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How to Become a Better Writer: 4 Ways to Deal With Criticism

by | Oct 25, 2016

There’s a reason many of us writers refer to our projects as our “babies.” We’ve spent days, months, or even years nurturing the idea and breathing life into every sentence.

After that intimate and solitary process, it can be nerve-wracking to ask others for feedback.

Even when we’re less invested in a project — say, a quick blog post for a client — it can still sting to receive criticism.

Although feedback is incredibly valuable, I still find this part of the writing process to be terrifying whether I’m writing an article for a client or sharing my novel with a beta reader.

Most writers will have to deal with negative feedback about their work throughout their careers, and that’s a good thing! Hearing thoughtful criticism on your work is what helps you learn how to become a better writer — but only if you’re receptive to it.

First things first: Change your mindset

Before you receive your next round of criticism, practice thinking of feedback as a gift.

Every time someone comments on your work, good or bad, it makes your writing stronger. It’s not a negative reflection on you, it’s an opportunity to become a better writer.

Plus, thoughtful feedback isn’t easy to give. If you’ve found a thorough first reader, an insightful editor or a client who’s really able to articulate their needs and collaborate during the writing process, cherish their involvement! It really is a gift to work with people like that.

After I consciously focused on shifting my own mindset about difficult feedback, I began to look forward to honest criticism — and even to solicit it from clients, editors, and beta readers.

Once you’re prepared with a positive mindset about negative feedback, here’s how to deal with it in the moment.

Step 1: Take a deep breath

It’s okay if your first response is anger, frustration or guilt — that’s completely natural. But what you shouldn’t do is stew in that emotion, or let it direct your response.  

Take a deep breath, then spend a few moments collecting your thoughts. If you have time,  take a walk, call a friend, or do something fun to otherwise distract yourself. After you’ve cleared your head, come back and consider your response.

Step 2: Vet your source

Not all critics are created equal, and not all feedback should be taken to heart.

When you’re first starting out, you may not have developed your own internal compass. You may be overly confident in your work, or give too much weight to someone who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about.

As you become a better writer, you develop a stronger personal rudder to help you self-edit and navigate feedback — but even when you know someone’s wrong it can still send you into a tizzy.

I once had a beta reader for a novella tell me only that she didn’t like it, and it didn’t make any sense. When I pressed her for more specific criticism, she said she didn’t have time to clarify.

Obviously not helpful, but just ask my husband about how I spent the next 24 hours stewing over whether or not I was a good writer!

Step 3: Categorize what you’re hearing

Once you’ve had a chance to cool down, go through the feedback again and try to understand exactly what you’re being told.

Is it a problem with how you are handling the topic? Do you need to tweak the voice? Did you not understand the assignment? If you’re writing fiction, is the problem with your story, your characters or your prose?

Taking this step will help you understand exactly how to fix the problem. At first glance it can often seem like everything is wrong — but when you start to categorize the feedback you’ll often see there are only one or two small things that need changed.

Step 4: Ask for clarification

Even if you think you completely understand the feedback, take a few minutes to make sure you’re on the same page. You may want to summarize the changes the person is asking for in an email, or hop on the phone to talk it through.

This is especially helpful if the feedback is from a client or editor — communicating with your clients can avoid future rounds of rewrites by clarifying things before diving into editing.

Do you have any favorite tips for dealing with difficult feedback? Let us know in the comments.