How to Handle Criticism: 3 Strategies to Make Criticism Work for You

You invest a lot of yourself in your writing, and putting your creative work in front of others is scary. Your mind floods with questions like, What if they don’t like it? What if they think I’m dumb? What if I’m no good at this? And what if someone doesn’t like it? Do you know how to handle negative criticism?

Here Come the Rocks and Rotten Tomatoes

No doubt about it, folks. Publishing is a courageous act. When you send out submissions, you set yourself up for rejection from publishers. When you share your story in a writers’ group, you open yourself to negative feedback from peers.

When you publish a book or post on a blog or put something up on social media, you become subject to emails, comments, and reviews — and sometimes that includes destructive criticism. As a writer, for better and worse, you gain exposure in the public arena. And that means a criticism.

3 Strategies for How to Handle Criticism

Makes you want to don a suit of armor, doesn’t it? But what if, instead of avoiding the negative feedback, you could actually put it to work for you? Make it friend, rather than foe?

I’ve been thinking and studying on this for several weeks, and I’d like to share three strategies that could help you harness criticism to drive your success. Here’s how to foster a more effective reaction to criticism:

1. Practice Rejection

A couple years ago, Tim Grahl released a book called, Running Down A Dream. The book is a truthful look at the sort of struggles we go through as creatives. In one chapter, Tim tells the story of Jia Jiang.

When Jia was a young boy in school, his teacher conducted a class activity where the children would say something they liked about each student. When it was Jia’s turn, he stood in front of a silent classroom. No one had anything good to say about him.

He was so devastated by this experience that it followed him into adulthood. Until he decided to face his fear of rejection head-on. He came across Jason Comely’s Rejection Therapy Game. The game has one rule: for thirty days you have to be rejected by someone, at least once, every single day.

The first day, Jia asked a stranger to loan him $100. He was surprised to find it wasn’t a big deal when the person turned him down. He went on for a hundred days, asking to be a greeter at a coffee shop, to give a lecture at a college, to play soccer in someone’s backyard, and being rejected more often than not.

That’s some powerful therapy

Imagine the perspective he gained through this exercise, the impact this had on his emotional intelligence. He used the helpful feedback to his advantage, allowing him to acquire greater empathy and learn strategic ways to ask for things.

But the best lesson he learned is that rejection is not something you have to be afraid of. He crafted a response to criticism that served his interest.

Tim ended the chapter with this: “If you practice getting rejected, the pain you experience with each subsequent rejection lessens. —Tim Grahl

I’m not suggesting you should go out and actively seek rejection (though apparently there’s some benefit to that). I am suggesting a change in attitude towards criticism. It’s a good idea to prepare for rejection and destructive criticism, for it’s sure to come your way.

Preparation is a great first step in handling criticism effectively.

An important principle to remember is this: it’s your work under the microscope — not you. The writing, not the writer.

With your writer hat on, you should fully engage with your work, emotionally. But when it’s time to put on the editor, publisher, and marketer hats, you’ll perform better if you can manage an emotional separation, allowing you to consider criticism more objectively, mining the gold, and discarding the dross.

For more on this, see Sue Weems’s excellent article on How To Plan for Writing Rejection.

2. Consider the Source

It makes an enormous difference where the criticism is coming from. Depending on the source and type of feedback, it should be examined and filtered in different ways.

Criticism from a random stranger, such as a bad review on Amazon or a negative comment on a blog post, can probably be safely ignored unless it becomes a common theme in the feedback you receive. You have no way of knowing if the person has any expertise or authoritative experience driving their criticism. Without that, it’s just one person’s opinion, without a leg to stand on.

Criticism from family and friends warrants a huge grain of salt. There’s usually too much emotional history there to be reliably objective. It’s complicated.

Vibes from the tribe

Criticism from your tribe, your writers’ support group, is something to treat carefully. In such a situation, I suggest looking for each reader’s response to your story, rather than advice on how to repair any problems they perceive. And remember, that response — how one reader experienced your story — is individual and stems from that reader’s personal taste.

Having a tribe is paramount. There’s a tremendous amount to be gained as a member of a writing community. In your tribe, expect to get honesty, support, camaraderie, and any number of other benefits. But you shouldn’t necessarily expect a professional action plan for fixing your work.

Recognize that others in the group are coming from a place of wanting to help you grow as a writer, and be willing to extend the same courtesy. But realize that most members are struggling to learn the craft themselves. They’re at a point where they really can only give their personal reaction to the writing, not an expert opinion or actionable advice about how to fix it.

Pain from the pros

And then there’s criticism from writing professionals. This has the most weight behind it and can therefor knock you flat, if you’re not prepared. Or boost you up, if you are. This is where you can really listen and learn, using their constructive feedback to move you to a whole new level with your writing.

Here’s how to handle criticism from professionals: When you find an editor or mentor that you trust, do what they say. There’s little point in getting expert advice if you’re not going to follow it. If you defend against their every suggestion and rationalize every one of your choices, they’ll soon tire of working with you.

And don’t forget to cut yourself some slack. Accept that you’re not going to hit it out of the park every single time. Be prepared for constructive criticism and receive it with gladness. Struggle and failure are part of the process, not an indication that your efforts are doomed.

3. Combat Self-Criticism

You’ve heard it said that we are our own worst critics, and you’ll get no argument from me on that score. We tend to magnify our own imperfections and often, instead of using them to motivate improvement, we let them immobilize us.

So here’s something you can do with a choice piece of self-inflicted unfair criticism — flip it on its head. I’m going back to Running Down A Dream for this. Do what Tim did when he caught himself thinking thoughts like “You’re never going to be good at this” and “This is a complete waste of time.” He said:

I started trying to pay attention to my thoughts as they came in. If I saw a particularly negative thought making repeat appearances, I would write down the thought and then come up with an affirmation to directly combat it.

Gotta love the Z man

Tim had been using Zig Ziglar’s affirmations to help overcome his doubts and fears. He added two affirmations that apply nicely to us, as writers:

  1. I give grace to myself and accept that perfection is not the goal; only truth.
  2. I am proud of being a writer and consider it an honor to serve the world in this way.

By taking a negative thought and reversing it, we can use the criticism to empower us, motivate us, and fuel our enthusiasm for the work we’re doing.

The Joy of Criticism

So, take a deep breath and give thanks for the criticism. It really is an amazing thing to be able to create stories and share them with the world. When we engage in such mighty endeavors, criticism is sure to come. As well as gratitude, delight, and reader satisfaction.

The bitterness of criticism only serves to make the accolades all the sweeter.

How about you? Do you use any other strategies for how to handle criticism?

By Joslyn Chase


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