When Feedback Hurts: How to Handle Criticism as a Writer
For some of us, hearing criticism or seeing those red marks on our drafts indicating places where we may need to make changes is like hearing our newborn baby is ugly. How can you make receiving feedback easier and more productive? Here’s how to handle criticism without getting disheartened.
Why Does Criticism Hurt?
You pour your heart and soul into your stories. You focus on your characters and their motivations, your setting, narrative tension, and your story arc. When the gestation is over, you give birth to a glorious act of creativity.
When you present your literary child, you hope to hear oohs and aahs of delight from your beta readers. Realistically, you know your baby hasn’t reached its potential yet, but you’re likely to find any criticism hard to take and even harder to forget.
We’re hardwired to hang onto troubling information. Science even has a name for it—the negativity bias. It’s one of the reasons our news sources almost always lead with bad news instead of the more uplifting stories. Biologically, we’re built to look for threats, so the awful stuff is more compelling.
Unfortunately, that also means that when we hear criticism mixed with praise, we’re more likely to home in on the criticism. If someone tells you “I love the way you write your dialogue, but I think you have a problem with using too many he said/she saids,” you’re going to tune in to the word problem instead of the word love. What a bummer!
How to Handle Criticism
There’s an art to dealing with criticism, and it goes beyond smiling gamely and saying, “Thanks for giving it to me straight!” while secretly dying inside. Here are some ways to make the process less painful and more productive.
- Don’t get defensive. Have you ever been part of a critique group where one writer fought back against every bit of feedback he was given? That guy wasn’t learning anything. When you put all your energy into defending your work, you have no energy left to process the good advice you might have heard.
“There is one piece of advice I strongly urge: never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never.” —Truman Capote
- Realize that others want to help. Sure, some critics are smug and think they know best, but generally, people who take the time to give you feedback want to help you grow as a writer. Remind yourself that most people have good intentions … even those who are less-than-tactful.
- Separate yourself from your manuscript. You’ve spent hours with your manuscript, alone in your writing cave. It can begin to feel as though you and your draft are one and the same. Feedback on your writing isn’t personal. “I don’t like this paragraph” doesn’t equate to “I don’t like you.”
- Remember to TWYWLTR. It stands for “Take What You Want; Leave The Rest.” Not every bit of criticism offered is going to resonate with you, and that’s okay. Give all of the feedback you receive your consideration, but in the end, keep only what resonates. You can’t please everyone. And sometimes critics are wrong. But …
- Don’t be closed-minded. Before you decide that a critic is wrong, make sure you’ve taken the time to consider whether she might be right. This is especially true when more than one person gives you the same feedback. If three beta readers all say they don’t understand your character’s motives, then you probably have some work to do.
When Editing Technology Gets You Down
Sometimes a piece of software seems like your worst critic. The AutoCrit team gets emails from time to time from writers who are discouraged by the amount of work they have ahead of them. They see all those red highlights the AutoCrit software makes and feel as though, somehow, they’ve failed as a writer.
It’s important to remember that editing software isn’t the sole arbiter of literary talent. Those potential problem areas the software highlights when you run a report aren’t failures, they’re opportunities!
AutoCrit is an awareness tool. Its job isn’t to tell you that you’re wrong, or that your writing is bad; its job is to point out possibilities for improvement. When you embrace the process, each report is a revelation. You may discover that you use too many adverbs in your dialogue tags, for instance. That doesn’t mean your writing sucks, it means you just learned a cool new trick! You’ll be alert for those pesky adverbs, and you’ll start striking them from your work before they even creep in. Bingo! You’ve just become a better writer.
Are you ready to learn some cool new things about your writing? AutoCrit, the world’s only online manuscript editor exclusively for fiction writers, will help you learn about your writing quirks and improve as it helps you edit. Give AutoCrit a try for free!
Becoming a successful writer is about being open to feedback, but confident enough in your artistic vision not to be blown about by every critical wind. Trust yourself, trust the process, and learn from your mistakes. Once you learn how to handle criticism, you’ll become a better writer with each revision.