Positive Writer

Writing through doubt and fear, and you can, too!

Surviving Criticism without Losing Confidence in Your Writing

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…

How to deal with criticism.

Criticism

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.

A 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.

Sweet.

She said I also won Best of Show (meaning my book won first place against all the first-prize winners).

Even better.

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.

Ouch.

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.

Bottom line:

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.

Keep writing.

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.

About Marcy McKay

Marcy McKay wanted to write stories ever since she read about Oompa Loompas in fourth grades. She's the Amazon best-selling author of Pennies from Burger Heaven. Join her on Facebook. Marcy is also a contributing author to The Audacity to be a Writer.

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Like a good friend, Bryan guides you through the process of facing your inner demons, conquering the craft, and creating work that matters. ―Jeff Goins
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  • Some great points and suggestions here Marcy! I’d fall into the latter category – I’m an incredibly emotional, personal and honest writer and so hearing such criticism would affect me too much but as you said, each to their own 🙂

    • I couldn’t read the hateful one-star reviews either, Toni Still, that tender-hearted author friend has had to learn to hear criticism nevertheless: from her agent, her editor, etc.

      We all have to learn to deal with it the best we can. Take care and thanks for stopping by PW.

  • Royalwatcher

    Very timely post for me. I’ve been lucky enough to receive very useful feedback from editors who have rejected my work. One issue has been too much ‘telling’. I was having an issue with getting around this problem so I posted on a writing board asking for advice. I posted it for feedback. A couple of people offered useful feedback. A couple took my work and crossed out large passages of ‘telling’. When I tried to incorporate the changes I found the essence of my story was gone. I wasn’t enjoying working on the story. I decided to put their feedback off to the side and rework it on my own. From now on I will take what I feel is useful and ignore the rest!

    • You nailed it. We must take ALL criticism (kind or otherwise) and weigh them against our intuition. So please do, “Take what’s useful and ignore the rest!”

      Outstanding. Best of luck to you!

      • Royalwatcher

        I’ve reworked my stories based on editors feedback and found the stories, in my view, better for it. Now i wish I had waited with submitting because I don’t have another chance for reconsideration there but I wouldn’t have improved my work without that feedback so I just have to move forward and submit elsewhere!

        • A writer is ALWAYS revising his/her work, so you’re right, you can’t resubmit there. Just believe that wasn’t the right home for your story, but be grateful for them helping you make it better.

          Onward and upward!

  • Great reminder for every creative mind.

    We should all work hard to encourage the creative process and make each other better. Unfortunately, I see way too many writers bashing each other unconstructively or just being plain cruel (especially in a place like the Kboards, which I don’t even use anymore because they are so filled with jerks).

    • I agree, Jake, if you find yourself leaving blogs or message board feeling beaten up — that’s no good. That doesn’t help your writing in any way.

      Of course, nobody’s writing is perfect and we all need constructive criticism, but the key word here is CONSTRUCTIVE. You can still say something difficult to someone, but in a positive way. Great insights. Thanks.

  • Bruce Lee has some great words that apply here too:

    “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

    • Ooooh, wisdom for Bruce Lee? What a great way to start my day. I LOVE that: useful, useless + make it your own.

      Thanks, Jake!

  • Harrison Demchick

    Very important post, Marcy! Thanks for writing this.

    I can appreciate this from both sides of the coin. As a writer, my gut reaction to criticism is to disagree, then to reconsider, and then to figure out how to use the criticism to improve the manuscript. The problem-solving is the fun part, and it doesn’t take me too long to get there, but those early moments are not fun. Some friends and I got together a month or so ago for a table read of my newest screenplay, and I got my fair share of criticism and praise. No matter how thick your skin, you always take some of it personally, but in the end, you’re still standing, and you have some very important work to do.

    But I’m also a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, which means that delivering criticism (and praise too, of course) is my job. And I work hard to encourage and support the authors with whom I work, but it’s also my job to be as clear and honest as possible, and I know what that feels like. As a matter of policy, we encourage authors to take at least a week to digest edits like these before signing up for a follow-up call, because writers need that time to process. (I know I do for my own work!)

    The most exciting part, though, is figuring out how to make the manuscript stronger–conveying that to the author and talking through the possible solutions. I *love* reading subsequent drafts. I love seeing authors take that next step. My job is to do everything in my power to get them there–to educate and encourage as well as edit, so that they are in the best possible position moving forward.

    Criticism can be rough, but there’s no other way to get better. And helping authors get better is the most important part of what I do.

    • Royalwatcher

      I have just started submitting my short stories to markets and I have received many rejections. I always appreciate the rare editor who provides me with some form of feedback when returning my work. Some of it has been very detailed too. It isn’t easy to read it at times but instead of being stung by it, I use it to improve my work. I always want to thank them for the feedback but don’t want to clutter their inboxes with it!

      • Harrison Demchick

        Royalwatcher, here’s something really important you may not know: With the quantity of submissions these editors receive, most have neither time nor reason to provide any specific feedback at all. So if you’re receiving specific feedback, then that means that someone saw serious potential in your work.

        In short, it’s a very, *very* good sign.

        • What an awesome insider’s secret to share, Harrison. You rock!

        • Royalwatcher

          Thank you Harrison! I’ve read that getting feedback from busy editors is rare. Which is why I feel very lucky to get it! I’m using the feedback to improve my work. Once I find the right markets, hopefully I will get an acceptance! 🙂

    • Hey there, Harrison,
      I remember you from K.M.’s blog. Great to see you here. I am SO GRATEFUL for your comment since you’re an editor by trade, you truly do understand both sides of the proverbial page.
      You bring up excellent points. When I received my first editorial letter from my literary agent, I cried. I couldn’t even respond to her email for days to even set up a follow-up call. I also wrote her the meanest, nastiest letter with MANY expletives (in a different document, that of course, I never sent).
      This helped me process the initial painful feelings. I also solicited the sage advice of my weekly critique group. In though my agent’s criticism was 100% painful to hear at first, it was given with 100% sincerity to improvement my book, so that helped me.
      Thanks again for your wisdom here @ PW!

      • Harrison Demchick

        Of course! I really like this blog because it holds to the same optimism I do. Writing is a lot of work, but we do it because we love it, and in the end it’s worthwhile and fun. Even after feedback from guys like me.

  • Marcy,
    I appreciated the post. I think taking criticism does get easier when you realize you are not the only one whose work is being criticized. And I would rather have my work out there being criticized then never receiving one bit of criticism because it is safely tucked away in my office, or nestled in a file in my computer. Expect criticism, and remember they are just opinions and everyone has a right to their opinion.

    • What a mature way to look at criticism. You’re perspective is excellent and I’m so grateful you share that with all of us. Thank you!

  • Miriam N

    Hello You :). Wonderful post as always. I think I’m somewhere in the middle of your two writer friends. I long for feed back but in my heart I know that I probably wont’ take a bad/negative comment very well. I hope you are well. Keep writing and don’t forget to have fun with it!

    • Hello back atcha, Miriam! I’m in the middle, too. I always want feedback, but am crushed it it’s EXTREMELY NEGATIVE + EXTREMELY MEAN.
      I always bounce back, but that doesn’t make it any less. However, my victory is that I ALWAYS KEEP WRITING (and yes, have fun with it, as you so aptly said). Thanks!

  • Susan Mary Malone

    GREAT post, Marcy! We all have to learn these things. And funny how we focus on the negative. I had a book come out to fabulous reviews a while back. But it got slaughtered by a reviewer in the local paper (right before a big book signing), which just owned me for a bit. But it was in your number 2: Examine the Content, where I found the gist. And that led me to # 3–letting it go.
    These are all great reminders!

    • Ouch. I hate that your book got slaughtered on your home turf, but appreciate your honesty in sharing that with the rest of us.
      Good for you in rising above it. By the way, CONGRATS on the publication on your book. That’s the real celebration. Thank you.

  • Hi Macy, I’m still working on my writing. I have done #3 on posts I disagree with and then I erase it all. When I do book reviews, I tend to make only positive points and maybe one comment about something I didn’t quite get.
    I hope I can grow skin like a walrus as I write my book (my genre is memoir.)

  • I hope I can grow skin like a walrus. I have been to writing groups who don’t critique at all and I want them to, but not in the ranting uninformed way that person did to you. My genre is memoir and I mean almost 100%. Tough genre! You sound very confident and balanced to me. Keep it up.

    • Hi Annie,
      You made me smile. From here on out, I want to also aspire to growing skin like a walrus just like you mentioned. Love it!
      Memoir is a tough genre, but people connect to REAL stories, so hang in there and keep writing. Good luck to you.

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    I swear, Marcy, you must have installed a hidden camera in my home. hehe It’s almost eerie how every single article of yours is so relevant and timely (to me) #HUGSSS

    A few weeks ago, someone I worked for didn’t use my changes in his final version. Apparently, I didn’t understand his ‘brand’, but he is an amazing guy who is willing to strengthen our relationship and give me future opportunities…

    I bawled for almost two days because this was the first time someone was being so bluntly honest with me. I vented out – cursed a little 😛 – my angst to my closest friend and another charming mentor.

    But I would be lying if I said that experience didn’t hurt my confidence. I am more scared than ever, but I am also more determined than ever to continue honing MY voice (and I do believe my editing was not bad 😛 )

    LOVEE YOUUUUUUU
    Kitto

    • Wow, Kitto. That does sound painful, but I think the way you handled it (cursing, venting, crying) will help you move on faster. I have to add that your client is to be commended. He thought enough of your writing skills to have an awkward conversation, rather than keep his mouth shut and never hire you again.
      And yes, keep honing YOUR voice because it’s the one that matters most to your career.
      Love you, too.

  • Joseph Corlett

    “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.”

    Sorry, but that’s the logical fallacy of relevance, ad hominem circumstantial. The criticizer’s circumstances are irrelevant. You must address their arguments, not their circumstances.

    • Thanks for your two cents. I did not include the judge’s comments for brevity’s sake in this post, but should have included it for clarity. The judge criticized my protagonist’s poor grammar (who was an 11-year old homeless girl). Since I think it’s perfectly reasonable an uneducated child would have poor grammar, I stand by my actions.

      • Joseph Corlett

        Ms. McKay:

        Judging by your reply, I’m not sure you understand my comment. You are advising readers to assess the credentials of those criticizing. Undoubtedly, Larry McMurtry’s criticism of your western fiction means much more than that of your mom, but that doesn’t mean your mom is wrong.

        I would agree with you that your protagonist’s poor grammar was appropriate, but the fact that your critic didn’t read, write, or publish YA is irrelevant.

        • I get what you’re saying, Joseph, but I think the timing was off for the person and her comments. The contest was over and Marcy had just won a number of contest, it was her moment and didn’t deserve it to be spoiled by anyone, even someone who was a judge at another contest. She could have simply stated something like “Contact me if you want more details, enjoy your moment.”
          I’ve met so many self-righteous spoilers and in this particular circumstance that person comes across that way.

  • My biggest thing is getting to the point that I get criticism! My fear of criticism may be part of what holds back me being more forthcoming with my writing. That and I rarely believe others when they tell me I am a great writer. Great article, it’s all about balance, understanding that there will be negativity, it may be warranted in the right context, but learning to focus on the better aspects or using it to make you a stronger writer.

    • Hi Jacquelyn,
      I hope you will risk yourself to get feedback on your writing because that’s how you learn and grow in the craft. Otherwise, you’re just writing for an audience of one — yourself.
      Good luck to you.

  • Any comments from an editor means that the editor is willing to help improve the story. I take this as a good sign that the story has merit, but needs work, at least for this particular editor. I often find that I agree with the suggestions and do revisions and send it again if the editor has asked to see it again with revisions. Otherwise, I’ll submit it elsewhere. If I don’t agree with the suggestions I’ll explain to the editor why. A few times my explanations helped the editor see what she had not seen before, and the story was published as it was originally submitted. The point of criticism is to help improve the story; if the author agrees, then revise, if not, stand firm and submit elsewhere.

    • Wise words, Adelaide. Thank you so much. This was my favorite part: “The point of criticism is to help improve the story; if the author agrees, then revise, if not, stand firm and submit elsewhere.”
      Wonderful!

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  • In the grand, universal scheme of things, there is NO truly great piece of writing. Meaning, you will ALWAYS be able to find someone willing to criticize your work. There has NEVER been a piece of writing that someone couldn’t suggest improving on. And yet we somehow want to believe that our piece will be different, that everyone will be riveted by our words and have not a thing to say about them. Of course this isn’t true. Marcy, you do a good job unbundling the writer’s experience in the face of criticism and for providing tips and suggestions for how writers should respond in a manner that doesn’t destroy their confidence. Cheers, Jay

    • Carl McKever

      I agree Jay. There has to be a balance between bad and good reviews for every author and writer. Any book that is all good, except the Bible, is not really good.

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  • Carl McKever

    Mary,
    This article was timely and needed. I deal with criticism on a weekly to daily basis. I’m a transparent writer with no strings attached, so my words can come off harsh and flamboyant. Other times, I’m calm and collective and my words can come off strong and encouraging. I’m looking for a balance. As you mentioned at the beginning of this article, feedback hurts. Every writer wants to know what their reader thinks. However, it’s important to analyze it and see if they’re trying to help you or hurt you. The longer you deal with rejection and criticism about things you write, the more strategies you come up with to try to cope. When the coping doesn’t work, you feel as if you’re living in a world of misery. At the end of the day, I want to be like Author #1 who laughs it off and let it go. A lot of great advice in this writing piece. Thanks for sharing!

  • I can take crits well, what I wasn’t prepared for was how I felt after not wining a Watty in this years Wattpad writing contest. I know it’s stupid there were over 100k entrys this year and only 10 awards given out. Perhaps I’m more sad that its closed now and that extra push to do better and try harder is gone?