You have polished a piece of your writing and are ready for someone else to read it. You take an enormous risk when you ask someone else for feedback. You make yourself vulnerable to being misunderstood or worse. It’s more than words on a piece of paper which stand in judgment. It’s you—your soul—on the line.
Every red pen mark on the page feels like a personal injury. Margin comments seem like attacks on your integrity. Flaws and defects highlighted. Your face flushes with embarrassment as spelling and grammar errors you didn’t catch slap you upside the head. Questions raised you didn’t answer. Misperceptions identified. Clichés. Unnecessary adverbs or empty adjectives. Redundancies. Passive voice and zombie nouns. And all the life sucked out of your precious piece. Your ego deflates faster than a pin-pricked balloon.
One of the biggest reasons writers are reluctant to share their work is the fear of negative feedback. You aren’t likely to share it if you think your work isn’t already your personal best and you hope readers will provide you with affirmations of your efforts. And yet you want to know whether it works for readers or not. When you ask for feedback you need to be prepared for negative as much as positive criticism.
Negative criticism will help you much more than Stuart Smalley-style affirmations: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.” If you seek only to enhance your self-esteem you won’t be able to improve your writing craft.
To deal with critical feedback on your writing it may require you work on your self-esteem in other areas of your life besides writing. If you recognize feedback is not a criticism of you but an effort to show how you might do greater justice to your ideas, you will be less defensive in your reactions.
The first step to receiving feedback successfully is to separate your identity from the words on the page. Externalize. Imagine the criticism is directed at someone else. It helps if you imagine this person to be an author you hold in high esteem. Imagine you are Ernest Hemingway or Edith Wharton and Max Perkins at The New Yorker has provided his editorial expertise. Call up the memory of a young Harper Lee who gave her manuscript Go Set a Watchman to editor Tay Hohoff at J. B. Lippincott. Did Harper Lee get past a deflated ego? Can you imagine what she felt when she received editorial feedback so critical it required a full rewrite? We can see now how “negative criticism” led her to rewrite it into the masterpiece we know as To Kill a Mockingbird.
One of the biggest reasons writers end up self-publishing is the inability to receive and appreciate critical feedback. Lack of self-esteem is usually not the problem for those who self-publish. Instead, the opposite: grandiose delusions. When I encounter writers who believe the benefits of editorial control is cause to self-publish, I infer the writer is unable or unwilling to work on improving their craft to meet the expectations of readers. And to be honest, publishers don’t want to work with control-freak authors anyway.
The second step is to read or listen to the feedback before you respond. Keep quiet and try not to raise your defenses. Take in the feedback and be with it for a while. Wait for your emotional reaction to pass before you do anything. If you are hurt, examine the reasons why. If you are angry, reflect on the reasons for your rage. Do this before you lash out at your critics.
The third step is to review the criticisms. Look only at what has been criticized and avoid overgeneralizing from the feedback. Put together a list of opportunities and a positive plan for action. If you are criticized for using clichés, consider it an opportunity to create an original turn of phrase or further develop your own voice. Too much repetition? An opportunity to tighten and strengthen the piece. Passive voice a problem? An opportunity to breathe more life into your prose and give your characters agency. See each criticism as an opportunity to improve the work instead of destructive blows.
The fourth step is to thank the critics. Even if they are rude, harsh, and mean—thank them. The way they state their criticisms may be more a reflection of them than you. “You’re stupid. I don’t see how X would ever do Y.” Ignore the first demoralizing sentence and your emotional reaction to it. Pay attention to the second sentence. Recognize that you may not have made things as clear as you should have and can remedy this with a few changes. Rise above petty insults or personal attacks and accept the criticism with grace. Your attitude of gratitude will mean more to you in the long run. It’s a way to remind yourself criticism is a good thing for you as a writer. And it keeps you humble.
The fifth step is to learn from the criticism and improve your writing. Separate the constructive from the destructive criticism. Your critic may not have the answers to how to “fix” the piece, but they will identify what still needs work. Dealing with critics may be easier than the battle you wage with your own inner critic. Don’t give those voices in your head any ammunition to beat yourself up, think you’ll never be a writer, or give up on your piece. Instead, be confident in your abilities to improve and get back to the business of writing. Good writing is rewriting.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill