The most hurtful critique I ever received came from a well-meaning uncle who, after reading my first published novel, spent an hour on the phone picking it apart. The first thing I did after hanging up was to yell a few choice words I can’t repeat here.
Unfortunately, as soon as I finished yelling I began questioning myself. Maybe my uncle was right. Maybe my adjectives were too flowery. Maybe I hadn’t accurately described the spread of a house fire. Maybe my characters were unlikeable.
I eventually moved beyond my reaction to his unsolicited criticism. Thankfully, his words came at a time when I had already been writing and editing professionally for many years. I had graduated long ago from an undergraduate program in creative writing and currently belonged to a critique group. My skin was already thick. I can only imagine how my uncle’s words would have shredded my self-assurance earlier in my career.
Receiving criticism—both solicited and unsolicited—is an inevitable part of sharing your writing with the world. Whether you’re a new writer or an experienced one, the feedback won’t always be fun to hear. Here are five things I do to get the most out of the input I receive without letting it shatter my confidence.
1) Rage, rant, swear, grieve, cry
As silly as I might have sounded yelling into an empty room after talking to my uncle, I had to release the initial emotion (in my case, anger). And I had to allow myself to experience the feeling that followed: that I had no business publishing a book or even being a writer. The key was to avoid becoming attached to the feelings.
First, let the feelings happen. Then move on, which is easier said than done. The next four suggestions may help with this.
2) Consider the source
My uncle was an architect. He was an intelligent and curious man. However, he was a reader, not a writing teacher or a literary critic. Even if he’d been a reviewer for a major publication, his criticism would still represent his opinion. In contrast to the profession of architecture, where you can measure objectively whether the house is level or the beam fits, there’s no universal standard by which to assess writing
What about criticism from people you believe are qualified to comment on your writing? It’s one thing for your architect uncle to point out flaws in your work. It’s quite another for your critique group or an editor you’ve hired to do so. Remember, however, that their observations are still opinions, albeit opinions you may respect and consider seriously.
Author Donna Levin recently gave great advice at a presentation to a writer’s club: “If anything I say today causes you to want to stop writing, ignore it.” I recommend the same approach to criticism. If any feedback you hear causes you to want to stop writing, ignore it.
3) Give yourself time and distance—but not too much
A couple of years ago, my publisher returned the final draft of my second novel with a recommendation for substantial restructuring. My initial response? Indignance! How could my publisher want me to write seemed to be a different book than the one I intended? Riding the cycle of outrage, denial, grief, and acceptance that followed took about a month. I didn’t attempt to edit during that month, and when I revisited the suggestions, I saw their validity. Now I’m grateful for that input, which made the book much stronger.
Does absorbing criticism get easier with subsequent books? Not really. Author Kourtney Heintz describes her feelings about revising in a blog post: “In case you were wondering, I don’t get better at processing feedback. I get quicker. The same grueling emotional experience applies–just at a much faster pace.”
Give yourself breathing room. Don’t, however, let negative feedback be your excuse for abandoning a project or, worse yet, abandoning writing altogether.
4) Cultivate writing champions
When you seek editorial feedback to improve your writing, you don’t want yes-readers who will uncritically adore every word. But sometimes you do want unconditional adulation—from a friend, a fellow writer, or even a relative. In this case, the point of the feedback is not to help you improve your work but to build a storehouse of positive self-worth that becomes armor against negativity.
My writing partner is one my biggest sources of support and confidence. We share our experiences of receiving criticism and remind one another to acknowledge our feelings and move on, consider the source, and give ourselves time and distance.
Writing can be a lonely business. You need people on your side. Find allies.
5) Remind yourself: you are not your writing
As difficult as it can be to remember that you are separate from your creative output, it’s true. You exist apart from the words you put on the page. You may be a mother, a father, a daughter, a co-worker, a boss, an animal lover, a chef… you get the idea.
If you find yourself identifying too closely with negative feedback about your writing, list three things you feel proud of accomplishing in other areas of your life. Seeing that you are more than your words lessens the sting of criticism.
Bonus: Read inspiring books about writing. Some of my favorites are: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler, and a new favorite, Fearless Writing by William Kenower.
Audrey Kalman writes literary fiction with a dark edge, often about what goes awry when human connection is missing from our lives. She is the author of two novels: What Remains Unsaid (Sand Hill Review Press, 2017) and Dance of Souls (2011), both available on Amazon. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of print and online journals and she is at work on another novel. Connect on Twitter, Facebook, or via her website.