes back to William Faulkner’s comment ‘kill your darlings,’ but some of the things I found [the] most interesting and spent a lot of time developing in early drafts of stories of narratives because I write nonfiction — were things that were superfluous,” Welsh said.

For Welsh, the most common criticism he receives from a reader oftentimes is questioning why certain things are included and others aren’t.

“You’re going to naturally find yourself criticized — putting too much of an emphasis on certain people at the expense of others, but you really have to let the narrative determine those kinds of choices … You try to be inclusive, but you’re never going to be as inclusive as some people would like you to be,” Welsh said. “Ultimately, you just have to justify your decisions by saying, ‘I’m going to let the story dictate my choices.’”

While many public reviewers may not be professionals or have experience in the editing field, Barzak said he does read online reviews and occasionally considers the criticism.

“You have a lot of people on those sites that, they’re not professional … they’re going to rant and rave about whatever they want,” Barzak said. “You have to sort of take reviews like that with a grain of salt, but there are also people on there who are very well-read, and you can tell from how they write about anything they review. So, I do pay attention to reviews on sites like that, that seem like the person who has put it together is both a fair-minded person and understands how difficult it is just to write a novel in the first place.”

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