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    Five Steps towards Making Peace with Criticism

    “To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
    — Aristotle

    When learning the craft of writing, criticism is vital. It encourages us to strive for higher standards.

    And yet, despite this benefit, even constructive criticism can be distressing. It makes you see weaknesses in your work that you previously overlooked. Nobody enjoys seeing their failings in the cold light of day — you feel vulnerable.

    When criticism is unreasonable, it can damage your confidence as a writer. You can start chasing shadows, looking for faults where there are none. You can forget the fun of writing.

    It’s tempting to shoot the messenger. There are few writers who haven’t felt personally insulted after receiving criticism — some will have thrown all their toys out of their pram once or twice.

    If you’ve received criticism and are not a Buddhist monk, you’ll know the feeling.

    In this post I want to describe why people feel insulted by criticism and how you can develop a healthier attitude towards it.

    Why Do People Feel Insulted by Criticism?

    The simple answer is that writers confuse criticism of their work for criticism of themselves as a person. So to say that your writing is no good is to say that you’re no good period. This is blatantly hogwash.

    Why does poor writing make you no good as a person? Because you’re attached to the idea of yourself as a writer. Your self-worth is contingent on your belief in that idea. To attack the idea is to attack you.

    At the heart of the matter is a fear that you are inadequate. You’re scared that you’re not good enough.

    Someone who isn’t attached to the idea of themselves as an accomplished writer, if presented with evidence that they’re not as good as they thought, will simply correct their opinion of themselves. The stronger your attachment to an idea that criticism threatens, the less palatable it will be.

    How to Accept Criticism

    The key to peacefully accepting criticism is hold more realistic beliefs about criticism, your writing, and yourself.

    (1) Accept your fallability — You should accept that you, like any other writer, can learn more about your craft. You should approach writing like a beginner: be eager to learn and open to criticism. I suspect that the best writers will hold this attitude. Arrogance can halt your progress as a writer.

    (2) Expect and welcome criticism — If anyone reads your writing, you should welcome criticism whether you ask for it or not. You should also expect that not all criticism will be constructive and useful.

    (3) Consider the message not the messenger — You should solely focus on the point made. Everything else is irrelevant. How the criticism is phrased is irrelevant. “In one word: prolix. You utter dumbass.” could be a good criticism. The source of the criticism is also irrelevant.

    (4) Think practically — You should concentrate on tangible lessons you can learn or steps you can take to improve your writing. This is your goal and you shouldn’t be distracted from it. It may be something general like proofreading your work more carefully, or it may be more specific like looking out for ambiguous sentences. Getting upset is pointless. As Sherlock Holmes notes, “Don’t snivel, Mrs. Hudson. It will do nothing to impede the flight of a bullet.”

    (5) Only hold fast that which is good — If there is nothing you can learn or no changes your can make in response to a criticism, then dismiss it. Getting angry at the inept critic achieves nothing. Throwing a self-pity party also achieves nothing.

    Conclusion

    Everytime you notice a new imperfection in your writing, you become a better writer. If anything, it is a moment to be celebrated. Your ignorance isn’t bliss for your readers.

    Remember the power words can have. Words have been responsible for great armies and empires. They can encapsulate the vast body of human knowledge. They can make people laugh one moment and then cry the next.

    Criticism is a great way to improve your skills as a writer. Embrace it.

    A guest post by Mark Milan who is a freelance writer from the UK. He blogs about freelancing and writing at http://markmilan.net/.

     

     

    About the author

      Mark Milan

    • Tina says:

      It’s all about humility. As a good friend of mine once said, “I’m a very humble person and know all about humility. I have a room full of trophys on it.”

      Our own egos turning into the golden egg will eventually result in cracking open the gem inside.

      my quote

    • Liz says:

      Hi Mark,

      I don’t like criticism. I don’t think anyone loves it, but I’ve learned to accept it because I’ve learned more from my critics than I have from just about anyone. True statement 🙂

      The key to accepting criticism, I think, is not to let it make you feel unworthy or inadequate. You have control over those feelings, so don’t let them control you. Move on, learn from it and be a better person for it.

      Not always easy but worth the effort.

      Liz 🙂

    • Kayla says:

      I think that I’m like anybody and that I feel a lot of disappointment when I am criticized. I especially feel frustrated when I realize I haven’t communicated what I’ve wanted. I’ve also noticed that the pieces that I’ve worked the hardest on tend to get less positive response and the pieces I just “put together” are the ones that are praised. However, how do you know when a criticism is intended to help? Sometimes I get the feeling that someone just doesn’t like my style or doesn’t like the type of things that I write. This is what I struggle with, knowing when to take criticism seriously. Because sometimes you’ll have two people tell you the opposite thing about the same piece.

    • It gets difficult when you write for lots of people and one day one person has a problem with what you’ve given them. I tend to believe that you can learn if there are many mistakes, things like grammar issues, but when it comes to someone that might not like your style the only thing you learn is that not everyone likes your style. That doesn’t make someone a bad writer, just someone who doesn’t appeal to everyone.

      It was one of those types of issues I had with Demand Studios so many years ago. Trying to fit within what they considered as good writing was tough. In the end, I had to realize that wasn’t my style of writing because it was too confining; happens sometimes.

    • amourdange says:

      Great message! At some point in our life we need to face criticisms for us to strive better. Thank you for posting this. It is indeed very helpful and worth reading.

    • PJ Reece says:

      When I get a wave of positive response, I then believe that the work is good, causing me to doubly anticipate further praise, so that when I receive criticism, the pain is worse. What a strange species we are.

    • Hey Mark – a great post. Your really got me thinking about how I frame criticism in my brain (and how my ego reacts accordingly).

      As a copywriter, I handle “feedback” from clients extremely well. They are paying me and a good result is what I focus on so anything that can guide me to a good result (from their point of view) is positive. Even when their comments aren’t actually that helpful.

      But then I considered the scenario of receiving “feedback” from someone I respect and/or like and I think this is where I would feel the pain more deeply. Whether I felt mortified or insulted would probably come down to how it was delivered. Either way, I always try and force myself to look at it as a chance to ‘step up; and improve.

      Once I’ve had a sulk I mean!

    • This is a great article! I WANT readers to comment, criticize if they feel it is necessary, offer a constructive critique if they are capable of doing so– and thereby encourage me to BE a better writer. A critique isn’t necessarily criticism, and criticism sure is NOT a critique. A constructive critique is helpful, blatant criticism by an insecure, unhappy reader means absolutely nothing.

      • Mark Milan says:

        Thank Raymond!

        Anyone who criticises my work, I encourage them to do their worst — that way, I learn the most, even if it is the least pleasant. I think criticism can be like that sometimes: there is a difference between what we want and what we need.

    • “Traditional delusions of grandeur: to think somebody reads you”. I have just heard this phrase by TV, during deputies disputes around some law amendments.
      Isn’t is the worse type of criticism – you ask for feedback and people seem absolutely uninterested? When there is mockery – it is nice, you at least provoked reactions. When there is rudeness – it is understandable, you provoked strong emotions. When a critic leaves no stone unturned in your writing – it is perfect, he was so interested that spent a lot of time to work thoroughly in your text.
      But what to do with the absence of interest? Would you throw your piece out of the window immediately or would you put in on the back burner to see if something may grow from it?

      • Mark Milan says:

        Thanks for the comment Olga!

        I think good criticism can be hard to find, but there are plenty of people willing to criticized your work if you’re willing to be proactive about finding them. You could join a local writing group like Heather mentions above.

    • Mark,

      Wonderful choice of topic. You are so right! Not just writers, but most people take criticism personally.

      Apart from identifying with one’s self-image as a writer (great point!), being unable to take criticism also shows how attached we are to our own point of view. If we could step into someone else’s s hoes, and be aware that the person has a unique personality and a different set of experiences from ours, it would be easier to take criticism.

      But it needs that split second of awareness, before we respond, instead of react.

      I look forward to reading more from you.

      • Mark Milan says:

        Thanks Vinita!

        I think it is as you say: the problem is often caused by our unconscious reaction to criticism. Bringing a little awareness along helps enormously.

    • Thank you so much for posting this. Your points were so valid. I’m currently in the ‘rewire my brain’ process of welcoming criticism rather than becoming defensive or depressed over it. I especially appreciated your last point, ‘hold fast that which is good.’ As I let go of my ego and care more about my readers than myself, I allow myself to become a better writer. Again, thanks for this post!

    • Wendy Reid says:

      I had such a hard time with this when I started getting reviews on my first novel. Most reviews (not that there have been many) have been quite good, but 2 of them were quite negative. One I considered downright rude, but I took something from it anyways and right now, I am working with a friend to polish it even more. It took me quite a while to stop feeling inadequate and angry and start to look at what the negative review was actually saying, regardless of the manner in which it was delivered.

      I really enjoyed this post. Thank you. 🙂

      • Mark Milan says:

        Thanks Wendy! I like your example of the rewards of criticism, even if it stings at first.

    • Heather says:

      Great post Mike. I relate to #2 to Expect and Welcome Criticism. I have directed a writing group for several years and as part of the writing process we discuss things that we loved about the piece and review spots that gave us trouble.

      In business writing I work with an editor and always appreciate a close read – criticism can be tough especially if it’s delivered in a heartless manner. I found that when I surround myself with fellow writers who have a genuine interest in helping me progress as a writer, criticism is expected and welcomed.

      • Mark Milan says:

        I’ve never been part of a writing group, but I imagine as everyone understands what receiving criticism can be like, people are more careful about how they phrase their criticism. For those that have difficulty with criticism, that probably makes it a good environment to start seeking criticism.

        Thanks Heather!

    • Karen says:

      I was so bad at taking criticism when I started out, but I got over it by taking a few correspondence courses (yes I’ve been writing so long they were correspondence courses not online courses). I learned that the criticism from my tutors was not only well meaning – it was brilliant. The first time I re-wrote a piece and turned it into something that was 100% better was a lightbulb moment. Constructive criticism (at least in the freelance writing arena) is your best friend. I recently got my first professional critique in a long time (of a novel I’m writing) and it was actually an exciting moment. I’ve actually got to the point where I love feedback (positive and negative) and see it purely as a way to make my writing better. But man, it took a long time to get there.

      • Mark Milan says:

        As you say, if you have trouble accepting criticism, I don’t think you can’t expect to conquer it overnight. It takes time. I guess this comes down to having realistic expectations concerning criticism.

        Thanks Karen!

    • Great message. Writing is part of who we are and so we need to look at criticism precisely as you have done. However, critics are sometimes way out there, not understanding the writing process.

      Writers truly help other writers. I go to the University of Iowa writing workshops frequently just to be around other writers. It helps block out statements like these from someone who has never written:
      “You are writing a novel? Oh how fun. I always wanted to do that.” Like writing a novel takes a week or two!!

      Thank, Mark

      • Mark Milan says:

        I think it’s fair to say that criticism from one good writer is probably better than criticism from ten average writers. Good criticism can be hard to find.

        Thanks Beth!

    • I agree wholeheartedly! This is something I as an editor deal with on a daily basis. I love your conclusion. Great post!

    • Susan says:

      Such sage advice from one so young! I’m going to print this out and pin it to my cork board so I can see it after another client flogging. But it’s also a timely reminder that my words are powerful, too, and, if I want to be treated more softly (because there are many ways to deliver honest criticism), then I have to be prepared to treat others in the same way.

    • Vivian says:

      A much-needed piece of advice as I launch forth on a whole new career! One of the paralyzing thoughts is “What will people think?” So having this reminder at the outset is truly vital. (I am still working on developing my website, having hit “publish” before I ever knew what I was doing–& I am still learning.)

      • Mark Milan says:

        Thanks for the comment Vivian. Good luck with your blog!

    • Mark Milan says:

      Thanks Bonnie!

    • Bonnie House says:

      Your post today was again a reminder that don’t take things so personally when someone criticizes but S’s that they are helping me to become a better writer. Thank you for sharing this good information.

      Bonnie

    • I absolutely love this, Mark!!! I actually welcome criticism when it comes to my writing because I know that it can ONLY make me better 🙂

      Also, I receive a number of guest post requests for my blog and almost 99% of the time, I have to provide constructive criticism – which isn’t easy to do if you’ve never met the person you’re giving it to. I am seriously considering linking to this post every time I send out my thoughts on their writing. Love this! (Just had to say it again!)

    • Belle says:

      I’m bad at accepting criticisms whether it’s said in front of my face or in writing. But worse is I just keep the anger or sadness to myself. But when I started my freelance writing career and read hundreds of posts from other writers, I started to critic my own self so I can improve. I know I’m still a work in progress but picking at myself has made me ready to accept reprimands from others. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

      • Mark Milan says:

        It helps me to take a walk when things are getting on top of me, whether it be from criticism or something else. Afterwards, I find I can look at things with a more balanced state of mind.

        Thanks for the comment!

    • Great post! Very timely,as I’m going through line edits and finding mistakes even after my manuscript has been combed through four times over! Laughing at yourself helps with the biggest critic – yourself! Cheers!

      • Mark Milan says:

        I’m looking over my guest post and spotting things I would change!

        Thanks for the comment Sharon!

    • Vidya Sury says:

      🙂 I remember going through that feeling of inadequacy when I began my freelance writing career. I was so used to people loving what I wrote that when I actually took it up as a career, I was surprised at the criticism. But I am grateful to my friend and coordinator who consoled, praised and explained why writing online content is a whole new ballgame. Today I am especially grateful for the wonderful support I received that has helped me improve and continues to help me improve. It is important as you said, Mark, to keep an open mind and welcome criticism. I’ve learned so much by doing that.

      Enjoyed reading your post.

      • Mark Milan says:

        When I first got criticism from my freelance clients, it would take the fun out of writing for me. Projects that I would have usually enjoyed became difficult and arduous.

        That still happens to me from time to time, but I’m much better at dealing with it now. It’s a shame that we cannot learn to accept criticism gracefully overnight.

        Glad you enjoyed my post!


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