How to handle criticism of your writing

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Although H.L. Mencken felt that “criticism is prejudice made plausible,” I believe all writers can learn from criticism they receive. Here’s how: 

How are you at handling criticism? I don’t mean comments about your driving or your housework or your management style. And I particularly don’t mean criticism from your kids. (Anyone who can tolerate that with grace deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for parenting.) I’m talking about criticism of your writing.

I used to have a tall, barrel-chested editor — a Scot — who liked to bark his opinions at me, full volume in the middle of a crowded newsroom. I didn’t like his style — and I never treat anyone that way myself — but it made me almost nonchalant about criticism. I am never offended when anyone tells me they dislike my writing because I have already heard much worse.

If criticism sticks in your craw or gets under your skin, here are seven tips for handling it:

1) Detach. The person is not criticizing you — they’re commenting on your writing. The writing may have come from your brain but the writing is not you; it’s simply a product. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are still a valuable person no matter what anyone says. You are more than a writer; you are a human being. You have worth.

2) Know that your critic is a reader. And you’re writing for readers — so his or her comments reflect a reader’s view. That, by definition, makes the comments useful. Your critic comes to your topic with fresh eyes. Really listen! Try to hear the merits of the criticism. Think about any changes you can make that will address your critic’s concerns.

3) Know that your critic is only one reader.  Your critic’s views may be widely held by others — or they may not. Don’t take the comments as gospel truth; instead, view them as a warning signal that part of your writing may need adjusting.

4) Find more critics. I realize this might sound crazy if you have a hard time accepting criticism but getting comments from more people will be infinitely helpful. For starters, if three people tell you your quotes suck, isn’t that more persuasive than just one person telling you need to get better quotes?

5) Ask questions. If you’re starting to feel threatened by criticism one of the best things you can do is ask lots of questions. This will (a) help you understand exactly what the critic is saying, and (b) make the critic feel appreciated and listened to. Obvious point: this strategy is particularly useful with bosses and clients! Questions to ask: Can you explain what you mean when you said…. What’s an example of….. How would you make this [sentence/paragraph] better? How would you implement the change you’ve suggested…

6) Don’t feel you have to accept every criticism.  There will be times when your critics are wrong — or, simply, different from you — so be sure to use your judgment when weighing which criticisms to accept and which to reject. I like to use the Pareto principle and figure I should accept about 80% of the criticism I receive. If you are writing for a controlling boss, however, you may be stuck with accepting 100%. Recognize that’s the deal you make for your pay cheque and resolve to detach yourself from the criticism (step 1, above.)

7) Thank your critics. I know this may be hard, particularly if the criticisms are harsh but editing is challenging and your critics are doing you a favour – particularly if they don’t cover their comments with roses. Effective criticism, even if it’s hard to take, will make you a better writer.

When I wrote my book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better, I sent a semi-final draft to 16 trusted friends, some of whom were professional writers. I was awestruck by the sensitive, detailed feedback they gave to me. I had pages and pages of notes from them. Of course, I did not accept every single one of their suggestions, but I followed the vast majority. They had made connections that would never have occurred to me and seen things that I had missed. Their value was incalculable.

Thanks again to: Maureen Bayless, Luuk Christaens, Siti Crook, Stephanie Diamond, Philip Eckman, Sharon Gravelle, Bob Janes, Katie Jay, Eve Johnson, Karen Kelm, Catherine Kirkness, Xan McCallum, Janet Nielsen, Mackay Rippey, Noel Rodrigue and David Thacker.

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