How to learn more from negative feedback

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Most of us don’t like criticism, but as writers we need to learn how to be edited. Here’s a great trick for making negative feedback positive….

When I was writing stories for a national magazine, many years ago, I had one editor who particularly irritated me.

What she did to my stories didn’t bother me. In fact, she was mostly pretty hands off. Nor was she rude, full of herself or overly-assertive — all traits that can get under my skin. Instead, she was sweet and rather quiet. So, what was her big sin?

She was embarrassed about editing. Embarrassed, not embarrassing. She felt reluctant to suggest changes to my stories. And when she made such suggestions, she did it in an overly deferential way. “Do you think you could consider…” she would say, over the phone, sounding like a Grade 8 student begging a favour from someone in Grade 12. Or, “I’m not sure about this, but do you think you could…”

I can no longer remember the specifics of her edits, but I will never forget her tone: tentative, apologetic and doubtful. This attitude is not the kind anyone wants from an editor. Instead, we want feedback from people who feel confident and sound as though they know exactly what they are doing.

We are seldom lucky enough, however, to work with perfect editors. Such a person might bat 1,000 on the following list:

  1. Polite
  2. Kind
  3. Insightful
  4. Thoughtful
  5. Respectful
  6. Concerned about the writer’s growth & development
  7. Highly sensitive to readers’ needs
  8. Patient
  9. Confident
  10. Someone with an ear for clarity

How many editors like that are around? Not very many! Instead, we have to deal with the less-than-perfect people we encounter. This real-life demand sometimes makes us nervous and distrustful of all editors. But the point of my post today is that we can still learn from them, even the unpleasant ones, no matter how much we may dislike their style.

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger Effect? This psychological term refers to people of low ability (in anything — but today we’re talking specifically about writers) who have the impression that they’re actually pretty good at the task. In short, they cannot recognize how incompetent they are at something.

On the other hand — and much more common among writers — are the people who under-estimate their ability to do something. I’ve written about this recently in my post on imposter syndrome.

Overall, as human beings, we’re pretty terrible at evaluating our strengths and weaknesses. But here’s the interesting point: Researchers such as David Dunning (Cornell), Steven Heine (UBC) and Larry Gruppen (Michigan Medical School) have found that both over- and under-confidence tend to arise from the absence of accurate feedback.

So, when you face feedback from any editor, don’t blame them for their style (as I did), no matter how inept. Instead, focus on what you can learn from the exchange.

It’s not always easy to hear negative feedback. Most often, we try to shut it out. Indeed, our bodies do this automatically — we tense, we begin to breathe more rapidly, we start to sweat — and after a very short time, our ears stop listening. Instead, we’re more likely to hear a soundtrack in our heads saying something like: “This person is a jerk. Why do I have to listen to this nonsense? I know way more than they do about this story…” 

If you’re receiving negative feedback, frame it, so it helps you become a better writer in the future. What do I mean by “frame it”? After writing my crappy first draft of this post, I happened to hear an Adam Grant podcast on “How to Love Criticism.”

At the very end of this fascinating show, he offers an easy and super-smart suggestion. Here’s what he says we should all do: After every criticism (or edit) we receive, give ourselves a second score. Our first score is the edit itself, but our second — and far more important score — is how we responded to the edit.

Did we take it with grace and equanimity — no matter how rude or vile the editor might have been? And did we learn something important and measurable that will change our behaviour in the future? If we can answer yes to both of these questions, we’ve become a better writer and likely a better person as well.

I love the idea of a second score because it suggests a second chance — a way of improving a situation that might have been uncomfortable or distasteful and still getting value from it.


My video podcast last week aimed to help writers learn how to edit other people.  Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel.   If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


Have you ever given yourself a second score for how you responded to editing?  We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

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