One of the worst parts of being a writer is receiving negative criticism. It’s difficult to put a lot of hard work into something, and then have someone come along and tell you did it wrong.
But criticism can expand how a writer thinks or bring a fresh perspective to a piece of content. Deanna talked about how comments make a blog stronger; I think comments do more than beef up a blog. The kind of conversation (and criticism) that inevitably follows a piece of content can really shape the piece, and even the reader’s perception of it.
I write this as a writer, but I think the skills to graciously handle criticism can apply to any situation.
I have a pretty solid love-hate relationship with criticism. When I don’t get enough criticism, I wonder if something is wrong. When I hear too much, I wonder what I’m doing with my life.
Occasionally, I suffer from “I just want to write” disorder, the side effect of which is quickly becoming impatient with any criticism. When the criticism starts, I may…
- get irate.
- get upset.
- get angry
- tune out.
While I feel like I do a pretty good job of keeping it in my head, I’ve been trying to change those reactions. The only thing I accomplish with them is making myself feel childish. I have to take a minute to cool off and remind myself that criticism is good for me — even negative criticism.
Yes, I said it. Even negative criticism can be good. Finding a way to take, process, and use criticism to your advantage — instead of wallowing in it — makes you a better person and a better writer.
Separate Yourself from Your Work
Severing your emotional attachment to what you create protects your self-esteem. Treat a criticism like you would any personal editing process. Understand that your favorite point or sentence may be changed. Get past the idea that you are what you write.
A knee-jerk reaction from many writers would be, “No! This is my child, I must be invested in it!” Be invested. I put a lot of emotion into everything I write. However, if I leave myself between the paragraphs during a critique, I don’t gain anything. I find I catch more of what I can improve on if I’m not worrying about a precious sentence or idea.
More than anything, dissociating yourself will make you feel much better in the long run. Go and pour all the passion you want into your current project — every writer should. But cut the umbilical cord when you finish. If you remain wholeheartedly invested in every piece, you could end up getting burned out critique after critique.
It’s a fast track to hating what you do. By taking a step back and looking through your critic’s eyes, you might even pick out a thing or two you need to work on. Or you may come up with an idea that turns a good piece into a great one.
Take It with a Grain of Salt
The core of criticism is that it is someone else’s opinion. Everything a person says about your work can be taken with a grain of salt. A small example would be word choice. One of the most irritating things I’ve ever heard in a workshop is, “This word sounds better.” In the world of poetry, I can understand. In the world of fiction or nonfiction, it has no place.
Alternatively, if a person says, “This word fits better and here’s why,” you listen. Maybe you meant one thing, but it comes off as another. The word may have said exactly what you wanted it to say, and hearing how another person perceives may validate or invalidate your word choice.
For the independent writer, it’s challenging to learn how to discern between suggestions that make your piece better or worse. In this case, practice makes perfect.
A Brief Lesson in Criticism Etiquette
Come to a critique prepared. You’ve done everything you can in the first draft to avoid criticism but, more often than not, you’re going to get at least a comment or five. Give yourself a pep talk before you hit publish.
The best way to survive a critique is to shut up and listen. Interjecting or defending your work during a critique can frustrate the person giving you a review. Treat it like a lecture: Save all questions until the end and take notes if you have to.
Post-critique, go over what you’ve received and ask for fuller explanations if need be. To get the most out of any criticism, you need to understand where the critic is coming from. If your writing is for yourself, you’re done: Smile, thank them, and be on your merry way.
If you’re answering to an editor or someone who commissioned the piece, make sure you understand exactly what they’re looking for. Don’t be afraid to present your case for something you feel is important. Just be prepared to work with a final decision that may not be yours.
Grin and Bear It
If you’re writing the content for someone else, you may be making changes you’d never thought would happen. They may seem out of place to you, but they fit what the commissioner wants. Not all of your ideas will perfectly align with their expectations, so you may have to change yours.
If you receive some criticism you think is wrong, by all means, present your case — politely and professionally. This should never be for personal reasons — you must back everything up with facts. You were hired to provide the best content you can.
Sometimes you will have to make a change you don’t agree with. Although it may not make sense to you, it will make your client happy. These kind of critiques are a good way to learn what they like (or don’t like). In the future, you can give them what they’re looking for the first time around.
Know the Difference Between Poor Communicators and Jerks
We all know the burn of deconstructive criticism. Some of it comes from people who are first-class jerks: trolls, attention seekers, or people who are just bad at giving good criticism. Some comes from people who don’t know any better. I like to think of these people as Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory.
If you’re getting a critique from someone who’s a complete ass about it…
If you’re in a position to walk away, by all means, do. Receiving feedback from a troll who is frothing at the mouth is not worth your time.
When you’re stuck in a position where someone is giving a highly negative critique, be patient. They’re probably looking for you to get upset, or they are upset about something. Remain calm, ignore the rude comments, and look for the helpful nuggets that may be there. Treat them courteously. Thank them for their input.
I’m not saying don’t defend yourself. If someone takes a potshot directly at you — not the work — do not be afraid to call them out on it. But keep it classy.
If you control the content, rework it to their specifications. If you don’t, take the valid points they gave into consideration. Feel no shame. Rejecting suggestions from a rude critic might make you feel better, but I like to think there’s no better “neener neener” than writing a successful piece after a terrible critique.
I’m mostly on the receiving end of criticism, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time dishing it out to fellow writers in workshop settings. I think the line between a professional writer and an amateur is not defined by their experience or expertise. An amateur who graciously handles — and learns from — criticism will go further than any so-called professional.
When you stop listening to criticism, your writing stops improving. I’d rather be a criticized writer than a stagnant one. How about you?
How do you handle criticism? Share your tips with us and your fellow writers in the comments!