When it happens, you feel like the flesh has been ripped from your body, leaving your heart exposed, helpless and raw. Shame courses through your veins. You question your talents as a writer. You wonder if you should start over, or quit altogether. The only detail you’re quite sure of is how wounded you feel.
The nightmare experience I’m describing is…
If you’re going to let another living, breathing human being read your writing, then you must learn to deal with this challenge. Especially, if publication is your ultimate goal.
Family, friends and complete strangers will feel they have the right to pass judgment over your work – both online and to your face.
Why Criticism Feels so Personal
Every writer knows how each word comes from deep inside you, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. You share the essence of you – your thoughts, feelings, knowledge or imagination bleeds onto the page.
You soak in praise from others, so it’s hard not do the same with disapproval – to absorb the pain like a poison. If you take that negativity personally, it can destroy your self-confidence. So much so some writers never pick up a pen again. They give up on their hopes and dreams forever.
As a writer, if you take negativity personally, it can destroy your self-confidence. (Click to Tweet)
I don’t want that to happen to you.
I want to help you find a better way to deal with this important part of the process because we do need feedback on our work. Both as we’re still creating our art, but not ready to send it out into the world, as well as from readers after we’re done. That’s true whether it’s just a select few you let read it, sitting on a bookshelf somewhere in a chain store, or to be downloaded online.
Funny Thing Happened at the Conference
I’ve been writing for years, so I’ve experienced more than my fair share of jabs. In 2010, my novel, Pennies from Burger Heaven, won Best Mainstream Novel at the Texas Writers’ League’s annual manuscript contest/conference. Winning first prize meant I earned a free ten-minute meeting with the literary agent who judged my category.
I felt so proud as I stepped down from the winners’ podium. The entire ballroom applauded all the winners like we were rock stars. My cell phone rang, so I stepped into the lobby to answer it.
The caller was an acquaintance from my local writers’ organization. Their annual conference was that same weekend, and I knew I’d won an award in their contest, but didn’t know what.
She told me Pennies had won Best Mainstream novel.
She said I also won Best of Show (meaning my book won first place against all the first-prize winners).
However, she did point out that my book did not win the Young Adult category, which she had judged, then proceeded to tell me every detail wrong with my story.
The room began to spin. Her words punched my gut as if she was telling me how ugly, wretched and awful my newborn baby looked.
Fortunately, I had enough years of experience to handle the situation. Since that author does not write, read or publish YA, I just thanked her for the call and said I had to go discuss my award-winning novel with an agent, then hung up.
A Tale of Two Authors
I have two friends who are traditionally-published authors. Both women have written multiple novels and have earned six-figures for their books. However, each responds to criticism quite differently.
Author #1 scours Amazon, Goodreads and anywhere else for her reviews, whether they are songs of five-star praise, or one-star haters. She laughs hysterically about the horrible remarks people make about her.
Author #2 knows her heart cannot stand to read anything less than a four-star review. It upsets her too much and affects her writing, so she limits reading about herself. (I would fall into this category, too).
Neither author is right or wrong. They just each handle the situation in her own way.
Here are three steps to help you handle criticism, while still maintaining both your dignity and your sanity.
1. Consider the Source
• Contest judges, writing instructors, professors, published authors, agents, editors, fellow writers – everyone is just expressing their opinion. Yes, pay closer attention to industry experts, those who write within your genre, or people with years of experience. They have much to teach you. However…
• There are exceptions to every rule. Even industry experts can be mistaken. I heard agents and editors once at a conference say all weekend how you should hook your readers within the first 20 pages, but then pointed out how The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo challenged that thinking. It was just ho-hum the first 175 pages, then exploded.
• Sadly, some people are just plain cruel. If they trash everyone, or play favorites in your writing group or class, ignore them. They have nothing helpful to offer you anyway. If possible, get as far away as possible from them.
2. Examine the Content
• Just because someone slams your writing, even in a hateful way, does not mean they are wrong, or somehow against you. This sounds like a contradiction to #1, but it’s not. The problem with criticism isn’t always what it said, but how it is said.
• Step back. You may need time and space for a clearer perspective from the critique. When I finally signed with a literary agent, my manuscript bled so much painful red ink, I wondered, ‘Does she even like my book?’ No, she loved it and was trying help me make it even stronger. It took me awhile (two or three weeks of crying) to see that fact. I ended up agreeing with almost 90% of what she said, and changed the parts that rang true for me.
3. Let it Go
• Easier said than done. If you cannot move on from your anger or sadness after a while (days or weeks), try writing a nasty letter to that person (which will never be sent). Tell him/her exactly how you X@#% feel! This helps release the negative energy, so you can refocus on your writing again.
• You may need enlist assistance from those in your inner circle to help you regain perspective. They can read/listen to the comments in a calmer, more unbiased way.
Criticism can hurt and may always sting at first. Every criticism is not bad, but it may not be helpful, either.
You have to measure the comments against your instincts. Only you know the true vision for your work. The secret is to not let criticism destroy your self-confidence so much that you give up on your dream altogether.
Have you ever felt attacked by criticism? How did you respond? Share in the comments.
This post was written by Positive Writer contributor Marcy McKay. Leave a comment and let her know if you liked it.