Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Dealing with Criticism

By S. J. Connolly-Reisner
2004, S. J. Connolly-Reisner


When I first started submitting my work for critique and publication, several writer friends told me I needed to develop a thick skin. I was not sure what they meant until the critiques and rejection letters began pouring in.

It didn't help that my father thought I was completely stupid for pursuing a degree in English with a creative writing emphasis.  I remember a day not long after I graduated college when he pulled me into his office. He asked me what I planned to do.

"I'm going to be a writer," I said, matter-of-fact.

"There's no money in that!" he told me, frowning.

I wondered then if he was right. After all, editors were rejecting my work left and right. My critique groups still found many mistakes in everything I sent off. Maybe I was not cut out to be a writer.

The problem was that I couldn't help it. I had to write. Stories flooded my mind, keeping me awake into the wee hours of morning, until I wrote them down. So instead of giving up I kept trying. Much to my dismay, it seemed that the critics stood as solid obstacles in my path, keeping me from where I wanted to go.

Then one day I had an epiphany. It wasn't the critics who were standing in my way; it was how I dealt with them. I took it all too personally.

The Critic-al Issue

All writers, at one time or another, have to face criticism. It's the nature of the business. Whether the criticism comes from your critique group, an honest rejection letter, an enraged reader, or your mother-in-law, the critics are ever present and can wreak havoc on your self-esteem. Here are some thoughts on criticism that have helped me develop a thick skin over the years.

The Brutal Critique

We've all gotten at least one, haven't we? And if you haven't, you surely will once you join a critique group.  The brutal critique is when someone tells you, in a less-than-tactful way, that your latest short story or novel chapter is worthless drivel.  This can be painful, especially when you feel you've done your best work. Initially, you'll be angry and will feel like telling the critic what you think about his criticism. Relax. It's not a big deal.

Look at it this way: For every person who likes what you write, two will hate it, and three will be indifferent. This is the non-scientific formula I use to remind myself that not everyone is going to love what I write. You can't please everyone. When you receive a critique that you find less than tactful, set it aside for a few days. Once you've had a chance to calm down, pick it up and try to read between the lines. Compare the brutal critique to others you've gotten. Does the nasty critic point out things the kinder critics also pointed out? If yes, consider that maybe your brutal critic simply has no tact, or just doesn't care for your writing style. It happens.

You will always be the ultimate decision maker when it comes down to what criticism you choose to listen to when revising your work.  Be objective. The purpose of a critique is to help writers improve. The people giving the critiques want you to improve. Sometimes even brutal critics can give good advice.

On the other hand, some critics are downright mean.  I once had a critic who, after reading one of my short stories, told me I had no business being a writer and should give up. Well, I didn't give up. The critique made me so angry that I posted it above my desk. The critic's attack fueled my determination. Ironically, four years later, the same critic who told me to give up gave me high praise for another short story. I like to think that her insults challenged me to improve.  So try to find something positive from everything negative. You might look back and thank your brutal critic years later.

Rejection Letters

"I prefer stories that do not put my readers in danger of losing their lunch."

This is an actual line from a rejection I received five years ago.  I learned early on that sometimes you have to be able to laugh and learn from a rejection even if it makes you feel like hurling your manuscripts -- or yourself -- from the top of a tall building. One day, after receiving what I thought was an incredibly rude rejection, I went through my reject file and pulled out what I considered the meanest, nastiest, critical comments from editors and typed them up on a sheet of paper. I hung the list over my desk. Every time I read it, I felt a fierce surge of determination wash over me.  I thought to myself, "I'll prove you wrong. My next story will be better."

If you are not the type of person for whom rejection stirs determination, try doing the opposite. Find the nicest comments you've received from editors, type them up on a sheet of paper, and hang it over your desk.

Always remember that editors are people, too. Not all editors are going to like what you write, but on the flip side they also know what will sell their publications. I remind myself of this by saying: "Write what you love to write, and find an editor who loves what you write." Pay attention to any personal comments editors make, and try to figure out why your story was rejected. Use rejection as a challenge to succeed, and use personal comments from editors to improve your writing.

Sometimes it takes a while for an editor's comments to sink in. Don't worry, you'll figure them out. It took me years to finally figure out why several of my first short stories were rejected. The realization came while critiquing someone else's story and finding that her story had the same problem as mine.  This is why joining a critique group is so important for any writer. By learning to catch other's mistakes, we become more apt to catch our own.

Sometimes you really won't know why your story or book was rejected. Just because your work was rejected does not mean it was terrible. It simply wasn't that editor's cup of tea. Keep sending it out.

Readers as Critics

Once again, remember that for every person who likes what you write, two will hate it and three will be indifferent. When you do get something published, you may find that you have very public critics who appear in the form of reviewers.  This is not necessarily a bad thing. A reader's point of view can help you improve your next book or story. Treat a reader's criticism like you would the criticism from a critique group. Listen to it, learn what you can from it, and disregard the rest.

I've gotten two negative reviews of previously published work. My initial reaction to both was anger. After a few days I realized that one review was the angry rant of a computer programmer who thought my article was a personal attack on him. The other was from a critic who hated my non-fiction book because he did not like my writing style. Once I realized that these critics were expressing opinions that I could do nothing to change, I calmed down, stepped back, took an objective look at both critics, found that their comments would not help improve my writing, and ignored them entirely.   

Other Critics: Unsupportive Family and Friends

I'm convinced that almost every writer has encountered this problem. These people criticize your dreams of being a full time writer, or try to push you into a career with more money making potential. While I've found that most of my family and friends encourage my writing, there have been a few who have made comments meant to discourage me. "You'll never make any money doing that." "You don't write or spell very well. What makes you think you'll ever be a writer?" 

When your hopes and dreams are criticized by family and friends it can be extremely painful. It's easier to disregard a stranger than it is to ignore comments from the people you love. So when your mother-in-law rolls her eyes every time you talk about your latest work-in-progress either take it as a challenge to succeed or stop discussing your work with her. Your unsupportive family and friends will rarely change their minds. They expect you to prove yourself to them, and even if you do they may not give you their support. As I see it, the only person you have to prove yourself to is you.

I keep a list of people in my mind whom I can go to for support when I need help pulling my self-esteem out of the toilet. Find out who your biggest supporters are and seek them out when you feel like giving up.  Avoid the topic of writing with those people who make you feel bad about your writing.

You Have the Last Word

Had I continued to take the critics personally I would have stopped writing years ago. Luckily I found out how to deal with them in a constructive way that works for me. Helpful criticism is not always nice or tactful. It can still hurt no matter how thick your skin is. It can still catch you off guard. Just remember this: criticism is nothing more than one individual's opinion. You have the choice to take it or leave it.