How to Give and Receive Criticism

Writing is an art that takes far more skill than one might expect. Natural talent only extends as far as one’s vocabulary. It’s an art that requires constant development, reworking, and creativity. This is why written works can be so personal for their creators – and why criticism can be so poorly received.

When I was in my early college years, I sent off a query with the first ten pages of my now-shelved manuscript attached. I was hopeful that I would get an instant reply, telling me I was the next J.K. Rowling. A quick rejection letter showed up in my inbox the next month and I spent half a week listening to sad punk songs about failure and rejection.

The letter wasn’t cruel or anything like that. It was a basic, cookie-cutter “no thank you.” But at the time, I kept saying that a reason or feedback would make me feel better. Seven years on, I know that’s not true. I would have been even more bitter, no matter how kind the criticism was. After all, I was convinced that I wrote something new, funny and creative. Back then, I wasn’t able to accept rejection with optimism. It took me a whole year of such experiences to learn that criticism was a blessing in disguise.

Even as an adult, it takes a certain degree of emotional maturity to handle negative comments. Very prideful people sometimes find it hard to admit mistakes and personal shortcomings. For example, I know of an extreme case where a young woman is so convinced of her knowledge that to this day she believes Mr. Rogers was a Navy Seal with several recorded kills and tattoo sleeves. Even after pulling up his full biography, which has his life-long occupation listed as being a Presbyterian minister, she refuses to believe it. She holds onto racist, and homophobic beliefs. Because she is afraid to accept any constructive criticism or challenges about her beliefs, she never grows. It’s sad, really.

If you never listen to the opinions of another, and refuse to reflect on your own thoughts and beliefs, then you are destined to stay in one place. The same is true of writing. If beta readers or editors tell an author that there was something lacking in a book, then it is important for the writer to consider their remarks. And if an author hears these comments over and over again, then the issue demands the writer’s attention.

Artists are great critics of their own work. Anyone who has ever reread or reviewed old writings and drawings knows the painful pride that comes from seeing intense improvement over old masterpieces. But when it comes to listening to others, we sometimes forget how to. And sometimes, we forget how to give criticism as well.

It doesn’t do anyone any good to send reviews like “this was a giant waste of money and time,” or “this book was disgusting” because at the end of the day, the writer may not know what they did wrong. If the author continues to get so many hurtful reviews, they may stop listening to feedback altogether, or even give up on writing. This is very similar what happened with E.L. James. The backlash against her writing was not necessarily wrong on a moral sense (the book was certainly glorifying abusive relationships and misrepresenting the BDSM community). The way the criticism was given, however, was not constructive. As such, she chose to ignore the hurtful comments and put out another book, this time sympathizing with the abuser by telling the story from his POV.

There may not be any guarantee that someone will listen to criticism, but if it is given, it should most definitely be constructive, rather than destructive. Help build your writing, as well as another’s by learning how to give and receive such comments. After all, as readers and writers, we’re all all in this together.

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