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How to Handle Criticism of Your Writing

How are you at handling criticism? I don't mean comments about your driving or your housework or your management style. And I particularly don't mean criticism from your kids. (Anyone who can tolerate that with grace deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for parenting.) I'm talking about criticism of your writing.

I used to have a tall, barrel-chested editor — a Scott — who liked to bark his opinions at me, full volume in the middle of a crowded newsroom. I didn't like his style — and I never treat anyone that way myself — but it made me almost nonchalant about criticism. I am never offended when anyone tells me they dislike my writing because I have already heard much worse.

If criticism sticks in your craw or gets under your skin, here are seven tips for handling it:

1) Detach. The person is not criticizing you — they're commenting on your writing. The writing may have come from your brain but the writing is not you; it's 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 have worth.

2) Know that your critic is a reader. And you're writing for readers — so his or her comments reflect a reader's view. That, by definition, makes the comments useful. 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.

3) Know that your critic is only one reader. Your critic's views may be widely held by others — or they may not. Don't take the comments as gospel truth; instead, view them as a warning signal that part of your writing may need adjusting.

4) Find more critics. I realize this might sound crazy if you have a hard time accepting criticism but getting comments from more people will be infinitely helpful. For starters, if three people tell you your quotes suck, isn't that more persuasive than just one person telling you need to get better quotes?

5) Ask questions. If you're starting to feel threatened by criticism one of the best things you can do is ask lots of questions. This will (a) help you understand exactly what the critic is saying, and (b) make the critic feel appreciated and listened to. Obvious point: this strategy is particularly useful with bosses and clients! Questions to ask: Can you explain what you mean when you said.... What's an example of..... How would you make this [sentence/paragraph] better? How would you implement the change you've suggested...

6) Don't feel you have to accept every criticism. There will be times when your critics are wrong — or, simply, different from you — so be sure to use your judgment when weighing which criticisms to accept and which to reject. I like to use the Pareto principle and figure I should accept about 80% of the criticism I receive. If you are writing for a controlling boss, however, you may be stuck with accepting 100%. Recognize that's the deal you make for your pay cheque and resolve to detach yourself from the criticism (step 1, above.)

7) Thank your critics. I know this may be hard, particularly if the criticisms are harsh but editing is challenging and your critics are doing you a favour — particularly if they don't cover their comments with roses. Effective criticism, even if it's hard to take, will make you a better writer.

When I wrote my book, 8½  Steps to Writing Faster, Better, I sent a semi-final draft to 16 trusted friends, some of whom were professional writers. I was awestruck by the sensitive, detailed feedback they gave to me. I had pages and pages of notes from them. Of course, I did not accept every single one of their suggestions, but I followed the vast majority. They had made connections that would never have occurred to me and seen things that I had missed. Their value was incalculable.

(Thanks again to: Maureen Bayless, Luuk Christaens, Siti Crook, Stephanie Diamond, Philip Eckman, Sharon Gravelle, Bob Janes, Katie Jay, Eve Johnson, Karen Kelm, Catherine Kirkness, Xan McCallum, Janet Nielsen, Mackay Rippey, Noel Rodrigue and David Thacker.)

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 14th 2012, 8:51 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I agree with Ms. Grant's precious suggestions.
Criticism regarding work is a sort of acknowledgment for the related work. Someone somewhere performed something. That's important. I consider this effort to work done is the extraordinary talent. In that effort specially if it is a writing assignment tremendous creative force has been invested. Nothing is EZ. This work and intends to perform more work is the driving force. All reviewers are not constructive criticizer I agree, but razor-sharp criticism generates blessed piece. An intelligent creator extract minor details from the criticized review and present the piece in a new tone.
Due to bad criticism if worker flinched away like a Snell,then the performer's goal will never be attained.
Monday May 14th 2012, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
1. Detach is good, but realstic there are those who are attacking you. They are merely using your work as a vehicle for the attack.
6. Pareto Principle implies that the value is in the 20% and the 80% is essentially waste. Of course (7.), when you seek criticism from those you trust, then the Pareto Principle wouldn't apply, assuming you're good at selecting the right people to trust.
Monday May 14th 2012, 10:49 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
However hard it can be on the ego, it is definitely a good idea to get a private first reader to read and react to any piece one hopes to publish.

I'm lucky to have an excellent first reader (my wife!), and she has saved me from countless boo-boos. But I still think very time, "Oh, I'll just send this one in without showing it to her." Fortunately for me (and our marriage!) I resist temptation!!
Monday May 14th 2012, 11:55 AM
Comment by: Kenneth C. (Gainesville, VA)
Thanks for the article. I frequently find that the hardest part is finding someone who will give _honest_ feedback (especially when you're the boss).

I do have a word of critism for you:

I suspect when you said: "I used to have a tall, barrel-chested editor — a Scott — "

You actually meant: "I used to have a tall, barrel-chested editor — a Scot — "

with the implication being that people of Scottish descent tend to be tall and barrel-chested, rather than that people named Scott have those tendencies.

Keep up the good work!
Monday May 14th 2012, 12:39 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Kenneth -- thanks so much for the correction! You are correct, my boss was not named "Scott", he WAS a Scot. Can't believe I missed that one! Gordon, I find the Pareto Principle still works, even with people I trust. After all, so much about writing relates to taste rather than right/wrong. Michael, you are right about having a first reader - invaluable!
Tuesday May 15th 2012, 11:52 AM
Comment by: brindle (Canada)
Criticism at its essence is intended to make you conform. If you are writing for a magazine and your writing tends to have an air of independence that strays from the magazine's principles I would fully expect the editor to use criticism to make you come back to reality. If I'm writing for myself then I would tend to take the criticism more with a grain of salt as it would be used to steer you towards someone else's viewpoint. If my writing just plain sucked and five friends were kind enough to tell me well then that might have some merit!
Tuesday May 15th 2012, 12:28 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
I don't agree that the essence of criticism is to make the writer conform. It's true that institutional writing will be pressured to conform, but that is a special use of criticism rather than its essence.

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