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How to Manage Criticism

March 5, 2012

“It is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.” –Virginia Woolf

To grow as writers, we invite responses to our work. We share our writing with other writers and seek their advice; we take classes and are subject to teachers’ critiques; and we send our precious creations out into the world hoping they’ll be accepted for publication and risking the most potent form of criticism of all, rejection.

Since avoiding criticism is not an option, let’s learn how to deal with it. Don’t allow criticism to harm you, your writing, or your writing goals.

What writer hasn’t been the victim of a stinging critique?

Sure it hurts, but criticism’s power to poison isn’t a given. The poison isn’t inherent in what is said, who delivers it, where or when it happens, or how nasty it is. The power of criticism (and rejection) to damage us lies in how we take it in, what we allow it to mean to us, and the way we allow it to affect our work or eat away at our insides.

When we remain deaf and blind to criticism, we lose out on receiving important information to help us grow as writers. Responding to criticism with anger strains relationships with loved ones, fellow writers, and publishing professionals. Allowing criticism to simmer inside, tormenting ourselves by replaying hurtful words in our minds, imagining responses, or fantasizing about revenge sure doesn’t help either. I once saw a writer get into a lengthy war of words on the Internet over what she judged to be a bad book review. Ugh.

Worst of all is when we allow ourselves to feel diminished or broken by criticism. Someone criticizes our writing, and we stop writing. Or we lower our sights, and stop working on the novel, deny how important our creative work is to our well being, and chalk it off as some little hobby we have that isn’t all that important. We let someone else’s criticism dictate how we’ll live our lives and dream our dreams. How sad.

It doesn’t have to be that way if you can truly embrace the notion that the power of criticism to be constructive, destructive, or neutral resides solely inside of you.

Decide Your Writing Matters. Your deep conviction that your writing matters—really, really matters—will act like a suit of armor to protect you from all obstacles, including the sting of criticism. The famous and successful are not immune to criticism and performance anxiety. They just press forward in spite of it.

Be Ready & Willing. A work in early draft may be too frail and tender for criticism (and so may you).  When your work is first forming it is all too easy to get discouraged by other people’s comments. Sometimes writers show their work early because they’re craving encouragement and praise. Be honest with yourself and others about what you’re looking for when you ask people to respond to your work. Don’t offer up your work for critique unless you’re ready to hear it.

Be Calm, Cool & Collected. For most of us, receiving criticism stirs up strong emotions. Unchecked, your emotions may rise to anger or defensiveness that will negatively affect your ability to receive and process information. Become aware of the physical signs that indicate you’re becoming anxious, and practice relaxation responses such as deep breathing to stay in control in the face of criticism.

Manage Your Self-Talk. Disappointed by criticism, your inner critic may stop you in your tracks because what you’re producing doesn’t match your ideal. However, this kind of anxiety can be helpful, because it encourages you to recognize work beneath your standard and revise it. In fact, being able to rigorously critique your own work is an essential part of the writing process. The inner critic is only dysfunctional when it can’t make the shift from critical to useful, or it makes you feel too bad to continue working. Make it your practice to dispute self-sabotaging thoughts by substituting new, useful thoughts.

Evaluate, Don’t React. Separate the criticism from the person who delivered it, from their tone of voice, and every other emotional context or perception. Start with the assumption there is a nugget of truth in every criticism. Look for that nugget and discard the rest. Often, our beta readers will be right about where the problems in our work lie, but wrong about how to solve them. Listen, but make your own decisions. The pen remains in your hand. And yes, sometimes criticisms are just plain unfair, but probably not as often as we’d like to think. Look for the nugget.


Mary Ann de StefanoMary Ann de Stefano is a writer, editor, and writing coach with 30 years of experience in publishing and writing consulting. She does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing. Her posts appear on this blog the first Monday of every month.

  1. March 5, 2012 9:13 am

    Mary Ann, this is a terrific article! I could really identify! I can tell you from my first hand experiences that you offer sage words of advice. Early on in my writing career, my husband and I had some potent arguments over his critiquing of my manuscript first drafts. (He is a tough critic and reads every document as if its a legal brief!) Each criticism was like a fresh bee sting. I’ve grown up since then, but still remember those early wounds.

    Warm regards,

    • Mary Ann de Stefano permalink*
      March 5, 2012 7:47 pm

      Thanks, Lois. Yes, criticism can feel even more harsh and personal when a family member delivers it. I’m glad you didn’t let those early experiences stop you. Cheers!

  2. March 5, 2012 6:48 pm

    Deciding that your writing matters is really important, because then you will be ready to improve and invite opinions. If I receive nothing but compliments, then I’ll never improve my writing. I want to write fiction, so my best course is to turn to those outside my close friends and family. I promise you, I get plenty of feedback and I’ve learned so much from it!

    Great post!

    • Mary Ann de Stefano permalink*
      March 5, 2012 8:18 pm

      Thanks, Diane. You’re fortunate to have access to lots of helpful feedback. And you have the confidence to receive and learn from it, too. A winning combination for sure.

  3. Chris Hamilton permalink
    March 5, 2012 7:23 pm

    I view it this way: if someone is willing to take the time to read what I write and react, they are doing me a favor by spending that time and reaction on me. If I consider what they say and it has value, I will act on it. If I decide it doesn’t, they still made the effort, and that’s a valuable thing.

    • Mary Ann de Stefano permalink*
      March 5, 2012 8:30 pm

      Really good point, Chris, about being grateful to those who take the time to give us their feedback. Thanks for that good reminder.


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