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How to Handle Criticism of Your Writing

Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

OK. Let me start by asking you a question.

How do you know that you are being criticized?

You will say,” Hey, it is easy; people will leave comments on your writing. Some mean-spirited trolls will torture you and you get a lot of emails from readers citing improvements needed in your work.”

But is criticism that black and white? Let me take some examples.

A few days back, I got a note from a publication owner.

Hey, thanks for sending this in. I appreciated getting the chance to read it. After a few reads, though, I am not sure it is right for us at the moment. We get many submissions, and often have to turn down quality ones. Please do submit again soon.”

Another one, a couple of months back.

Hey, sorry, but that won't fit! It's more about business strategy.”

And one more quite recently.

We did change our submission flow a bit to make sure we're looking at drafts over email first. You can email us any time and we'll evaluate the story within 1-2 days.” Then, my writing status was revoked.

Prima facie, all the above examples appear to be rejections and as writers all of us have been told multiple times to be thick-skinned against rejections and persist on, come what may. While you may be right, what you need to understand is the disguised criticism that is the actual reason behind the rejection. Once you nail that, I promise your stories will never be rejected.

Coming back to my examples.

  • In the first case, the editor read a few times but my article could not evoke sufficient interest or emotion within him. While there are no specific inputs, the message is clear. I need to rewrite it again.
  • The second case is an example of misalignment. I sent the wrong topic to the wrong publisher. While the writing may be good, it will not fit in the publisher’s portfolio. As a writer, I cannot just adopt an approach of “spray and pray” and hope for things to work.
  • The third is a classic example of decreasing consistency. I had in the past, submitted some great articles to them which had been accepted but off late, I had grown complacent and my quality and consistency of writing decreased. The publisher did not want to say this but he revoked my writing status.

So do you see the pattern here?

Basically, most people are good-natured and no one wants to hurt others. No one wants to play the bad cop unless the situation really demands it. This “do-gooder” mentality also reflects in the criticism.

While some critics are mean-spirited and love demeaning writers, most of them avoid direct confrontation and leave their opinions disguised as sweet nothings or rejections. And as writers, we need to cultivate the ability to read between the lines, understand the critic’s thought process and improve ourselves on a continual basis.

My point is simple. If you are going to let another living, breathing human being read your writing, then you must learn to deal with this challenge, especially if becoming a writer is your ultimate goal. Criticism (whether direct, indirect or disguised) is the necessary evil and you just cannot avoid it in your writing journey.

And here are some ways to handle criticism of your writing.

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It is nothing personal

Thornton Wilder, the writer says it beautifully-:

“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.”

Always, treat yourself like a vendor. Your product is your writing and the readers are the buyers, and not every buyer may like your product. That is how selling works. The writing may have come from your brain but the writing is not you; it is simply a product. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are still a valuable person no matter what anyone says. You are more than a writer; you are a human being.

You deserve respect as a human being and allow no one to undermine that. Move on.

Is the critic right?

John Irving hits the nail when he says.

“Listen very carefully to the first criticism of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original and worthwhile.”

Just because someone slams your writing, even in a hateful way, does not mean they are wrong, or somehow against you. This sounds like a contradiction, but it is not. The problem with criticism is not always, what it said, but how it is said.

You may need time and space for a clearer perspective to review the criticism. Your critic comes to your topic with fresh eyes. Really, listen! Try to hear the merits of the criticism.

Think about any changes you can make that will address your critic’s concerns and improve continuously.

You don’t have to accept every criticism

Aldous Huxley may be a bit harsh here but it reinforces the attitude, every writer should have when coming under heavy or unnecessary criticism.

“They’ve never had any effect on me, for the simple reason that I’ve never read them. I’ve never made a point of writing for any particular person or audience; I’ve simply tried to do the best job I could and let it go at that. The critics don’t interest me because they’re concerned with what’s past and done, while I’m concerned with what comes next.”

There will be times when your critics are wrong — or, simply having a different perspective from you — so be sure to use your judgment, when weighing which criticisms to accept and which to reject. One thing is certain; for every artist — that is, for every human being who gives form to his or her inner creativity and shares the creation with the outside world — critical response is inevitable. And it is perfectly OK.

Your engaging with the world guarantees that the world will engage you back; either positive or negative. So accept it and move on.

Let it go

Perhaps this point can no better be said than Truman Capote who says.

“Most of all, 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. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.”

We should read the comments carefully in order to determine where people are coming from. Sometimes people just want to push their own beliefs and agenda on us and do not care what we think. If we become defensive and counter all their claims in our answers, these people will become furious and serve up an even worse dose of the same criticism

And instead of hitting the delete button, making a nasty retort, or taking vengeance for hurt feelings, we should treat people with dignity by politely responding to their posts in most cases. It may be very tempting to be bash back and retort but refrain from doing it and maintain your dignity.

Do not take the comments as gospel truth. Instead, view them as a warning signal that part of your writing may need adjusting.

Lastly, thank your critics gracefully

John Updike sums up the role of critics beautifully when he says:

“Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea.”

I know this may be hard, particularly if the criticisms are harsh. But always remember, your critics are doing you a favor particularly if they do not cover their comments with roses. Effective criticism, even if it is hard to take, will make you a better writer. We should be grateful enough to accept responsibility in those areas where we woefully lack and need improvement.

You have to learn to take lots of harsh feedback and ignore the stuff that seems unhelpful or obnoxious and use whatever you can. Getting better at anything, especially a creative thing, requires a lot of misery along the way. But if you get used to the pain, you can use it to get better and develop yourself into a rockstar writer.

As Lebron James has rightly said.

“I like criticism. It makes you strong.”


Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on January 28, 2021:

Thanks, Chitrangada

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on January 28, 2021:

Great engaging article, with many takeaways. You make some valuable and valid points.

Constructive criticism is good for improvement of the work, whether in writing or otherwise.

Thank you for sharing.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on January 28, 2021:

Thanks Jodah

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on January 28, 2021:

Thank you for this article. You offer a lot of wise advice as to how to handle criticism of your writing. Very helpful.

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