If you’re a writer who has ever shared his or her work with anyone else, then you have probably had to deal with criticism at some point. Whether it is from a friend, a member of your writer’s group, your editor, or some stranger on the Internet, you have probably received at least a little criticism, even if the critic in question only pointed out a small typo.
Most writers will tell you they are okay with criticism, yet I’ve seen how defensive writers can get over their work when anyone dares to criticize it. I myself have fallen into this trap before, probably because I secretly wanted to be told how great my story was, instead of where it fails and how I can improve, which is what constructive criticism is all about.
Yet learning how to handle criticism is, well, critical for all writers serious about improving their craft. I believe one of the major reasons I have improved as much as I have over the years is because I’ve had a few people — some friends, some not — bluntly tell me when my stories sucked. If I just put my hands over my ears and yelled “Lalalala I’m not listening!” I would probably not be even half as good as I am now.
Don’t get me wrong. Critics aren’t infallible. They can be mistaken. They can misinterpret your work. They can point out problems that really aren’t problems. They can be inarticulate in their criticism, especially those who don’t usually give out criticism. And sometimes, critics do slam your work for no reason other than to make you feel bad or make themselves feel superior to you.
What you need to develop is a way to distinguish between constructive criticism and what I call destructive criticism. Constructive criticism is meant to help you. The critic wants to see your work get better and wants to see you improve as a writer. Constructive criticism can be blunt and even harsh, but it is ultimately coming from a place of concern and should be listened to, even if you don’t agree with all or most of it.
Destructive criticism, on the other hand, is designed to destroy you. Destructive criticism will sometimes point our real problems in your works, but most of the time a destructive critic is out for your blood. Their criticism is rarely based in logic, reason, or the text of the work itself. They are often far more extreme than their constructive cousins and should generally be ignored if possible.
In short, the difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism is the difference between “Your story sucks and this is why” and “Your story sucks and you’re an idiot and should never write again.”
Both forms of criticism are difficult to deal with, as they can sound very similar at times. The trick is replying to them in a respectful and professional manner. You have to keep your feelings — generally pride and anger — from controlling you.
My usual tactic is to wait before replying. I will read my critic’s comment, but will refrain from responding for at least a day. It’s rarely necessary to respond immediately anyway. You will usually make yourself look bad if you reply while in the thrall of your emotions.
After my emotions have simmered down, I read the criticism again. If it is at all constructive, I will thank the critic for pointing out problems I myself failed to notice when self-editing. If I disagree, I will explain why in a respectful and logical manner. If I really can’t respond without making things worse, then I will simply thank the critic and move on.
The writer who can deal with criticism professionally is going to have an easier time getting into the business than a writer who shouts and screams at anyone who doesn’t like his work. Therefore it is important to develop your own methods of handling criticism. This is how I do it.
Do you have any useful tips for dealing with criticism — constructive and destructive — in a professional and respectful manner? Share them in the comments below.