As writers, we’re told to develop thick skins. The world of writing is full of both wanted and unwanted feedback and criticism. But it is difficult to not let criticism seep into our very beings. Because fiction writers are emotionally attuned, critiques can cut deeply. And sometimes, writers tie their self-worth to the feedback they receive, which only adds more fuel to the imposter syndrome fire.
As a writing professor, I have students who tie their self-worth to grades and whether or not I offer suggestions for improvement. If their work isn’t perfect, then they must be terrible writers. Simply not true. And yet, I wasn’t immune to those feelings myself.
Even though I went to school for writing and became a writing professor, I still struggled with this. After every session with my critique group, I left feeling like I was a bad writer, a fraud, a waste. If I couldn’t write, what had I been doing with my life? And what should I do instead? My constant negative self-talk ate away at me, paralyzed me, made it so I questioned every word I wrote.
One day, everything changed. I was rewriting a manuscript that was my baby, my first novel from years before. I was gutting and improving it. I was also stuck. I had done everything I could to make it better, and I needed help. That month, the looming dread I normally felt to receive a critique was replaced with excitement. I needed to see my work through their eyes so I could improve it, find the holes, and fill them. In that moment, I had a clear view of the purpose of critiques, how to separate my self-worth from them, and when to accept and apply them. And I’ve never looked back.
Here are the five truths I’ve learned:
1) You’ll get bad advice
The first thing to understand is that not all advice is good advice. There are times you will receive critiques that just aren’t worth your time. And that’s okay. Remember that we’re all at different levels and on different writing paths. All you have to do is thank the person for the feedback and then move on.
2) You are in control
There will be times you receive good advice, but it may not work for your end goal. That’s okay, too. You are in complete control over what criticisms or suggestions you implement and which ones you toss aside. You are in control. You have the power. You have the vision for your work, and if their feedback doesn’t align with that, no problem. Just keep moving ahead. Remember that just because someone says you should change something doesn’t mean you have to. It’s your work, not theirs. If you’re happy with it, that’s what matters.
3) You are not your writing
If you get a bad review or negative feedback, just know that you are not your writing. So what if you have issues with shifting point of view? You can fix that. So what if your characters are difficult to connect with? You can fix that. It doesn’t mean you are a bad writer. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. You are more than your writing. Instead, think of your writing as an extension of you and your writing journey, wherever you are. You are not your writing. You’re more than that.
4) Criticism is an opportunity
As writers, we’re all looking for ways to improve, even if deep inside we wished our work was already perfect and ready for publication. Stop seeing criticism as an attack. Instead, see it as the opportunity it is. You get to see your work through the eyes of others. This will give you new perspective and insight. With each critique, you are given opportunities to improve, to adjust, and to pivot. Be Ross in that “Friends” episode. Keep screaming “Pivot!”
Receiving critiques is your opportunity to pivot. Just one tiny pivot can make a world of difference for your overall piece. One small shift in your work can take it miles from where you thought it could go, and it will be better for it.
5) Strength and empathy go hand-in-hand
You don’t have to destroy your empathy in order to develop a thick skin. They can go hand-in-hand. Having a thick skin isn’t about keeping everything out. It’s about evaluating every piece of advice or criticism and determining what is helpful to you and what is harmful. Block the harmful. Embrace the helpful.
Not letting writing critiques hurt is easier said than done. It requires a change of perspective and a lot of practice. Keep reminding yourself that your writing is not a reflection of your worth as a human. Keep telling yourself that a critique is an opportunity for growth. Keep repeating that you will take every opportunity to be a better, stronger writer, and that comes with growing pains. If you say this enough, you’ll start to believe it. And when you start to believe it, that’s where the magic happens.
Charlene Jimenez is an adjunct writing professor for two colleges, a freelance writer, and a mother to twin toddlers. When she’s not writing, she’s reading about it, thinking about it, talking about it, and waiting to write again. And when she’s not doing any of that, she’s trying to squeeze in a nap, because, gosh, darn it, she’s happily exhausted. Find her on her website, Instagram, and Twitter.