How to Handle Constructive Criticism
This is for first time, unpublished authors who are sensitive to comments that disagree with how they perceive their work. They have a hard time accepting any remarks that hurt their feelings, even when it’s stated in a positive and constructive manner.
- Don’t take criticism personally. It may initially hurt your feelings to hear something like, “This phrase is telling, not showing,” “This sentence is poorly structured,” or “This word is overused –used your thesaurus.” These critics are not saying, “You’re a terrible writer. Why bother? You should be embarrassed.” What they are really saying is, “Here’s a way to improve your story” and “Here’s how you can improve your craft of writing.”
- Take what you can use and let go of the rest. Whether you receive a critique or a rejection letter that leaves your ego full of holes, take the comments that you can use –what makes your story better– and let the rest go. For now. Save the critique or comments in a file –believe it or not, but most of the time they’re like gold. Maybe later, when you’ve grown a thicker skin, you will come to see the wisdom of constructive criticism. No, not all critics are right, or perhaps they’re only right about a part of your story, but take any opportunity to learn something from what is shared with you with open eyes, heart, and mind.
- When you react to a critique like someone just poured water on you, what’s happening is that you are regressing back to the second grade when you had to read your poem aloud in class and the other kids made fun of you. Or you wrote a story and a mean sibling or drunk parent said you’d never amount to anything. Don’t get hung up on the C word. A critique is a tool to help you become a better writer and to develop a better story, not to remind you of what went wrong in your childhood. It’s time to be accountable for your work and to learn to act like an adult. Don’t let the bullies of the past haunt you. Stop making up a story about what constructive criticism means as an adult.
- You can’t expect to write perfection on your opening line. My favorite all time remark by writer Annie Lamont is “It’s okay to write a shitty first draft.” It’s a rarity for any artist to create a masterpiece on their first try. Any professional author will be the first person to tell you that someone critiqued their early works and hurt their feelings. If they took it personally, they wouldn’t have kept on writing.
- Don’t let a critique, criticism, or a bad review ruin your day. Hold onto your confidence in your writing ability. Jay Asher’s first book was not well received and he reacted poorly to reviews, going into a depression and not writing for two years. Jay said that realizing he wasn’t as good a writer as he thought made him work all the harder on his next book. Once he came out of depression, he wrote Thirteen Reasons Why. It was immediately picked up by a publisher, within months became a best seller, it received at least a dozen prestigious awards, and only a few months later the film rights were sold to Warner Bros. Studios and is now under production. Asher said he’s learned not to take reviews to heart.
- Writers and those in the industry are better editors and critics than family and friends. People who know you generally don’t want to hurt your feelings and say, “That’s a nice story” or “I really like it” even if your book sucks. Better to hear the truth from someone who knows how important it is to have a great product ready for publishing.
- Show your work to a number of people. (Don’t worry about plagiarism –it’s not as great a problem as you may think and it’s easy to prove with your dated computer files and people who have read your story who can say that you are the original writer.) By getting feedback from as many honest people as possible, you will begin to appreciate the time and energy they take to give you a reader’s perspective on your work. Once it gets rave reviews from experienced writers, send it to a professional editor. You will start to hear more positive remarks on your book and you will see how far you’ve come as a writer.
If writing is your passion, don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way!
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All true, all true. It’s hard to hear that the thing we work on hardest and most passionately might have flaws. It’s hard to remember that when people are discussing your work, they’re talking about the work and not you. And if anyone says anything, what they’re saying is “I like this story — and I think these few things would make it just a little better.” That’s a good place to start thinking about the critique.
Thank you for your comments, John. I think that this is probably the largest roadblock that keeps a person from writing or getting their work out to the world. When my 1st grade substitute teacher gave me a big, red F on my very first story noting the poor spelling and incorrect punctuation, she didn’t write one thing about the actual content. I was 6 years old and my hopes of writing were dashed with red ink and it would be decades before I stepped out of the writing closet. Accepting constructive criticism early on will open the doorways to so much more creative genius!
It is hard to hear criticism when you have poured your heart on paper, but you are right. The criticism is a necessary component of the writing process, no matter how hard it may be to hear. It is important to find at least one person who is willing to tell you when something really isn’t working if you want to put something out there that is worth reading.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Thank you for your post. I hope that you take a chance on letting other writers see your work. The information you will learn will not only serve to make you a better writer, but help you to understand that people aren’t out to make fun of you or put your work down –they really do want to help. There will always be someone who does or does not like your story, or who does or does not like your writing style. This is why I mentioned in the blog not to take criticism personally. We can’t please everyone and never will. We all put our heart on paper and the moment we do, we’re taking a chance on rejection. But that rejection doesn’t mean our individual selves, our souls, are being judged. Think of the person or people who judged you in the past –you’re bringing that as a new story into your adult life. You no longer have to believe that you have to satisfy others and gain their approval. Time to let it go!
We’re extremely fortunately in that most all people in the writing industry are a very supportive group. Be willing to trust that others want to see you succeed. Please feel free to contact me if you’d like any feedback on what you’re writing!
Sincerely, Carole Avila