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
9 thoughts on “How To Accept Criticism Even When It’s Not Constructive”
My medicine made me throw up. The stitches burned on my ankle. Rehab made me sweat. I needed all of them. I recovered. I am better.
Constructive comments made me cry at first. But Jill encouraged me and taught me how to improve my writing. I needed them. I am getting better. But there is plenty to do.
Thanks for your article. Jill.
“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…” I learned from watching Mary Poppins. There’s rarely enough sugar in a book doctor’s prescription. It always seems to taste nasty. And it might surprise you how much it hurts me to have to deliver a diagnosis when the expectation is a clean bill of health. Thanks for sharing your experience of how hard it is to take criticism. Too many writers think they are the only ones who feel this way. It’s a natural response. Ew!
As you know, I had some struggles with this. Not the smaller corrections and editorial changes or even the big ones about structure and time when delivered with soft gloves.
But when I got a big criticism that would demand major rewriting when I thought I was finished, I felt defeated and angry. I took it personally. She’s an idiot. She knows nothing. She’s unkind. Blah, blah, blah. I knew my defense system and knew I was reacting to something painful but true. It took nearly a month to tackle the details of what had been said. I don’t think I struck back (I hope I didn’t), although I wanted to. I waited and let it sink in. In the end, I knew the editor had seen something essential. I rewrote. I thanked her. I learned.
Thanks for your honesty and for sharing with others how it felt when I provided criticism you needed, but didn’t want. You never let on to me how devastated you were or how much anger you felt. From your publication success, I think we can see it paid off. That doesn’t mean it is easy or gets any easier taking criticism. Yet it’s often what separates those writers who get published and those that don’t. With grace and appreciation, you went through many revisions after receiving critical feedback. I only wish more authors were like you, Elaine. It’s always a pleasure to work with you.
This is a great post about a topic I’ve been contemplating lately. Just yesterday I was thinking that the more an author writes about him or herself, even in the form of another character, the harder it will be not to take criticism personally. You are right — it is essential for the author to separate his or her identity from the written page.
I like to view criticism as manure. It’s unpleasant at first. We order it by the truckload every year for our vegetable garden, and when the delivery comes, it stinks up the entire neighborhood. But we harvest lots of great vegetables. If an author is willing to pull on rubber boots, pick up a shovel, and work that criticism into the soil, it will mean better fruit at harvest time.
May I take this opportunity to thank you for the criticism you gave me?
I laughed out loud at your wonderful metaphor of criticism as manure. Spot on. I’d prefer to call it organic fertilizer but it doesn’t make it any less messy or stinky. Thank you for your words of kindness.
All of this is great. I’m about ready to come back for more. 🙂
Thanks for your comment Jen. Always a pleasure to work with you.
OMG I’m so embarrassed. You must have been remembering working with me. O, the tantrums, the defensive hissy-fits I threw at you. All the negativity. The cries of disbelief, “You want me to do what?” And once I calmed down, I learned an awful lot about how and how not to write. Thank you for putting up with me.