How to Handle Criticism, Feedback, and Praise
Feedback is an inevitable part of the creative process. Be it positive or negative, you’re bound to receive criticism at one point or another. Every writer, no matter how skilled, has their work critiqued. And every writer, no matter how unskilled, receives praise. In both scenarios, it’s tough to discern which comments are useful and which ones should be taken with a grain of salt.
How do you keep your spirits high when you’ve received soul-crushing comments? Vice versa, how do you maintain a level head when you’re being celebrated? In order to maintain sanity and success as a writer, it’s crucial to learn how to handle various forms of feedback.
How to handle criticism
British novelist and journalist Will Self once said, “A creative life cannot be sustained by approval any more than it can be destroyed by criticism.” In other words, the critic doesn’t possess the power to influence your writing—you do. When you receive constructive feedback, it’s important to remove your ego, extract the meaning of the comment, and focus on self-improvement.
What are the steps of handling criticism with an open mind?
1. Opportunity for growth.
When you receive criticism on your writing, it’s often difficult to see the bright side. You’ve invested time and effort into crafting a piece that you’re proud of. When you deliver it to a client or release it to the world, you expect nothing less than praise. Criticism or constructive feedback makes you feel as though you’ve failed.
But that isn’t the case. It’s time to change your perspective about “criticism.” Recognize feedback as an opportunity to grow as a writer.
What merit is there in the criticism? Every piece of feedback is delivered for a reason. Even if it’s delivered in a nasty way, there’s ultimately a purpose behind the comments. Look beyond the delivery to find the main point. What’s the critic trying to tell you? How can you use that information to take your piece to the next level? How will you use those comments to grow as a writer?
2. Pause for a moment.
Don’t attempt to address the criticism right away. In the heat of the moment, you’re too upset about the feedback to respond in a productive way. Try to wait a couple hours, or until the next day if you can, before editing your work based on the feedback you’ve received. When you come back to the comments, you’ve cooled off, and you’re ready to dive in from an objective standpoint.
3. Understand the critic.
Not every critic has the same motivation. An editor wants to help improve your writing and ensure your work is suitable for publication. However, a social media troll only wants to cause trouble and damage your self-esteem. Who is your critic? Someone who wants to help you or someone who wants to bring you down?
“I try really hard to consider the source before I let myself feel insulted or get defensive,” says Sari Botton, editor of the essay collection Goodbye To All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. The source of the criticism determines if you should take it seriously or not.
The source also indicates how a specific audience perceives your writing. For instance, let’s say one of your loyal customers comments, “This content isn’t aligned with your brand at all.” This is troubling because you want a consistent, branded message throughout your content. Even if you’re getting feedback that the message isn’t appropriate for your audience, you shouldn’t take it personally. Instead, this is an opportunity to adjust your content to make a greater impact.
4. Develop a thick skin.
As a writer, feedback is part of your job, and you must accept it. It’s important to realize that everyone will have some sort of criticism of your work. It’s natural to find some critiques offensive because you feel your writing is a direct representation of your creative mind. Thus, it can feel as though a critique is an attack on your creativity. But this simply isn’t true. Your writing is your work—it’s not you.
When a stockbroker makes a questionable trade, he’s criticized for his valuation of the market. When a mother feeds her toddler Rice Krispies, she’s judged by other moms for not serving healthier snacks. Like the stockbroker’s trades and the mother’s snacks, your writing is a product you’re putting out. Not everyone is going to like your product. That’s okay. Everyone in every job is criticized for something, so don’t be so hard on yourself.
5. Don’t try to prove your worth.
Truman Capote once said, “I believe in hardening yourself against opinion…There is one piece of advice I strongly urge: never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never.”
It’s not worth your time to prove your critics wrong. When you defend yourself and your writing, you’re taking the stance that your work is perfect as is. If your response is to fight back against the feedback, you’re missing your growth opportunity. Even worse, you’re chipping away at your credibility.
Absorb the feedback and thank them for the comment. Use your future writing and edits to prove your worth.
6. Bounce back.
In the end, bouncing back and continuing on is all you can do. You’ve extracted value from the commentary. Now, you must embrace it and move forward. There’s no use in dwelling on criticism, regardless of how harsh it is.
“Writing’s a job. You go to work and sometimes you have a hard day, and sometimes the heavens open up and shower you with acclaim. But there’s nothing mystical about either thing. It’s just another day at work,” says Jacinda Townsend, author of Saint Monkey.
How to handle praise (with grace)
When it comes to accepting praise, you should enact the same level of scrutiny and understanding as handling criticism. Just as it’s easy to get angry about criticism, it’s easy to get overly excited about praise. But approach it with caution.
1. Understand the source of the praise.
Where is your praise coming from? Is it from your mom? Your editor? Stephen King? It feels good when people recognize a job well done. But what does that praise mean? Your mom may be proud of you simply because your work is finished and published but offer you no meaningful feedback on your writing. On the other hand, an editor will give you specific elements that he or she liked. Though the former is enjoyable, you need more of the latter to grow.
Answer the question: who is saying what and why? This approach works for criticism, too.
2. Understand why you’re being praised.
What are people praising about your work? What specific points or techniques did they like and why? Knowing exactly what your audience loves will help you duplicate that success in future pieces. If your target reader loves how you shared examples of how to use your product, you know to repeat this in future blog posts. If an editor loved the way you structured your opening paragraph, you can incorporate this into your writing in the future. Like criticism, praise is an opportunity for continued growth.
3. Keep track of the praise.
As a writers’ best practice, record all the praise you’ve received in a book or journal. This is a great way to overcome the anxieties that come with being a writer, including how to handle criticism. During those tough times, you’ll have a stash of compliments you can reference. You can look back on them and remind yourself that you’re talented and capable of good work. This is especially useful when you’ve received a tough critique or you’re struggling to overcome writer’s block.
The Bottom Line
“The important thing is that you make sure that neither the favorable nor the unfavorable critics move into your head and take part in the composition of your next work.”
Learning how to accept feedback is a critical part of being a writer. You’re bound to receive both criticism and praise. When you do, remember that your writing is your work and not a part of you. Work to extract the meaning of the feedback, understand the motivations of the critic, and apply the useful information to your writing. If you approach both positive and negative feedback with a questioning eye and a mind for growth, you’ll continue to improve without losing your focus or confidence.