How Do You Take Criticism?

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An author can’t get away from criticism, no matter the level of talent. How do you cope with it? And is there a way for it to be beneficial to you?

It seems that writers take criticism more strongly to heart than others. I’ve thought about why that is. It’s probably because writers pour a lot of their personal selves into their words, making it feel like the criticism is directed at them personally, rather than at the product. Think about how you’ve handled situations like that in the past.

About two months ago, I started a series called Under the Microscope, where people contact me through the submission page and submit the beginning portion of their story for critique. I’ve always made the attempt to make all comments constructive and thoughtful, although initially I worried that some would be defensive about their work.

To my delight, every single writer who has submitted has been wonderful to work with and took it as critique and not criticism. What made the difference? I imagine it might have something to do with the balance of critique and compliments, along with the effort to leave the sharp edges out of the comments. I do want to make mention that the followers of this blog who comment on the UtM posts do an amazing job of also being equally as constructive. Do we cringe at others who criticize our writing simply because they don’t do the aforementioned things?

 

Here are some tips for when you do receive criticism:

Listen to what they’re saying
Even with the harshest critics, there usually is at least one thing you can learn. The trouble is, the person makes it so hard to “hear” that one thing because they’re being so offensive with their delivery.

In a professional screening of a movie, sometimes they’ll have the director and writer sit behind a glass while observing the audience as they watch the recently completed movie. When the audience doesn’t laugh at a particular joke, I’m sure it must bother the writer who created it. The writer, after all, thought it was brilliant. All of the staff found it hilarious in production, but it fell flat when raw audiences watched it.

Now, the writer theoretically could turn off the projector, stomp out in front of the crowd and explain why they should all be laughing. Let’s pretend that everyone in the audience realized their mistake and now see where he was coming from. Still, nobody is laughing. And likely they won’t if they ever saw the same movie again. In the end, the new perspective didn’t matter. The joke still didn’t land.

The only hope is to learn why the critic didn’t appreciate it, which can turn out to be valuable once you sift through the critic’s often poor communication style. Some of the best advice I’ve heard concerning my own writing came disguised as something I originally bristled at. In fact, there’s one item that I initially rejected completely, but now is something I implement regularly.

 

Try not to get offended
This is hard for a lot of people. The best thing to keep in mind is that the critic is always right…concerning his/her own experience. It’s a waste of time to explain why you started the book with a dream sequence or why you have every character’s name starting with the same letter. The reader who gave you criticism already doesn’t like your book. Big deal. Since you’ve already “lost,” the best thing you can do is learn why that person didn’t like it, then you tuck it in the back of your mind for later.

 

Give all criticism a grain of salt
Typically, I never give any criticism much credence unless I’ve heard the same thing from different people. Usually, if something is worth considering, then other people will catch it too. There are exceptions to this, of course, but one of the worst things you can do is launch into a complete overhaul of your book because one person didn’t like…something, only to find out that it was just in that one person’s mind.

 

Realize the critics are sometimes right
Sometimes we do misspell words, forget that the protagonist’s eyes are green, or switch city names. It’s possible to admit to ourselves that our critics could be right without letting the air out of our sail. If you can figure out the balance between accepting critique and not letting it get you down personally, then you’ll learn at an incredible rate.

 

Delay the reaction
Often, you won’t be reacting or responding at all, such as to Amazon comments, but sometimes you do have responses that need to be given. Any amount of delay is good, even if it’s just a quick count to ten. That’ll give the emotions a chance to dull so that your logical thinking can take over again. Remember, they’re not commenting on you personally, just your work.

 

Build yourself back up
If you hear criticism that really gets you down, here is a wonderful way to bounce back. Hop onto Amazon and look up a book from your favorite author. Pick an author that you think is out-of-this-world good, and anyone who doesn’t like this author is crazy. Now, read the reviews and comments. I’ll bet good money that you’ll still find fierce criticism.

I did this recently with The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. This is my personal opinion, but all of the books in that series are fantastic. In so many ways the series is near perfect to me, yet there are pages of comments from people who hated the book.

The point is, even your literary idol will still have haters. So, if your idol still has critics, how do you think you’re going to get by without any? That, right there, gave me a lot of hope.

 

Conclusion
It’s the dirty little secret that without criticism and critique, most of us wouldn’t be as good of writers as we are. The best way to sharpen a blade is through friction. Metal is only purified through heat.

Once you find a way to shield your emotions from the situation, your writing will gain a boost. Of course, I would want it to be tactfully phrased, but I would rather hear something I’m blatantly missing, rather than wait years longer for success in a writing career.

 

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47 thoughts on “How Do You Take Criticism?”

  1. Nodding my head all the way through this one. Thank you. I like to think I’m pretty good with having my own work critiqued, and in my normal critiquing group, I crave input that will help me improve my writing and help make a better story. Some crits are tougher than others. I had a particularly rigorous one the other day that was delivered, well, not so sugar-coated. I sucked in a deep breath, reminded myself that I ASKED for this help, I thanked the reader. Because I ASKED for this help, and a response is like a gift. After I let the comments settle, I looked for anything I could use in it. And there was plenty. It’s a kind of cliche, “take what you need and leave the rest,” but it’s true.

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  2. I’m all for criticism. If it’s anywhere more constructive than a simple ‘you suck’, I will gladly take it and run with it. To be honest though, even some things below ‘you suck’ are not as harsh as I imagine in my head they will be. Whenever I show anyone something I’ve written, even if it’s just my mom (and I know she can’t possibly hate anything I do, because she’s my mom), I always picture they will hate it with a passion, because my brain just works that way. So even if they just don’t like it, it’s still a bit of a relief. Being anxious and afraid of people has its upsides… I think?

    I’ve been considering submitting the start of my book to UTM for a while now, on that note… The only people I’ve shown it too so far are just a little bit biased in their judgement so it would be nice to get some outside perspective while I’m not too far in. I just need to build a little bit more courage. 🙂

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  3. “The best thing to keep in mind is that the critic is always right…concerning his/her own experience.” — Emphasis on the latter part of that sentence. If a critic says, “This didn’t work for me,” well, of course they’re right — it didn’t work FOR THEM. If they say, “This story is no good because it has no vampires, and all good stories have vampires,” they’re wrong about it needing to have vampires. That’s just, like, their opinion, man. 🙂

    “Pick an author that you think is out-of-this-world good, and anyone who doesn’t like this author is crazy. Now, read the reviews and comments. I’ll bet good money that you’ll still find fierce criticism.” — Yep. I still have random moments when I’ll be reminded of a couple of reviews I saw a while back, and say, “‘Anime hair,’ excuse me?!? And how dare these fools say the author ‘jumped on a bandwagon’ that she helped create…!”

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  4. I like to think I’m fairly good at taking criticism and evaluating whether it’s something I can do something about, or whether it’s something I want to (sometimes, yes, the writing is odd, but it’s odd in the way I meant it to be; I’m not sure how to respond to having it pointed out that it was odd). But I keep bleeding, at least in private.

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  5. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
    ― Mahatma Gandhi

    In other words:
    “WRITE as if you were to die tomorrow. LEARN if you were to live forever.” The world needs people of good will like you M’lord Ryan. To teach and learn at the same time because we learn more and better when we teach others.

    All the best. With love, Neil.

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  6. There is normally an initial pang of shock that I feel – not because I think I’m awesome, but because sometimes I’m not expecting them to pick that particular problem – but I know that it goes away, and that if it sticks with me, it’s because I agree with them. There aren’t too many crititicms that I haven’t taken on board to make the MS better.

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  7. Criticism, of a constructive kind, is a vital part of the writing process. Without it, we become complacent, rest upon our laurels (damned painful!) and assume that we are the next Shakespeare; with its honing blade, we learn to see our work starkly and to pare it down to the tautest of taut edges.
    I do think, however, that some critics take the opportunity to get up close and personal in a way that is both inappropriate and intimidating. By this I mean those who choose to focus on the writer’s character (in so far as it is truthfully revealed in the work of art) rather than the literary merit (or lack thereof) of the work itself.
    I have seen the process from both ends: For thirty years I was an English teacher – and spent all my time writing constructive criticism at the bottom of kids’ essays; now, I have launched myself as a full time (though not, as yet, paid) writer. I get very little criticism of my actual writing; most of the comments (good and bad!) relate to me as a human being! I would welcome the chance to improve my writing skills!
    My self-published novel did receive one poor review on Amazon – and I will confess that I felt very crushed and upset when I read it (despite the ten positive ones!), but I can see flaws in my own writing only too clearly, and do not wish to send something out which is badly-written, tedious or hackneyed. And, were I writing the humorous novel again, I am quite sure I would make it a far tighter and less self-indulgent piece; I would whittle it down until it resembled sun-bleached bone upon a beach.

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  8. I know how it’ll sound, but bare with me.

    “Talk to me, I’m wrong a lot.”

    I find it helps to start from the stand point that I’m wrong and everyone else is my intellectual superior. I can’t always believe it, but I try to see from that perspective when I first encounter criticism. If I’m physically present, I find it also softens the delivery when negative observations are given. There is something about being humble, even if you are only acting humble, that makes you more receptive.

    If, after an honest effort, I can’t see the critiques point of view, then I let it go. If it comes up again, well, that is a pretty good sign I’m out of touch with something.

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  9. This is great. I remember as a young writer I was terrified for anyone to even read my work. Now I crave critique for even the smallest writing bits.

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  10. I would love to get a little criticism. My fear is not getting any at all. I just started querying agents about my book and I’m finding I can’t sleep. So much depends on the query letter itself. I feel like I have a good product but fear the manuscript will never be read. Sigh. Thanks for all the writing tips. They are very helpful. Keep ’em coming. A grateful writer and fan.

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  11. I like your points. I also remind myself that critique is provided as a vehicle for offering suggestions for improvement. Criticism is finding fault. Yes, part of critique may be pointing out mistakes in spelling or grammar, ideas that haven’t been developed or don’t move the writing forward. But, if that feedback is given and received in an environment of understanding the purpose behind the message, it is easier than hearing “I don’t like this.”

    I don’t mind if you don’t like my work. I can’t get better if you don’t tell me why, or suggest ideas for what did/did not work for you.

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  12. Great post, Ryan. I formed a critique group a few years ago for one reason–to help me become a better writer. It was a selfish act. The rules were simple–courteous critique. The bonus of a group is different opinions and insights. It has been well worth the time and energy and builds confidence in all of our work. There’s really no reason to feel offended. It’s just someone’s opinion. I choose what will be my final draft. My writing has become better because of critique.

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  13. Keep em coming. I love this. You’re right, as writers we pour so much of ourselves into our work that it is hard not to feel beaten down when receiving criticism. It’s like our stories are our children and when they are not accepted as they are it’s hard not to want to defend your little ones. But unlike children we also have the choice to make our creations better with each new suggestion. One of my best stories has been redrafted again and again at the suggestions of many different sources and is finally coming into its own. It’s no joke when we’re told that writing is a long hard process, it’s the editing that really shapes the work.

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  14. Great post. I’ve met some people who couldn’t take criticism, but I think most writers do realise that writing is a craft and that it constantly needs to be worked at, to be improved, so they usually are open to critics 🙂 I don’t think they would ask you if they thought that they were the next best thing since sliced bread, and that’s why those who submit their writing to you react nicely to your advice.
    Actually, I much prefer the word “advice” than the word “critic” and the result is the same, in the end, without the negativity.
    Personally, I love critic/advice 🙂 And I very much enjoy discussing where I’m wrong to understand things better 🙂

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  15. Reblogged this on Tidlidim and commented:
    Great blog post about keeping an open mind when your work receives a critic. It’s in the context of writing, but it can apply to anything you do, really. Sometimes, even though things are painful to take in, they’re for the greater good 🙂

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  16. Good post. I think I take criticism much better than I used to. You develop a tough skin after over 300 rejections. Personal rejections are the hardest to take but the most beneficial. It’s really better than the standard, “sorry, we’re going to pass on this.” Thanks for voicing this. We all have to face criticism, writing or otherwise.

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  17. “Let’s pretend that everyone in the audience realized their mistake and now see where he was coming from. Still, nobody is laughing. And likely they won’t if they ever saw the same movie again.”

    This is such a good point. Even if an argument convinces critics to change their minds, they’re still not going to get a positive impression of the text.

    My favorite way to react to criticism is to laugh at my own mistakes. Because some of them are really dumb.

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  18. I think that’s great that you made that website ‘under the microscope.’ I would love to submit work there. I never had a problem with criticism, because it has done nothing but help improve my writing. I know there are weak spots in all of my work but other writers have helped me sort that out and have given me great advice when it comes to consistency, editing and revising work. I hope I can still submit some work there in the future. 🙂

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  19. Reblogged this on Pukah Works and commented:
    Love the work you are doing to help other writers. I know I may not always take criticism well at first blush. OK, may should not be included there. But, once I’ve had a chance to think about it, almost always there is something to take away. Even if you swear you have polished any piece until it glows, there are still flaws, and it can be a bit of a shock for someone to point those flaws out. Yet, in finding the flaws, it also provides a chance to learn. Now, I just hope I learn the right lessons the first time!

    Thank you so much for your educational posts!

    Like

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