How to Manage Criticism

Writers invite criticism. We share our work with other writers and seek their advice; we submit our writing to editors and mentors for feedback; and we send our precious creations out into the world hoping they’ll be accepted for publication. There we risk receiving the most potent form of criticism of all—rejection.

What writer hasn’t been the victim of a stinging critique?

Unless you’re invisible, avoiding criticism is not an option. Let’s learn how to deal with it, eh? Don’t allow criticism to wound you, your writing, or your writing goals.

Sure it hurts, but criticism’s power to poison you isn’t a given. The poison isn’t inherent in what is said, who delivers it, where or when it happens, or how nasty it is. The power of criticism (and rejection) to harm you lies in how you take it in, what you allow it to mean to you, and the way you allow it to affect your work or eat away at your insides.

Don’t allow criticism to diminish you.

Someone criticizes your writing, and you stop writing. Or you lower your sights and stop working on the novel, deny how important your creative work is to your well being, or chalk it off as some little hobby you had that isn’t all that important.

How sad if we let someone else’s criticism dictate how we’ll live our lives and dream our dreams!

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The power of criticism to be constructive, destructive, or neutral resides solely inside of you. It’s a choice you make.  Tweetable! Click to Tweet!

Decide your writing matters.

This is big. Your deep conviction that your writing matters—really, really matters—will be the suit of armor that protects you from many potential woundings in your writing life, including the sting of criticism. The famous and successful are not immune to criticism and performance anxiety, you know. They just press forward in spite of it.

Ask for feedback only when you’re truly ready to hear it.

A work in early draft may be too frail and tender for criticism (and so may you). When your work is first forming it is all too easy to get discouraged by other people’s comments.

Sometimes writers offer their work for critique  before it’s ready because they’re really craving encouragement and praise. Be honest with yourself and others about what you’re looking for when you ask people to respond to your work. Don’t ask for a critique unless you’re ready to hear whatever comes.

Stay calm and cool.

For most of us, receiving criticism stirs up strong emotions. Unchecked, your emotions may rise to anger or defensiveness that will negatively affect your ability to receive and process information. Vent to an empathetic friend, punch your pillow if you must,  but don’t take out your anger on the critic.

Responding to criticism with anger strains relationships with loved ones, fellow writers, and publishing professionals. I once saw a writer get into a lengthy war of words on the Internet over what she judged to be an unfair review of her book. Ugh.

Allowing criticism to simmer inside, tormenting yourself by replaying hurtful words in your mind, imagining responses, or fantasizing about revenge is neither healthy nor productive.

Become aware of the physical signs that indicate you’re becoming anxious. Maybe your chest tightens or stomach flips. Practice relaxation responses such as deep breathing to stay in control in the face of criticism.

Manage your self-talk.

When you’re hurt or disappointed by criticism, the discouraging voice of your inner critic may rise up and nag at you because the work you’ve produced doesn’t match your ideal. But this kind of anxiety can be helpful if it spurs you to revise and improve your writing. In fact, being able to rigorously critique your own work is an essential part of the writing process.

Your inner critic is only dysfunctional when it can’t make the shift from nag to muse, or when it makes it hard or impossible for you to work. Make it your practice to put your inner critic in its place. Dispute self-sabotaging thoughts by substituting new, useful ones.

Evaluate. Don’t react.

Start by separating the criticism from the person who delivered it, from their tone of voice, and from every other emotional context or perception.

Assume there is a nugget of truth in every criticism.  Look for that nugget and discard the rest. Often, our beta readers will be right about where the problems in our work lie, but the solution they offer will be wrong. Listen, but make your own decisions. The pen remains in your hand.

And yes, sometimes criticisms are just plain unfair, but probably not as often as we’d like to think. Look for the nugget of truth.

If you make yourself deaf and blind to criticism you miss the opportunity to learn and grow as a writer. But  learning to put criticism in its proper perspective is the difficult work of a lifetime for writers, for artists–for all of us.

What’s your experience with criticism?

A version of this post appeared previously on the Florida Writers Association blog. 

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