Chances are, if you’ve faced rejection as a writer, you’ve also had to face criticism. Whether that criticism is levied against your work or your desire to write in the first place, it can be just as unpleasant an experience as rejection. Some of the emotional responses are the same: self-doubt, loss of confidence, and questioning whether you truly have what it takes to effectively tell stories or express yourself. There are some nuances in facing criticism, however, that you don’t have to worry about when facing rejection. How you respond to that criticism, for example: when dealing with rejection, you often aren’t in a position to respond to whoever has rejected your work, but with criticism that is often not the case. You might have to hear criticism face to face, and how you react to it will be pivotal to how you are regarded as a member of the writing community.
It should go without saying that every time you put your work out there—either in a creative writing workshop, on an online forum such as a blog or literary journal, or by enlisting the help of beta readers—you are opening yourself up not only to appreciation and praise, but also to criticism that can range from constructive to harsh and destructive. Having sat through dozens of creative writing workshop sessions where 12 or more students (along with the professor) discuss what they like and don’t like about your work while you are expected to silently listen and take notes, I have experienced the full spectrum of feedback. I’ve had fellow writers who had nothing but praise for my work, I’ve had some who provided constructive criticism in a professional and respectful manner, and I’ve had some who seemed to get great pleasure in issuing out the most mean-spirited, condescending and venomous critiques they could muster. In my junior year of college, I workshopped a story about a pianist undergoing a mental breakdown; one girl in my class, seemingly having a hard time differentiating between the narrator and the writer, stated more than once that “this scene just made you sound crazy.” In these situations, how you react (and how you absorb the criticism) can be crucial to your reputation, to how you view your work, and to your own sense of self-worth.
Below are a few tips for handling criticism.
- When dealing with unconstructive criticism: There’s really no way of knowing why some fellow writers (or readers) choose to be intentionally hurtful and mean-spirited in their criticism. Maybe they’re jealous of your talent. Maybe they’re an elitist who truly believes everyone else is beneath them. Maybe they don’t realize how abrasive they are because they don’t understand the concept of tact. Maybe they think they’re doing you a favor by not sugar-coating their response to your work. Maybe they get off on schadenfreude because they’re just a dick. While it may be embarrassing and infuriating to have to listen to this asshole, the best thing you can do in this situation is put on your poker face, thank them for their input and remind yourself that you have promise. That person just might not be your intended audience.
It might also be helpful to pay attention to the feedback of others, just to see if you’re being too sensitive (if you’re having the same emotional response to everyone’s feedback, you might be taking criticism too personally), if there are any consensuses on problem areas in your work, or if anyone actively opposes the harsh critic’s points (if the critic hated your use of metaphors but the majority liked or loved your figurative speech, for example).
I highly recommend not engaging the harsh critic in debate or trying to defend your work in a workshop setting, as doing so often looks like you’re making excuses, that your work can’t speak for itself and requires an explanation, or that you’re being thin-skinned. Ignore the sting, check your gut (as in determine whether there are any grains of truth to their criticism) and continue to believe in your work.
- When dealing with constructive criticism: It’s usually a lot easier to handle constructive criticism; these critics have your best interests and the improvement of your work in mind when they tell you what didn’t work for them. Often these critics know how to talk to you about their issues with the story, chapter or poem in a way that is tactful, respectful and promotes a sense of camaraderie instead of competition. This kind of criticism is a gift. It allows you to make the necessary changes to elevate your work to the next level. However, just because criticism is constructive doesn’t mean you have to implement it. The gut-check is just as important with constructive criticism as it is for unconstructive criticism. Listen to what the critic has to say, take your notes, and give deep consideration to what you think would actually help your work out and what wouldn’t.
I once had a workshop critique for an excerpt from a dystopian novel set twenty years in the future; the critic was very constructive and helpful in most of her feedback, but one of her suggestions was that, instead of bullets, it would make more sense for guns to be firing lasers because the story is set in the future. Again, though most of her stylistic advice was very helpful, this particular piece of advice was something I absolutely had no intention of implementing, for several reasons: one, no one else had any difficulty believing this story was set in the future just because the weaponry is similar to contemporary weaponry (had there been a consensus, I may have entertained the idea for a moment), two, this critique didn’t feel necessary or helpful for the story, and lastly, I knew in my gut that I wasn’t just being sensitive about it. My decision to ignore this particular critique, therefore, passed my gut-check.
- When responding to criticism: Whether you agree with the criticism you receive or not, and whether you feel it was constructive or intentionally destructive in nature or tone, the best thing you can do to maintain your professional bearing is to thank the critic for their feedback and extrapolate as much helpful lessons as you can from the criticism. Even when a critic is being a dick for the sake of being a dick, if a writer responds in a touchy and hysterical manner, the writer is going to look worse. That may seem unfair and it probably is, but artists are expected to have thick skins. This isn’t to say that you can’t give trolls a piece of your mind while maintaining professionalism and poise. For lessons here, just study J.K. Rowling’s Twitter: when you have mastered her level of composed sarcasm, you too can call out dickishness without looking fragile.
- Applying feedback to your work: The most important reaction to receiving criticism is to find the little nuggets of truth—those flaws in your work that maybe you suspected were there but couldn’t quite pin down, those imperfections you hoped no one else would notice, or those inconsistencies that you didn’t even realize were there—and to apply them when you revisit your work to edit. If you receive feedback from 20 readers and find nothing in their comments that prompts you to change something about your work, you might be being too stubborn and sensitive to accurately view the value of their points. And if you go through that much criticism and don’t change anything about your work, then you endured all those harsh words and blunt dissections for nothing.
Writers put their unfinished work out there to get honest opinions, to get the hard truths about their own shortcomings as writers, all for the purpose of going back and improving their work. If you don’t have the stomach for criticism, then you may want to be the kind of writer who only writes for their own enjoyment and not with the intention of releasing their work for others to see. And that’s fine, if you’re that kind of writer. It’s better to identify that early on than it is to keep torturing yourself until you give up on writing altogether. If, however, you hope for others to read your work someday, it behooves you to learn to process criticism, apply changes that you agree with, and thereby improve your skills and creative instincts.
- When dealing with criticism about your passion for writing: There are going to be people in your life (often people who aren’t writers or artists) who will view your endeavors as a writer with skepticism and condescension. They might say snarky things like “Do you even make any money writing?” or “You haven’t published anything yet?” or “Must be nice to have enough time on your hands to waste it on the computer.” They might make jokes about starving artists or useless English degrees. Or it might be your parents, worried that you don’t get out enough because you spend all your free time cooped up in your apartment working on a novel. The temptation might be there for you to give up on writing altogether, to pursue “normal” hobbies or social events, to go for the practical degree in something that bores you to tears. If you are passionate about writing, though, don’t listen to these people. The easiest way to respond is that you are just as likely to make it big as a writer as a high school football player is to make it to the NFL. Your goals, talents and interests are just as valid. You gain and learn just as many vital skills in the pursuit of writing as your mother did in her pursuit of gardening or tennis. If writing grants you fulfillment and a sense of purpose (and, sometimes, pure happiness) then that should be all that matters to anyone, especially anyone who cares about you.
Like rejection, facing criticism is never easy, but it does get easier with time and experience.
For more tips, check out Terrible Writing Advice’s take on Criticism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-v4R2ZcxPlA