Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dealing with Criticism

I recently had breakfast with a writer friend, and she told me that she was in a dilemma—she’d read a book by another mutual friend, and had been asked what she thought of it. She didn’t like it, but wasn’t sure how to tell the writer this without hurting her feelings.

She was going to take the honest approach, but soften the blow as much as possible. I agreed, but also added that the writer should be prepared to hear from readers who may not like the book. I know that this book has been a highly personal project for this writer, and she’d been working hard to promote and sell it. Because of this, I think that any negative feedback would be devastating.

But this got me thinking—how should writers (or any other creative individual) handle criticism? And not necessarily “creative feedback” either…the brutally honest “Wow, I thought this was awful” kind of criticism. Obviously, creatives are hard-wired to be a little more sensitive to the opinions of others, mostly because so much of their professional success relies on what their audiences think. As far as writers go, I think fiction writers have to put themselves out there a little bit more, as their work is usually something out of their own imagination. Nonfiction writing is a little “safer”, with the security of facts, figures, and quotes from others to help soften some of the blow.

As writers, we need to develop a thick skin if we plan to put our work in front of the masses. Once it gets past our immediate family and friends (the folks who will love it no matter how good or bad it is, simply because it’s your work and they love you), we have to understand that some folks in the wider reading world might think it’s the worst thing they’ve ever read. Unfortunately, there will be readers who come to an event or book signing and say such things point blank (although if they hated it so much, why take the time to come to a book signing?) It’s up to the writer to be the bigger person and tell the reader that they appreciate their comments and they’re sorry they were unhappy with the book. Luckily, there are a lot of reading choices out there, and if they didn’t like your work, there are thousands of other authors to pick from!

What about you? Have you ever dealt with nasty criticism? How did you handle it?


  1. That's a tough one for all involved. It's tough for the person asked to give the criticism AND the person who's going to receive it. But as long as the criticism is constructive, it could wind up being very helpful for the writer. When I sent the first draft of my novel out to beta readers (who were all also friends), the feedback I received wasn't all positive. And personally, honestly, I was happy about that. I felt like my readers were being real with me. I knew I hadn't achieved perfection in round 1, and it's been their feedback - both the positive and the negative - that's fueled my revisions and helped me know what to do to make the book better.

    That's probably, like you said, the single toughest part of being a creative professional - our work is often public, which leaves it open to public criticism. When working in news full-time, I used to joke that you never knew how many people were actually reading your stuff until you made a mistake. ;-)

  2. Yeah, that is a tough situation to be put in on both sides. A lot of people don't know how to take criticism at all and were actually expecting you to love their creation as much as they did and not say anything negative. If you don't, they can get so angry with you that they don't want to talk to you anymore just because you were being honest!

    I think it is important to give your opinion with tact, but all writers need to learn to take criticism. Even the best authors have their critics. Like StacyW said, sometimes it's the criticism we need in order to understand what's not working from that other perspective.

    I also think if you just don't personally like the book, and it's not the specific style, plot, or structure that's missing, it's best important to say so the author/friend doesn't receive the wrong message.

  3. I don't believe that either negative or constructive criticism is appropriate. As writers we know many of our faults and don't need others to point them out to us. Writers need encouragement and support. When you write something, I suggest you ask yourself two questions:

    1) What do I like about the piece of writing? (Most people focus on the negative and the things they did wrong. Focus on what you did right?)

    2) What do I think I should do differently? (Focus on how to improve something and make it better, not on what is wrong. )

    If you have to have feedback from someone else who is also a writer, ask a variation of these same two questions.

    1. What did you like about this piece of writing? (Get the critic to focus on the positive.)

    2. What should I do differently to make it better? (Again, focus the critic on positive changes you can make. Many people can tell what is wrong with something, but few can tell you how to improve. If the critic cannot tell you how to improve something, then don't listen.)

    People who don't write have no idea what it takes to sit down and put words on paper so why should we listen to their negative comments. Many times it is about taste. One of the most famous American novels is Moby Dick. I have attempted to read it four times and have never finished it. I don't like it and find it boring. Does that make it a bad novel? No. It is just one person's opinion.

    Once by accident, I sent out a poem to two different magazines. One magazine rejected it and the other accepted it.

    The key is to believe in yourself and your work. Don't let the critics dishearten you.