How to Become a Better Writer: 4 Ways to Deal With Criticism

How to Become a Better Writer: 4 Ways to Deal With Criticism

There’s a reason many of us writers refer to our projects as our “babies.” We’ve spent days, months, or even years nurturing the idea and breathing life into every sentence.

After that intimate and solitary process, it can be nerve-wracking to ask others for feedback.

Even when we’re less invested in a project — say, a quick blog post for a client — it can still sting to receive criticism.

Although feedback is incredibly valuable, I still find this part of the writing process to be terrifying whether I’m writing an article for a client or sharing my novel with a beta reader.

Most writers will have to deal with negative feedback about their work throughout their careers, and that’s a good thing! Hearing thoughtful criticism on your work is what helps you learn how to become a better writer — but only if you’re receptive to it.

First things first: Change your mindset

Before you receive your next round of criticism, practice thinking of feedback as a gift.

Every time someone comments on your work, good or bad, it makes your writing stronger. It’s not a negative reflection on you, it’s an opportunity to become a better writer.

Plus, thoughtful feedback isn’t easy to give. If you’ve found a thorough first reader, an insightful editor or a client who’s really able to articulate their needs and collaborate during the writing process, cherish their involvement! It really is a gift to work with people like that.

After I consciously focused on shifting my own mindset about difficult feedback, I began to look forward to honest criticism — and even to solicit it from clients, editors, and beta readers.

Once you’re prepared with a positive mindset about negative feedback, here’s how to deal with it in the moment.

Step 1: Take a deep breath

It’s okay if your first response is anger, frustration or guilt — that’s completely natural. But what you shouldn’t do is stew in that emotion, or let it direct your response.  

Take a deep breath, then spend a few moments collecting your thoughts. If you have time,  take a walk, call a friend, or do something fun to otherwise distract yourself. After you’ve cleared your head, come back and consider your response.

Step 2: Vet your source

Not all critics are created equal, and not all feedback should be taken to heart.

When you’re first starting out, you may not have developed your own internal compass. You may be overly confident in your work, or give too much weight to someone who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about.

As you become a better writer, you develop a stronger personal rudder to help you self-edit and navigate feedback — but even when you know someone’s wrong it can still send you into a tizzy.

I once had a beta reader for a novella tell me only that she didn’t like it, and it didn’t make any sense. When I pressed her for more specific criticism, she said she didn’t have time to clarify.

Obviously not helpful, but just ask my husband about how I spent the next 24 hours stewing over whether or not I was a good writer!

Step 3: Categorize what you’re hearing

Once you’ve had a chance to cool down, go through the feedback again and try to understand exactly what you’re being told.

Is it a problem with how you are handling the topic? Do you need to tweak the voice? Did you not understand the assignment? If you’re writing fiction, is the problem with your story, your characters or your prose?

Taking this step will help you understand exactly how to fix the problem. At first glance it can often seem like everything is wrong — but when you start to categorize the feedback you’ll often see there are only one or two small things that need changed.

Step 4: Ask for clarification

Even if you think you completely understand the feedback, take a few minutes to make sure you’re on the same page. You may want to summarize the changes the person is asking for in an email, or hop on the phone to talk it through.

This is especially helpful if the feedback is from a client or editor — communicating with your clients can avoid future rounds of rewrites by clarifying things before diving into editing.

Do you have any favorite tips for dealing with difficult feedback? Let us know in the comments.

Filed Under: Craft, Freelancing
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33 comments

  • Juanita Ellingson says:

    Thank you for your article. As I am starting out, and stepping out of the box and into the public with my writing, this was an area that really worried me. I loved your tips and most importantly the idea to not take it as a personal attack. This is fantastic, thank you.

    • Jessie Kwak says:

      I’m glad the article helped, Juanita. I can definitely say taking criticism gets easier – but it does continue to sting. Just remember, criticism is a gift, and it makes your writing stronger!

    • Terry says:

      If you’ve done your best it always helps to get revenge on unfair criticism. Set up an Amazon account in the name of a loved/trusted one so you can enjoy the anonymity of a pseudo reviewer and get stuck into the malicious offenders. I’ve had my intellectual property ‘acquired’ , people writing reviews who have clearly not read the book, I’ve had storylines stolen and claims made that this, that and the other are incomplete and so on. Just tell them where they are going wrong and sit back to watch the fun. I had one 24 year old pharmacist say he ‘couldn’t get his head around my book’, straight after a 5 star review, which was my first on Goodreads. I stated I wouldn’t go near any pharmacy he worked at, in case he got the prescription wrong. Boy, did he burn after what else I said, and all he could do was take his review down from 2 stars to one, on a book that Kirkus had praised to the hilt. Some people are born to be manure, it is their nature.

      • Dave Plumb says:

        And coming down to their level helps you how…?

        • Chris Cantor says:

          Dave said it in one.

        • Terry says:

          There is a school of thought that religion was invented by a Roman emperor to help stop the slaves from rebelling. If so, it worked. If you feel that passive works for you, fine, stick with it. It is interesting that you saw fit to come down to my level and respond. Does that make you a hypocrite or did it give you satisfaction? “Dave said it one one” indeed! That’s fighting talk, so carry on.

      • Wendy says:

        i once gave a review on a painting. First off, I wasn’t impressed with it and couldn’t figure out what the artist was going for. As I tried to frame exactly what didn’t jive about it, I realized I was getting a headache. Although it wasn’t trying to be psychedelic, it was having the same effect as some of those dizzying, dancing op-art paintings of the 1960’s. I thought it only appropriate to warn people about this (yes, the headache-inducing psychedelics had warnings).

        The artist apparently took the headache bit as a personal attack. Despite claiming she wore her “big girl pants,” she got my review taken down and ranted at me over several emails about personal attacks.

  • JEN Garrett says:

    Dealing with Criticism must be in the air! I just wrote my own article on “7 Ways to Handle a Critique.”

    It’s so hard not to take it personally, but so important, too.

  • Michelle monet says:

    Thank you for this article. I self-published two books recently and am working on my 3rd now. I realize that once you put yourself ‘out there’ and get ‘in the arena’ as Brene Brown teaches, you WILL be criticized! No way around it.

    The only way you can avoid it is by doing nothing.

    Great tips. thanks!

    • Jessie Kwak says:

      Absolutely, Michelle. I love Brene Brown’s writing about critics and the arena – so inspiring! Thanks for the reminder.

  • Jason Bougger says:

    Nice post and great advice. I would add that you should never take criticism personally. Remember that it a critique of the work; not of you as a person.

    Also don’t think “how could they say that?” and get defensive, but instead consider if the criticism was accurate or not. And if it was accurate, be sure to address (and fix, if necessary) and use it to help make your story that much better.

  • Muhammad Ayoob says:

    Thanks Jessie Kwak mam! I read ur artile and ur suggestions enhanced my confident. As u wrote that when u write first and u have to face many criticism, same happend with me , when i wrote my first romantic story of about 18 pages based on the traditional medwoker family versis a elite class family. I gave to my friend for reading , he just pointed out lot of my mistakes, and i was just giving up my cofidence. but afte reading ur Article I have learnt many ideas. thanks for suggestions.

  • Ashley Simmons says:

    Thank you for your article, Jessie. I loved your tips and most importantly the idea of “Take a deep breath”. I always use such technique for a little relax before the big amount of work and it really helps me to refresh my mind and be ready to start. This is fantastic, thank you for sharing!

  • Jon Penland says:

    Hi Jessie,

    This was right post, right time for me. I’m a fulltime freelance writer and earlier today I received some unsolicited feedback from someone within the industry that I respect. And it was not good, very not good. Anyway, it really took the wind out of me, as you can imagine. I’ve been working all day on trying to get the good out of the criticism – some of it was valid – without taking the baggage that came along with it personally. Anyway, that is all. This post has helped me reframe some of that criticism in a positive light while I still work on shedding negative energy this person threw my way.

    • Jessie Kwak says:

      Hi Jon,

      I’m really glad to hear this came at the right time – and I hope you’ve bounced back stronger since getting that criticism!

  • Tina says:

    I like the philosophy of Toastmasters. They give sandwich evaluations. That means the person giving the feedback must state one good thing, followed by a point for improvement and the followed again by a good point.

    it makes it easier and makes you understand what you are doing well.

    i tell people that is how I want to be evaluated.

    • Jon says:

      That is a good approach. I work part-time as an editor for a premium content agency, and our feedback policy is that we must always start with a positive. Then list no more than 5 fixable issues – even if we want to list 20, we have to stop at 5. Finally, feedback should end with a positive affirmation.

      Not quite the same 2:1 ratio Toastmasters calls for, but a similar philosophy.

  • Emma says:

    Wow, this website is a gem. I will have to spend a long time here. I have a lot of learning to do.

  • Solidworks crack says:

    Looks too simple. But yes its straight to the point.

  • M.James says:

    Good article. I’ve had some stellar feedback and questionable feedback when reviewers admitted they don’t read the genre my piece was written in.

  • Diana M says:

    We all need to grow emotionally and that is hard to do. They don’t teach this kind of growing up in schools. Taking this criticism to heart and mind requires a lot of thought. We can choose right actions or we can cry in our beer. Nobody likes a cry baby; so we should take your advice to heart. I believe in introspection done without judging yourself harshly. But I like your ideas too. We are not required to judge others in this situation, just our own work.

  • Ana says:

    Thank you for this article. I honestly don’t have the guts to post my writings yet on my wall. What I did is just I did a page to post there my write-ups. I have been always worried with my writing style, my vocabulary and my grammar. Thanks to the different blogging and writing groups, it brings me closer to people who loves to write too and encourage me to be proud of my work. Thanks for this article. I agree with everything you posted in here.

  • Pepper Elle says:

    Great article. I think having the right mindset is one of the most important parts of receiving criticism. I found that many people in life are so nice that they are afraid to tell the truth. So when you have someone who is willing to give you thoughtful feedback it truly is a gift. I’m a new writer and I’m having trouble finding someone neutral to review some of my work and my new website. I asked 10 people I trust what they thought and they all said, “It’s nice.”, “You’re amazing!” or “Good job!” At this point, I would love some honest feedback!

  • Mabel Nyazika says:

    Thank you Jessie for this encouraging article, Yes any criticism for something You think and believe You have done your best tends to eat you inside. Like you say taking a step back and deal with the reaction to the criticism will help in seeing negative feedback as a gift which is helpful.
    However when someone in their criticism dismisses your work out right as if to to say “no matter how hard you try you are never going to make it as a writter” can be demaging especially when you may have spent a lot of time and thought in your writing ‘project’ what ever it might be.
    I have not started writing books or anything like that, blogging is my writing project and the criticism I got could have sent me packing and concluding that writing is not for me. Because of determination I am still at it, now and then when I do not get any views on my blog that criticism haunts me.
    I am going to be holding these encouraging tips and continue and not give up writing even if I may not be a potential writer.
    Thank you once again Jessie.

  • Viviana Ioan says:

    Thoughtful feedback, nice! You should consider yourself lucky to get that. At least you’ve given someone food for thought, and that’s empowering.

  • Ashri Mishra says:

    Great post … i am searching such kind of post … Big thanks to u
    keep posting !!

  • Vendy Moon says:

    Jessie, Your words helped me to collect my thoughts. I’d like to thank you for this article. I agree that criticism is a powerful force which moves you forward to be better writer and see clearly your mistakes.

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