Don’t take it personally: Accepting Criticism and Growing as a Writer

*This is something I’ve dealt with a lot, and has recently become relevant again. I’ve been getting better at it, but accepting criticism and changing my own work according to that criticism is still a pretty difficult process. 

There was a time that I would get critique on something and immediately decide “well this isn’t good at all”, and give up on it. This is one of the worst things a new writer can do, and unproductive for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, when you give up after criticism you abandon a project that might have been very good! Pieces of writing develop and go through a number of phases before they’re publishable, or even readable. Second, and more importantly in the long run I think, when you give up immediately, even if you start something else, you undermine yourself and your writing ability because you don’t finish the piece. The ability to revise and develop a piece of writing over time is more important in my opinion than being able to write something perfect on a first try. If you can’t take criticism, you’ll never get any piece past its first draft.

One of the most important things that has happened for me in the last couple years, in terms of my writing ability, is that I’ve put a conscious effort into developing a thicker skin, and the ability to distance myself from my work enough to change it. No work is perfect when it is first written. You have to remember that no matter what it looks like, NO ONE can write a perfect story the first time around. Especially for beginning writers, or people who (like myself!) have only recently started sending their work out and getting it critiqued, it may seem like everything you read by other people is perfect and sprang from its creator’s head like Athena from the head of Zeus. Please, please, please, remember that a) these are probably not the author’s first works, they’re probably the result of lots of practice, and b) they’ve probably gone through tons of drafts and edits!

At the beginning (well, not the beginning beginning, but when I first showed someone else a piece of writing) I got criticism I wasn’t expecting and it triggered such a powerful, visceral sense of anxiety and hopelessness that I immediately gave up the project. I have a very clear memory of opening the marked-up document, my vision blurring and my heart beating funny, and shutting my laptop with a snap. I kept writing other things, though, and tried again, and forced myself to listen to what other people had to say. And each time I did this, it got easier. Even if the reader decided they didn’t like my main characters, or that my plot sucked, or whatever, I at least considered their opinion, and I didn’t take it personally. That was the first real step, I think, in my journey towards becoming a legitimate writer. Don’t take it personally.

Nowadays, I still get anxious when I get critique, but I recently got a rejection from a very kind editor at Expanded Horizons who actually took some time to tell me what was wrong with what I wrote, and I’m in the process of rewriting that story from beginning to end. It’s embarrassing, having someone else tell you something you did wrong, especially for someone who is so deeply connected to their art, as most writers I know are. But the embarrassment of getting critique is as much a part of being a (published) writer as is actually writing, and you can only fully realize your talent when you accept the embarrassment and the anxiety and work through them.

[note: this is a somewhat old post (an earlier version was first published on my old blog, oblonskys.tumblr.com) that has been edited and transferred to my new writing blog.]

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3 thoughts on “Don’t take it personally: Accepting Criticism and Growing as a Writer

  1. I agree. I’ve only had minor criticisms – more just suggestions, really – from my friends. The thought of a stranger really laying into my work… I think I’d react just like you. Feel sick, close the laptop and cry!

    Like

    • Haha, yeah. It’s kind of like getting calluses (or scars). The more harsh feedback you get, the easier it is to take. I find that when I get feedback I don’t want to look at, I rip off the bandaid and read it quickly, then go away for a while and read it again more slowly, while thinking about the story.

      Liked by 1 person

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