TTT – How to Deal with Criticism

In order to grow as a writer, it’s important to learn how to deal with criticism. We all have to deal with it at one time or another in the form of rejection letters, reader feedback or even some jerk who decides that your misery is his life’s work.

Each time we submit, post, or otherwise send our work out into the big, wide world, we are inviting criticism. This is great; a writer should always encourage and welcome criticism. If it is given correctly, it lets us know what works in our stories and what doesn’t. The problem is that we don’t always get the criticism we need.

Essentially, there are two types of criticism: constructive and destructive. It’s important you learn to tell the difference between the two.

Constructive criticism

Constructive criticism is the offering of valid and reasoned opinions on the work of others. This is the type of criticism we need. It is the feedback we are asking of our beta-readers, primarily, and our readers, in general. It is the way we learn. So, how do we recognise constructive criticism?

Constructive criticism:

  • Can be either negative or positive, but always offers an explanation for the comment (e.g. I really didn’t like character X because he seemed two-dimensional);
  • Often comes from people we trust;
  • Is about your work, not you;
  • Is meant to help us (e.g. if you change X, it’ll be a great story);
  • Is usually something we’ve already noticed ourselves (e.g. damn it! I’ve used the wrong ‘its’ again, ‘you do know it should be “it’s” and not “its” right?’); and
  • Can be something we never noticed (e.g. isn’t that a scene from Titanic? Why do you keep changing the spelling of X’s name?).
Destructive criticism

Destructive criticism is the complete opposite of constructive criticism. It exists purely to make us feel bad and the commenter feel better. Anyone who posts their work in a public forum will encounter this form of criticism. It’s so popular, in fact, that it is referred to as ‘trolling’.

Destructive criticism:

  • Is often abusive (e.g. ‘this is the biggest pile of shite I’ve ever read’ – Mum, January 2014 (not true, my mum loves my work);
  • Is directed at the author (e.g. ‘Call yourself a writer? Why don’t you just smash your laptop?’ – Chris Musgrave, every day)
  • Is hard to hear/read.
  • Offers no explanation, or advice; and
  • Is best ignored.

Remember, destructive criticism isn’t always negative. Someone perpetually singing the praise of a poorly written piece doesn’t help the writer understand the problems with their work and doesn’t allow them to improve. Think of those X-factor contestants whose parents tell them they’re the next Michael Jackson.

How to deal with criticism (or ‘how to deal with morons being jerks about your writing’ – Naomi Harvey, June 2014)
1. Develop a thick skin

You want to write, you love what you write, but you have to accept that not everyone thinks the same as you. We don’t all enjoy the same type of fiction (life would be boring if we did) and what you write may not be everyone’s cup of tea (soy mocha latte for my friends across the pond). Accept that people don’t like it and move on. It gets easier, trust me.

2. Don’t take it personally

So, you’ve just received another rejection letter from the publishing house you had your heart set on. I’m sorry to hear that…now get back to work. Most criticism isn’t aimed at you as the writer and what is can usually be filled under the Ignore the Idiots heading (see below). Writers, editors, publishers, we’re all busy people and we’re all running a business (it might not seem that way to us because we love what we do). If a publisher says what you’re working on isn’t right for them, then they probably mean it isn’t right for them. It does not mean that you’re a failure as a writer and that you should hang up your…keyboard?…whatever. If they don’t like it, try elsewhere but keep trying.

If they offer advice, on the other hand, you’d be pretty stupid to ignore it. You have been warned.

3. Act on the criticism

If people have taken the time to read and comment on your work, you should at least take the time to read and consider their comments (yeah, so I’m a little late in responding to some of mine. Shut up!). You don’t have to accept everything they say, but you should consider it. It’s the only way to learn.

4. Ignore the idiots

This is the best piece of advice I can give you. When God created man, he also created idiots. They are sent to try our patience and do their level best to instil meaning in their own lives by making other’s lives a misery.

DO NOT ARGUE WITH THEM.

That’s what they want. Simply, ignore them. Ignore them. Ignore them.

That been said, if twenty of them all have the same comment (e.g. “you’re gramma n speling sux [sic]”) you may want to mull it over.

What are your thoughts on criticism? Do you have any special ways of dealing with it and those that offer it (remember this is a public forum and anything you say may be used as evidence against you)?

7 thoughts on “TTT – How to Deal with Criticism

  1. I’ve had both types, and I’ll be the first to admit that I cried at the destructive one. The person in question offered no explanation. So, I sent a reply asking, politely and calmly, for any advice or context in regards to the issues they pointed out, but they ignored me. What they had said made no sense & with no context I was unable to do anything about any of it, even Google couldn’t help. At that point I was ready to delete my online presence, to take my book off (which I have done since, but not because of this person), and to give up writing, as I thought I was an awful writer just because one ‘person’ didn’t like me.
    But, then came my band of writers & I regained faith in the world, and have since learned to turn a blind eye to these ‘trolls’, obviously it still hurts, but that’s a part of this job.
    A lovely man who often pops onto my blog gave my novel a read and has given me some real good pointers, at first my defences shot up, as they always do, but then I realised that he wasn’t saying my work was utter rubbish as I first read it to say. Rather he was making useful pointers about my use of language, grammar, structure, and use of numbers etc. He explained everything, and he wrote it in a way which instantly made me respect him, and want to improve because he had put so much effort into helping me. The novel wasn’t his genre, but he gave it a go, and offered real constructive criticism.
    I’ve known that my novel has needed work, but when I had finished it I was so excited that I stopped seeing the negatives and the niggles that needed jiggling. However now, I feel I have grown somewhat so I’ve decided to write a 2nd edition, so as to give my readers the story that they deserve, the time and the effort too.
    That was a long comment, whoops! Anyway, I’ll be off now, cockroaches to battle.
    Another great article, I hope that you’re well Chris, until next time!

  2. I have an notebook in Evernote called ‘on writing well’ and I just added this URL to the list. This is very good advice. I’ve run into both kinds, and your examples made me smile. My wife will often ask if ‘this’ and ‘that’ are the same thing (because they aren’t spelled the same). The best advice is to not take it personally…but that is so hard. Thanks for some great advice!

  3. This is a very solid and insightful post, especially for new writers. The one thing I might add is that when you offer criticism, be prepared for blow back. I recently offered (in a group) what I was assured was constructive criticism and was attacked (luckily only verbally) in a very personal way. And that was hard to take.

  4. YAAAY! You quoted me! For any who are curious where my quote came from, i am an online gamer (nerd alert!) and some guy in a game told me he wouldn’t like my writing because women only write “girly icky romance shite”. As i tend to focus on the sick, twisted and mysterious in my writing, i rather took offence to that. He had no idea what i wrote, had never read any of my work, yet decided it was crap based purely on my gender. Grrrr!

    Chris, you have experienced first hand how grumpy i get when i get constructive feedback. Fortunately i get over it quickly. I’m more grumpy and frustrated at all the things that i should have seen myself, rather than anything that is said to me. Once i get over my little temper tantrum i usually revert back to being excited because i know my story will become even better.

  5. Constructive critcism is always something that I’m open to and was in fact a defining factor in one of the most precious friendships I’ve cultivated over these past few years. From someone taking the time to read my work, offer constructive and valid criticisms came a friendship that has gone from strength to strength.

    Constructive criticism, when offered in the right way, can yield some very positive results. If I’d not taken on board the comments of a certain someone, we wouldn’t have cultivated the wondergul friendship we now have.

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