Let Criticism Make You Better

When Lisa and I began plotting to launch this blog, we considered the name “The Thick-Skinned Writer.” To us, it summed up what it takes to survive as a freelancer or an author. You’re going to face bad reviews, rejections from editors, constructive criticism from peers, and censure from friends and family who don’t understand your job. And, as Lisa wrote in a previous blog, you have to take it like a man (even if you’re a woman).

Once you do that, you can actually use criticism to help make you a better writer (and, dare I say it, a more patient person).

Take a Deep Breath and Walk Away

You’re not objective immediately after receiving criticism. They’ve attacked your abilities. They’ve attacked your “baby.” What do they know anyway? They don’t get what you’re trying to do.

The person who pointed out a weakness in your work hurt your feelings. You might have thought you wanted them to point out your flaws and tell you how to improve, but secretly you wanted them to tell you how great your work already was. We try to protect ourselves by refusing to accept that there’s any merit in what they’ve said.

Even after all the time we’ve been critiquing each other’s work and writing together, Lisa and I still have that initial reaction of I liked it better the way it was. We expect the other one to tear our work apart, deconstruct it if need be. We want them to because we’ve learned from experience how much better our writing is for it. And yet, we still balk. We can’t help it. We’re human. What we’ve learned is to stop and set it aside before responding. Usually, when we come back afterward, we find that the criticism had merit.

You need time and distance to gain objectivity. The longer you work at it, the thicker your skin will grow and the quicker you’ll be able to transition from criticism to improvement.

Separate Helpful Advice from Harmful Advice

Part of using criticism to improve is knowing which criticism is helpful and which is harmful.

Harmful Type #1: The Irate Reader

This person read what you wrote, and they’re so offended by it that they had to write a long, scathing letter to the editor (or you) outlining everything that they feel you said and did wrong. They’ll pick on your facts. They’ll pick on your objectivity. They’ll pick on your character. (I once received feedback on an article suggesting that I’d lost the ability to discern right from wrong.) Ignore them. You can’t please everyone. Not to mention, for every irate reader, there’s probably another reader who agreed with everything you said.

Harmful Type #2:  The Novice

I’m about to burst a bubble. Please don’t hate me for it. Excellent writing isn’t about talent. Yes, some people have more talent than others and they improve more quickly, but the best writing comes from people who put in the hard work necessary to learn and practice their craft. Even Lisa the rule breaker (you know I love you too, Lee) will tell you that there are some writing rules you shouldn’t break. If you want to write well, you need to follow them. End of story, turn off the TV, go to bed.

The point of that rant is this: Take any advice you get from a novice with a grain of salt. Their criticism might have merit, but it might not because sometimes they just don’t have enough experience. Here’s my word of warning about writer’s groups. They can be immensely helpful, but they need to include writers at all stages of their career and levels of experience. Otherwise, it’s like a bunch of infants trying to teach each other to talk.

Most importantly, reject all criticism you get from a perpetual novice. This is the person who’s been at it for years, isn’t making any progress, and doesn’t accept advice from industry professionals. They know they’re right and unwilling to consider they might be wrong. In my opinion, if you want the right to dish it out, you have to first be willing to take it.

So what counts as helpful criticism?

  • An editor gives you input on an article or asks you to change something. They’re a professional and they want their magazine to be the best.
  • A paid manuscript critique from a writer with a track record, an agent, or an editor. You can get these at a writer’s conference (like Write! Canada). Some seasoned writers will also do these upon request.
  • Writing contests where you get feedback on your entry.
  • A writing/critique partner whose work you respect.
  • A well-balanced writer’s group.
  • A legitimate writing program (either online or at a local college or university).
  • A writing mentor (someone with more years in the trenches than you).

Be Humble Enough to Keep Learning

The world doesn’t contain a perfect writer. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Be humble enough to keep learning. The moment a best-selling author gets complacent and stops pushing the limits is the moment their work becomes cookie cutter and they start to fall in popularity. The good news is that when they do, it opens the door for a writer who’s willing to work and improve to take their place. It could be you.

Anything you’d like to add? Leave us a comment.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.


6 comments on “Let Criticism Make You Better

  1. I just wanted to say thank you, Marcy. A good post with some very good advice. And you’re 100 percent right. At first, even the truly helpful advice can sting. However, I want my writing to be the best it can be, so I take a deep breath and ask for honesty.

    Keep up the great work, ladies!

    • We’re glad we could help, and we hope you keep coming back. If you have any specific questions, feel free to let us know. We’ll either address it as a post or reply to you personally.

  2. Pingback: Invest In Your Writing « Girls With Pens

  3. I just finished a class in short story writing, where we had to do peer reviews. My partner’s advice was awful, to say the least. She made two comments (“explain what this foreign word meant, and expand this sentence here) and that was it. I was waiting and waiting for the harsh commentary, but it never came. So you could say there is another type of critique – the one that only gives one or two very minor corrections, because the person doing the critique is afraid of “hurting your feelings.”

    • You make a good point, Mandi. A critique that only tells the other person what’s good in their work or only makes a few minor comments doesn’t really help. We’re not really doing anyone any favours by being too afraid of hurting their feelings to say anything at all. As much as it might sting, I’d rather someone told me what’s wrong. Until I know what’s wrong, I can’t figure out how to fix it.

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