How to Deal With Negative Criticism of Your Work
"I don't know anyone who enjoys negative criticism, especially of creative work. But such criticism can be priceless if you learn how to use it," says Roy Peter Clark in his classic "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer."
One of the hardest lessons every writer has to learn is how to deal with criticism because anything of substance, especially creative work, is subject to criticism. There's no way you can go through life without encountering some form of criticism at some point, and if you're opinionated like me, you'll encounter a lot of it.
So what is the best strategy for dealing with negative feedback about your work?
Here's a Hypothetical Scenario
You've worked hard on your article (book, screenplay, story, essay) and now that it's finished, you're ready to present your baby to the public. You accept all the ooh's and aah's graciously, basking in the glory of your obviously massive talent.
But wait...what is this? Someone left you a nasty comment, tearing your work apart. Blood suddenly rushes to your face, your heart starts beating faster and for a few minutes you just sit there, trying to comprehend what just happened. Who is this person? Why do they hate me? What exactly do they mean? Is there any truth to that? Can I put a hit on them and get away with it? And the most excruciating question: should I reply or should I just fly over this pettiness like a proud multi-talented eagle?
That depends on the kind of criticism you receive, and your attitude towards it.
Not All Critics Are Created Equal
Internet is ripe with "critics" of all kinds, so whenever your work appears online, there's a good chance someone somewhere will have a problem with it.
Most critical input falls into one of three categories:
- constructive criticism
- destructive criticism
- straight-up trolling.
Constructive criticism is obviously the most valuable type of criticism. Delivered in a thoughtful and respectful manner, it focuses on how your work can be improved while acknowledging the positive aspects of it.
Example: "I like how you approach the subject, but I think you're missing one major part of the puzzle."
Destructive criticism is less helpful, in fact, it's downright infuriating, but it can still be utilized. It's usually delivered in a condescending mean-spirited way, but it still focuses on your work and all the reasons why it sucks.
Example: "This article is horrible. It's regurgitative and inaccurate, and here's why..."
Trolling, on the other hand, isn't really about your work.
It's a favorite pastime for anonymous sociopaths who derive pleasure from launching personal attacks with no rhyme or reason, other than to provoke a reaction.
Don't fall into the trap of acknowledging a troll with a reply! He is often driven by aspirations to notoriety, so responding to him only inflates his ego. But let's not delve too deep into the dark psychology of an Internet troll, it's a murky abyss.
Most likely, the troll didn't even read your piece, but he already hates your guts, and he'd love to let you know that.
Example: "You suck. You are literally the worst, and you're ugly, too."
Deciding how to handle criticism is one of the most important decisions you can make in your writing career. Here are 3 strategies to consider.
3 Strategies For Dealing With Negative Criticism
Should you respond or just keep on keeping on? There are several schools of thought on this, which means there isn't one right answer.
- Some writers never respond to criticism - whether negative or positive. They assert that your work speaks for you, so any attempts at defending it to those who are incapable of comprehending or appreciating it are inherently futile, and even detrimental to its value.
- Others are not opposed to a healthy debate, hoping to convert hearts and minds with their brilliant arguments. They jump at the opportunity to defend their values. The success of this approach largely depends on the type of critic you encounter, and the type of issue you're debating. After all, there's no arguing about tastes.
- Finally, a third school of thought teaches to turn debate into conversation, and that there's something to learn even from the harshest critics.
While it's natural to get defensive when someone criticizes your work, it rarely accomplishes anything. Instead, Clark advises, acknowledge the validity of the criticism (if there is any) and calmly "explain what you were trying to accomplish." This alone often softens the critic. And even if the attack is personal, "in your mind deflect it back onto the work." What was it in the article/story/book that would provoke such anger? resentment? polarization?
When in doubt, repeat Emerson's prayer:
"Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”
So What Did We Learn?
- Anything of value is subject to criticism.
- Internet is a breeding ground for all sorts of ignoramuses eager to criticize, ridicule and refute your work.
- There are 3 kinds of criticism: constructive, destructive and trolling.
- With the exception of trolling, any kind of criticism can be helpful.
- You can turn any debate into a conversation if you're willing to learn.
Awesome Quotes That Put Criticism in Perspective
“Writers shouldn't fear criticism. Instead, they should fear silence. Criticism is healthy. It gets people thinking about your work and, even better, it gets them talking and arguing. But as for silence -- it is the greatest killer of writers.” ― Robert Fanney
“I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” ― Georgia O'Keeffe
“One mustn’t criticize other people on grounds where he can’t stand perpendicular himself.” – Mark Twain
"Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.” – Dale Carnegie
“Don't criticize what you can't understand.” ― Bob Dylan
“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” ― Abraham Lincoln
“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” – Winston Churchill
“I pay no attention whatever to anybody's praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.” ― Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“The trouble with most of us is that we'd rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” ― Norman Vincent Peale
“It's far easier to write why something is terrible than why it's good. <...> Because ultimately, the reason things move people is very amorphous. You can be cerebral about things you hate, but most of the things you like tend to be very emotive.” ― Chuck Klosterman
“The motive behind criticism often determines its validity. Those who care criticize where necessary. Those who envy criticize the moment they think that they have found a weak spot.” ― Criss Jami, Killosophy
“I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses.” ― Johannes Kepler
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