• Learning to Handle Harsh Criticism

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Strategies     Comments 75 comments
    Jun
    15

    Discussion questions: What is the harshest external criticism of your writing you’ve ever received, either in public or in private? What was your external reaction, and what was your internal response? How did you move on from it? Does it still bother you?

     

    A few weeks ago we talked a bit about the ways in which some of us mistreat ourselves before, during, or after we write. But what about the ways in which we can be punished by others?

    About criticism, Franklin P. Jones, the editor of American Mechanics Magazine, said (according to BrainyQuotes-type sites) it best:

    “Honest criticism is hard to take… particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.”

    Almost all acts of creation open the creator up to criticism. You write a book, you publish the book, readers read the book, readers say how they feel about the book.

    Not all of them will like it. According to my thin research, the highest-rated book on Goodreads is the seventh Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows. It carries a 4.62 rating, and 1.6 million people gave it five stars.

    Fourteen thousand five hundred people have given it zero stars. Fourteen and a half thousand people finished that book (or some of them did, at least) and said, “Welp, that’s a big, fat pile of garbage.”

    If 14,000 people total read anything I ever write, I’ll feel lucky.

    If all 14,000 of those people give my book zero stars, I’ll feel… very bad.

    If even one of those 14,000 people gives my book zero stars, I’ll feel bad. For a quick moment. You’re never going to make everybody happy.

    So what we have to do is learn how to handle negative criticism. Even, dare I say, learn to use it to our advantage.

    I’m working on it.

     

    I’ve been lucky enough to avoid any particularly devastating criticism. Partly because I’ve never published a book.

    The criticism I do receive is almost always in private, and usually comes from my panicky writer friend, whom we talked about a few weeks ago. About a year ago I sent him a short story and wrote something like, “I think you’ll really enjoy this one!”

    He… didn’t. In fact, he hated it. The first two lines of his response email went, “I put a bunch of notes in this, but finally just kind of stopped. I DON’T LIKE THIS STORY.”

    Oh.

    But you know what? The notes he offered were helpful, and the criticisms he had were (almost) all valid. I reread the story not long ago, and, oof, it really is bad. But if I ever return to it, I’ll know what to do.

     

    But that was easy to handle. When I read his email, I was sitting alone in my bedroom. Nobody had to see my reaction, and nobody else (until now) was even aware of his criticism.

    Public criticism is much more difficult.

    I’ve been attacked a few times in comment forums, and that stinks. But even then, I’m reading those comments alone, and can ingest them at my own pace, in whatever way I need to.

    But in-person public criticism?

    I’ve seen writers crushed in workshops and critique groups, and it is not pretty. Because not only are you hearing the criticism of your work in real time, from someone you’re looking at, but you’re also surrounded by other people hearing that same criticism and looking at you to see how you’re handling it. It’s the worst kind of spotlight.

    I went to grad school with a writer who was so devastated after a workshop, he vowed never to write fiction again. And as far as I know, he hasn’t. That must have been a brutal workshop.

    Our internal critics are cruel enough. Must we really be forced deal with the cruelty of external critics too?

    Sorry, but yes.

    Talking through it can help, though. So, to that end, what is the harshest (external) criticism of your writing you’ve ever experienced in private? How about in public?

    What was your external reaction, and what was your internal response?

    How did you move on from that criticism? Did you use it to your advantage? Does it still bother you?

    Let me know below. And hey, if you want to attack me in the comments, I’ll be ready for you!

     

    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2019 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Onita Morgan-Edwards
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    Onita Morgan-Edwards

    In my MFA summer residency last year my professor’s response to a piece I wrote was particularly harsh. As a brand new student, I internalized her comments that, “People don’t even talk like that” and vowed to never speak to her again. So, I am still bitter about it, however, in subsequent classes (fall 2018, spring 2019), I found professors compassionate and willing to work with me on my writerly shortcomings. That said, I guess there will always be folks who don’t respond positively to blood, sweat, and tears on the page, but I used the negative energy to continue… Read more »

    John Liebling
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    John Liebling

    I come from a history/political science background. I enjoy confrontational debate. I also know we are humans, not robots – meaning its him/her…not you. Some times the friend is having a bad day or week. Even with friends and family we don’t always share issues which are very stressful. Also, to consider – do you trust the person’s opinion? Are they a credible source? Have they given you good notes in the past? And we all know there is a difference between harsh and truth. We also know when we get in that writing zone; all looks rose colored –… Read more »

    Susan
    Guest
    Susan

    Hi John, I don’t know you at all, but I just wanted to say that yours were some very measured, reasonable responses and they were helpful to me. It is also in my nature to bring bullies down a peg, in fact I feel like it’s one of my missions on earth or something, so I enjoyed that comment as well. Thank you.

    John Liebling
    Guest
    John Liebling

    Thank you very much. I am still working on my first novel. David was very helpful as I slog through my chapters years ago. And I’ve been teaching history at the secondary level within the Los Angeles School District the past 34 years. The 2019-2020 school year will be my last. After that, I’ll devote the majority of my time to writing. Many drafts later, I am still improving my craft. Luckily no writing blocks yet. I enjoy the writing process. My novel grew from 300 to over 700 pages. From 194,000 words I am down to about 140,000. The… Read more »

    Susan
    Guest
    Susan

    I love the idea of alliteration and rhyming as a power against evil. Poetry saves the world. Is that your hero’s superpower, or does he have others? I also can see how these days it would be very easy to transition from a living cannibalistic machine to politics. I have a hard time limiting my words too. That’s my biggest challenge–making every word count. Congratulations on your imminent retirement. I imagine high school in LA would make for lots of story ideas and characters to draw from. Best of luck in getting that story published! I am beginning to feel… Read more »

    John Liebling
    Guest
    John Liebling

    Thank you. No, his super power will be that he has super power. He will be literally broken, and during that process he will become stronger. He will be mentored by Ko’ach…70 feet with fuchsia pigment. That Ko’ach can shape shift and time travel. I have two extremely evil characters. Malevolent Time – an almost equal to God. And I-T the 100 foot evil machine – David will battle I-T at the end of the novel…The David stuck on the planet which never ages. Not his teen self back on earth. Throughout the novel I-T and I-T-S will be broken… Read more »

    Hans De Léo
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    Hans De Léo

    Criticism is one of the most difficult and necessary part of being an author. What is the harshest criticism I’ve ever gotten? “Unfortunately, I think the only way to fix this is a complete re-write.” It took two days to recover from my bruised ego. Or was it three? Then I went and re-wrote the story. (The result is the same book I’ve plugged before). After that I accepted the bruised ego as part of the process, although since then it hasn’t taken as long to recover. Establishing the ground rules for giving criticism can help a lot. More recently,… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer
    Guest

    I haven’t had any really harsh criticism of my books…yet. The one who said the book was filled with errors was reviewing my book since I’m very aware of the three errors in the book. I’ve had one reader who objected to the language in one, but I ignored it as there is a warning on the back that there is adult language and situations in the book. The other low scores were well deserved and I’ve used them to learn what not to do. (Hey, there is a learning curve and it can be quite steep at times.) The… Read more »

    Joe Giordano
    Guest

    Criticism stings, harsher is worse, and in public the worst. Some won’t seek publication for fear of rejection. What/how someone says something about you often reveals more about them than about you. Reading is like a Rorschach or ink blot test – your personality determines what you see, and I’m often surprised by what readers take away from my work. If you receive constructive criticism, try to avoid a defensive response, instead use the comments to improve your work. For snarky criticism, refer to my Rorschach analogy – they’re revealing themselves. As to the worst review I’ve received, I submitted… Read more »

    Raymundo
    Guest

    Hi Dave, A few years ago, I published a short story (for free) on the Smashwords site that replicated to the Barnes&Noble site. I just wanted to see if anybody would read it and how they would react to it. It received a few comments. Some people liked it, but one person posted something like: “I can’t believe I wasted time out of my life reading this crap!” The story was far from my best writing and was an early effort, but I didn’t think it was that bad. A worse criticism came from a very early review of a… Read more »

    Torria Stevens
    Guest

    Interesting topic Justine, David. Two experiences come to mind: one was during a nonfiction workshop, when a fellow student gave comment on my short piece, saying that, my writing was child-like – didn’t get that one!; didnt handle it well either for a spell. But that’s been a while ago and my writing development has been just fine. Another criticism was recent, when I offered an acquaintance to read a new blog posting of mine. My preface to him, was for the exclusion of criticism. Rather, to enjoy the nuance of my writing and begin dialogue on the topic. Well,… Read more »

    david lemke
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    david lemke

    My skin is paper thin. When I was 14, the first story I ever wrote and sent in was rejected with a form letter. It was some SF magazine. I didn’t write for a lot of years and didn’t submit for at least 40 years. I had one critique of my novel “Intrusion” when it was a first draft. I was told it was an afterbirth, which was pretty devastating, but she followed it up with some positive and suggestions of online classes I could take, which I followed up on. I had one nasty review of a story in… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer
    Guest

    Developing a thick skin is almost a must as a writer, but I get it. It is difficult to have people tear your work apart. Meanwhile, we all need our readers to give feedback on what we have written in order to keep them reading our work. The lady who didn’t like the second person POV (Which is extremely hard to write and kudos to you for even trying it.) that is her preference and opinion. I’d like to know what someone thinks about the story as a whole. Did it work? Did it keep the reader in the story?… Read more »

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    Thanks. “Lunch Thief” is the opening story, a humorous one in The anthology, “Dave’s, You Must Be This short To Enter.” Second person in RPG novels had some popularity in the D&D world years ago where you would make a decision (Open the door in the castle; go to page 83, don’t; go to page 92) Don’t know of any novella in second; too hard to maintain, but I’ve read some wonderful second person stories. It’s nice and short. If you want to read it, I can Email it or you can visit Amazon and search the title or my… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer
    Guest

    I went and read as much as I could of your anthology. I enjoyed it. Put on that armor and get out there. Learn how to market those books.

    BTW, with the Lunch Thief, I can imagine what she did to Ellen…lol. You are doing something I struggle really hard with, writing a short story. I can do a novel, but a short story for me is always a mess.

    I’m going back to get the book.

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    Thanks. You are too kind. One really good thing about short stories is, well, their short! You can’t experiment on a novel. You can, but it burn a lot of time and braincells. You can experiment with tenses and narrations of every kind, voice and style and attitude, you can get close-in and distant and have unreliable heroes. One thing you notice about “DYMBTSTE” is I play with so many styles and narrators and some you’ll never see in a novel. Some like “XI Francy” are, for me, impossible to maintain. My solution was to include it in the SF… Read more »

    David M Inverso
    Guest
    David M Inverso

    The worst ever (so far) was a beginning playwriting class that cost an obscene amount of money led by a locally famous actor. It ran six weeks with one hour of instruction followed by one hour of listening to the actor read aloud a scene or two of each student’s play and critiquing it. No one but the actor critiqued. It went this way. First class, six students brought in a work-in-progress play. Five were praised effusively, one was excoriated. The next week, only five students returned; four praised, one ripped asunder. Week 3; three sent to heaven, one hurled… Read more »

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    I don’t quit as often as I used to; every couple days or sometimes several times a day. Congrats on hanging in there. Being quite ornery, I would have called him out for his behavior. What’s he going to do; kick me out? which would cause him a lot of problems. Keep on writing.

    David M Inverso
    Guest
    David M Inverso

    Thanks, David L. The feeling from each class that I wasn’t abused was the singular relief of getting shot at and missed. I suspect people like him don’t change. Whatever protestations he hears validates that he is surrounded by idiots. Still, I’d of backed your ornery self if you’d pushed back.

    David M Inverso
    Guest
    David M Inverso

    I should add that for four weeks my play was praised by a local celebrity who had written a dozen plays and had them produced. While the pattern of abuse was becoming ever more obvious, I wondered (hoped) that maybe my play was a winner. Ed had five weeks of praise before the brass knuckles came out. So, for me, there was more than getting my nickel’s worth making me stay in the class. Stupid of me, in retro, but while it was happening, it made sense to stay.

    David M Inverso
    Guest
    David M Inverso

    I showed up in the class the last day to be physically present for Ed. I wasn’t at all sure Ed wouldn’t swing on the guy. Also, it seemed cowardly to just let Ed face the music alone. The actor gave us a full hour of instruction and then wanted to critique Ed’s piece first. After his critique, Ed and I left. After a futile attempt to get my money back, I just chalked it up to a lesson learned. It WAS a weird class, run by a local theater group in the early 80s as a way of supporting… Read more »

    David M Inverso
    Guest
    David M Inverso

    HA! On it. ;-)

    Barbara Mealer
    Guest

    If you can survive that type of abuse, a simple” “I hated this,” is nothing. It doesn’t sound like he even gave anything constructive to help in writing better plays. I look for classes which give you things to do to help you improve. It that wasn’t what he was doing, I”d tell him to take his “acting” and stuff it, then ask for my money back as the class was bulls***.

    Linda
    Guest
    Linda

    If there is ANYTHING I’ve learned as a writer, is you must have a thick skin and be ready to face criticism. I learned this early on — and I’d rather hear the truth, no matter how harsh, than a lie telling me “it’s wonderful” — even IF I think it is. But that being said, variety is the slice of life.

    Eleanor
    Guest
    Eleanor

    Most of the hard criticism I’ve received was deserved. I’m still learning this craft of writing that’s good enough to be published and attract readers. I accepted those crits as a heads-up about something I had to learn. There have been a few others that I received that I reacted with ” Huh? What’s this about? Characterisation?” My writer’s club thought the story was fine ffom when I’d writen it a couple years ago. Now this Reader said that? Well, I figured she’s published so must know what she’s talking about. That meant to me there was some thing else… Read more »

    adrienne leslie
    Guest
    adrienne leslie

    A fellow writer would give good advice, but forget to temper her remarks.(Like David’s nasty prof.) It would be easy for me to dismiss her, but then I wouldn’t learn resilience or how to find helpful edits inside less than kind words. So, putting on my big girl pants, I cautioned her, “It’s America–You can say anything, but you can’t tell a mother her baby is ugly.”
    BTW-I learned to critique without harsh criticism teaching CW to pre-teens:)

    Jerry Schwartz
    Guest
    Jerry Schwartz

    I have a thin skin. For that reason, my wife has absolutely refused to touch anything to do with my hobby. That’s a wise choice. I get almost all of my feedback from a writers group. My first experience was rather irritating: I’d submitted a five-thousand word chunk from the middle of a twenty-five-thousand word story. I prefaced my submission with a couple of paragraphs of backstory. It quickly became obvious that most people hadn’t read the preface, because most of their comments were addressed therein. The most annoying criticism was that the primary speaker sounded as though she were… Read more »

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    Writing trauma is always hard and painful and often painful to read. There was a Dan Koontz novel with had some long painful chapter I almost gave up on. I think if you can re-work it to make it slightly less traumatic for the reader but just as traumatic for the character you could use it. Consider using a close third instead of first?

    Jerry Schwartz
    Guest
    Jerry Schwartz

    I’m not familiar with the term “close third.”

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    I wish I had a good example you could look at right away so I don’t. So I’m going to do it this way… My favorite narration is a God third, which is omnipresent point of view. Lets start out far from the action, the edge of the universe, but lets zoom in like a movie camera. Roll ’em Lester! Oh, there’s Earth, lets get closer, We can see and hear people who may or may not be connected to her in some way; also friends, enemies, family, unlike first person we can observe them without our protagonist being near.… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz
    Guest
    Jerry Schwartz

    Ah. I often write in the third person. In this case, the narrator is the male protagonist. We’re in his head as he tries to cope with his own feelings towards her as she sends him mixed signals. This is her big reveal, and I think it would be tedious and have less impact if it were delivered in the third person. Among other things, what she says and how she says it are important in conveying what’s led up a beautiful, confident woman to fall to pieces.

    david lemke
    Guest
    david lemke

    I like to write in first person, present tense. I feels more immediate to me. A limitation of first is you can’t know what you protagonist doesn’t know (unless you split it between protagonist and antagonist)
    A classic example of a first person protagonist narrator is Charlotte Brontë ‘s Jane Eyre (1847), in which the title character is also the narrator telling her own story, “I could not unlove him now, merely because I found that he had ceased to notice me”

    Lori Thatcher
    Guest

    I’ve attended quite a few critique groups and workshops. One of the worst/harshest ones was run by an MFA candidate as part of his own course work. I volunteered to go first, knowing I might back out otherwise. He had already totally rewritten my memoir short, word by word, changing just about everything so I didn’t get much comment on what I wrote except that it wasn’t good. I should have suspected a problem after he asked who wanted to be eviscerated first. Why does it have to be that? By that time in my writing life, I had gained… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz
    Guest
    Jerry Schwartz

    I always preface my critiques with this disclaimer: This is your story, not mine. It has to be in your voice, not mine. If I don’t like it, that’s my problem.

    Susan
    Guest
    Susan

    Hi David, The worst I ever got was partly because I was expecting something really great. I wrote to a friend who lives in England and gave her a synopsis and brief outline of my story, and I was fully expecting her to say, “Oh, that’s wonderful.” Instead since I had used the term “pell mell” incorrectly in her judgment (in an outline, not even my actual writing yet), I got an angry three page essay about the meaning of the term and how in England at least they know how to use words before they try to write. And… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz
    Guest
    Jerry Schwartz

    I agree that the more specific the comments are, the better. When I critique a work, I do it in two ways: I mark up the actual document, allowing myself to get as nitpicky as I feel justified; and I send a separate set of comments that are given from a more global perspective. In the former, I might quibble about grammar or applaud a turn of phrase that I like. In the latter, I would typically talk about character development, plotting, and the structure of the piece.

    Susan
    Guest
    Susan

    That’s a really good idea; to do two runs. I don’t mind nitpicky. I did not mind being challenged on the meaning of a word. I just didn’t want to be lectured and condescended upon. I think the detailed stuff is important too–a clever turn of phrase can really add to the enjoyment of reading.

    Jerry Schwartz
    Guest
    Jerry Schwartz

    Absolutely…but I’d rather not take up discussion time pointing out missing commas.




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