How to Take Criticism: Five Tips

If you want to be a Creative Writing student, or a writer at all, then you need to develop some thick skin. Creative Writing programs generally take on a workshop format, where the writers sit in a large circle or break off in teams and share each other’s work, and then offer one another feedback. And whether that feedback is good or bad, it will always take courage to face it.

The bad news is, it never gets easier and you’ll have to face that criticism the whole of your writing career. Fellow writers, beta readers, general readers, editors, agents, etc. will continue to pick apart your work no matter how many times you’re professionally published.

The good news? Well, the good news is the experience, however hard it may be, can make you a better writer if you learn how to take that criticism and use it to improve your work.

So here are a few tips to keep in mind when you find yourself on the receiving end of the critique session:

  1. If you’re in a class or a workshop, rest assured that most of the other people in the room know exactly what it’s like to be in your position. This will help them soften the blow. They’ll hopefully know the do’s and don’ts of being a beta reader and do their damnedest to make sure they balance the positive with the negative, so it’s likely that the session won’t be nearly as bad as you think it will be.
  2. Keep in mind that these people are trying to help you, not hurt you, and you can learn a lot from them. Several brains and multiple pairs of eyes are better than one, after all. Your readers will catch things that you missed. Maybe one person will point out a plot hole, while another finds a detail you can elaborate on to draw the reader deeper into the character’s mind. In workshops, the goal is for the writer to see their stories from new perspectives so that they can improve their writing and produce a more perfect final product.
  3. Listen (or, in blunter terms, shut up and be humbled). The workshop session is not for you to explain to the reader what your story means. Rather, it is for the readers to tell the writer how they interpret the work as it is, what does and doesn’t work for them, and so on. This is a good way for the writer to assess what needs to change in order to clarify their story and its purpose, to get the reader to react the way they want them to, to determine whether the mood is just right or whether everything gets lost in translation. In a way, it isn’t even really about you, the writer; it’s about your audience and their reaction to your writing. Contrary to popular belief, writing isn’t a totally solitary process. Sure, writing a rough draft is isolating, but once you put your work out there, you need to learn to work with your audience (and your editor) and trim the fat off your story so that an even wider audience can appreciate the story for what it’s worth.
  4. If you do get a jerk or two in the group who has nothing but awful things to say about your writing (or about you), do yourself a favor and just smile and nod and ignore what they say. If you’re in a freshman level Creative Writing class or an open-to-the-public writing group, you’re bound to get one person in the group who thinks they were born to write and that their writing cannot be improved because it’s already perfect. They’re easy to spot, especially when it’s their turn to be critiqued. They’ll have an excuse for every mistake their classmates point out, no matter how small (like “Oh, you just don’t get it,” or “Oh, that word is meant to be capitalized, it’s a stylistic choice“). Chances are, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. At all. So, seriously, you’re safe ignoring whatever “advice” they have for you.
  5. Finally, it is up to you which advice you do and do not take. You don’t have to take each and every piece of advice from every single reader if you don’t want to. In fact, that would be pretty overwhelming. So feel free to cherry pick! Maybe one reader suggests that you scrap a secondary character who seems useless to them, while another suggests you find a different, better way to fit that character into the story. If that character means nothing to you, you might take the first reader’s advice and just cut them out entirely. If the character is based on someone you love, or you just feel really, really attached to them for whatever reason, then take the second person’s advice. Or you could take neither reader’s advice and let the secondary character be. It is ultimately up to you, because it is your story. However, don’t just dismiss all the feedback and pretend your work is perfect already. Take the feedback you receive seriously, and think about your story critically. Try to see things from the reader’s perspective.

So there you have it!

One last quick tip is to breathe. You’re never going to get used to facing criticism. I went through a four year program, and it never got any easier for me to let others read my work and then tear it apart. But you will survive it, and depending on the people offering you feedback, you will emerge having learned some new things about yourself as a writer, such as your strengths and weaknesses. It is a truly humbling experience, but that kick to your derriere can also be motivational. You may come out of the session feeling defeated and overwhelmed, or you may come out feeling excited to tackle your story with edits because someone pointed out something that will just make everything in your story click into place.

The best thing to do is take a day or two away from your work, then come back to it with fresh eyes.

Happy writing!

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