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How Should Writers Handle Praise & Criticism?

As writers we’re on a continual seesaw of ups and downs with the praise and criticism we receive. On the one side we long for affirmation in our writing, but on the other end we want constructive criticism. How can we find a balance with these two conflicting emotions?

The Praise:

We all need validation in our writing. At least I’m constantly craving it. But since writing is very subjective, we often have a difficult time sorting through feedback. I see two traps we can fall into with how we view positive remarks.

1. Cling to the praise too tightly. When we get feedback we usually evaluate the negative comments before we decide what we should change. When one person tells us our opening is flat, we may not rush to change it, especially if they’re a non-writer. But if a number of qualified people tell us the same thing, we give their feedback more weight.

If we give careful consideration to negative comments, shouldn’t we weigh the positives too? Aren’t they equally subjective? Perhaps we’ve received praise for a book idea, writing style, or the first chapter of our manuscript. But have numerous people given us the same kind of praise? And were those people knowledgeable of industry standards?

2. Toss aside the praise too easily. This happens to be my problem. When someone compliments me, I think, “They’re just being nice” or “Sure, but what do they really think?” or “I bet they say that to everyone.”

In some ways, this is a defense mechanism, a way of protecting ourselves from being hurt. We long for the affirmation and deep inside need it, but if we keep the praise at arm’s length, then when we get a negative comment, we think we won’t be so devastated. We tell ourselves, “See, I wasn’t really that good after all.”

The Criticism:

Although we crave validation in our writing, we need the constructive criticism just as much, if not more. But again, I see two traps we can fall into with the negative feedback.

1. Allow the criticism to pull us down too far. I’ve seen plenty of writers get a rejection or two from agents or editors and then stop querying. One agent who rejected The Preacher’s Bride (releasing in the fall) took the time to write me a personal note about what he didn’t like. While I gave his ideas some thought, I didn’t let it stop me.

The same thing happens when we get feedback from a critique group or editor. It’s easy to fall into the “I’m a terrible writer and when will I ever be able to write anything besides crap” trap. Partly, we need to develop thicker skins and partly we need to let the feedback light a fire inside us—the determination to learn more about the craft and the drive to keep writing and improving.

2. Brush aside the criticism too quickly. The danger some of us face is thinking we can write whatever we want, however we want. After all, we’re artists, and we can’t possibly control the muse without compromising creativity, right?

Wrong. If the muse is seeking publication, then it has to bend the knee to the reader. We can blame the publishing houses for being too picky, but ultimately they’re bound by the same master—the reader. Ultimately, if we’re serious about traditional publication, then we have to be open to change, especially changes that will appeal to our readers.

Summary: I've come to realize that when I have an overload of either praise or criticism, I grow too self-absorbed and my writing suffers. I swing either too high or too low. The trick is learning to accept both, absorb what I can, then shrug it off and get back to my writing.

In other words, while we look to others for feedback, we should never let their comments define who we are. We are writers. And we should continue to write with confidence and joy the stories that are in our hearts and souls.

Where are you on the seesaw of praise and criticism? Do you cling to praise or toss it aside? And how do you handle criticism—do you brush it off or let it weigh you down?

*Part 2 in the series Writer Emotions: Praise & Criticism

49 comments:

  1. I'm reading the Att of War for Writers. Mr. Bell touches on this a little. About how easily swayed our egos are. We get praise and we soar, we get criticized and we crash. I think, for someone like me, who gives and receives love with words of affirmation, my confidence is on a constant teeter-totter. By the grace of God, I will get to a place in the middle, grounded in Him, not swayed by the subjectivity of man. In a place where I smile at the praise, listen for truth in the criticism, but stand firm in Jesus, and who He's called me to be. I'll let you know when I get there. ;)

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  2. I agree with you on everything you wrote!

    When I get praise, I tend to think they were just being nice.

    When I get criticism, I tend to want to put my story in the shredder.

    I'm working on finding a way to use both to improve my writing skills.

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  3. You know, I'm REALLY thankful for my CPs. They give me such a wonderful blend of believable praise and honest criticism that I've found myself in a healthy, happy medium place insofar as this is concerned!!

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  4. Jddy, first of all, thanks for your loving thoughts on my blog. It means a lot.
    As far as criticism, at first, I swung back and forth like your seesaw analogy. Now I try to take it in stride and learn from it.
    Karen

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  5. Oh, Oh! (hand raised, squirming in seat). I'm reading an excellent book on this very topic called, The Vertical Self. It addresses how we've become a culture obsessed and grounded in what others think about us--in our "image".

    Our image is in many ways malarchy. God's opinion alone counts.

    I struggle with a horse-pulling relationship with clinging, then flinging praise. Trusting it too much to not at all. And criticism has the ability to shackle me to the bottom of the ocean if I'm not careful.

    I have much to learn on this topic. It fascinates me.

    Thanks for making me think.
    ~ Wendy

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  6. The last thing I had published, about nine months ago, appeared in print and on line. Many people who read the print version sent me notes and emails, the majority of them them, positive. The on line version, (still available) hosts seven comments, a few of which which are negative. People who read the article on line now, see those comments and feel bad for me. I have to assure them that they are only seeing a piece of the response...and clear thoughtful criticism is always welcome (although I'm not sure I'd put those comments in that category.) To your point though, we can always drown in negativity if we choose too. I'd rather as you say: "learn to accept both, [the positive and the negative] absorb what I can, then shrug it off and get back to my writing." It is important to be open to recommendations, while remaining strong within ourselves.

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  7. excellent points- I find it difficult, being the people pleaser that I am... I'm learning how important it is to first write just for me, be very selective about who sees the work and then when it's finally ready to be "OUT"... to just let it go and let whatever comments wash over and through me.. Rather like raising and letting go of a child

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  8. The best way to handle praise is to accept it gracefully. Criticism can take a while to over come the hurt. There may be ulterior motives for the critical comment. Those that truly want you to succede will critique not criticize.

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  9. After every sermon my husband will ask, "How was everything?" He longs to know that he painted a clear picture, engaged the congregation, and delivered a concise gospel message.

    I chuckle on the inside,"You let the Lord use you dear, thank you."

    That is what our writing is, letting the Lord use us. I try and remind myself that pleasing Him is the only gauge that matters.

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  10. My husband, who played Division 1 basketball in college and went on to a brief professional stint and had to deal with the media, is fond of saying, "You're never as good or as bad as they say." I've found this to be steadying in many aspects of life, but especially in writing.

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  11. I've been on an emotional see-saw the past few days and on the verge of tears more often than not regarding my writing. I have a tendency to think people are "just being nice" when they praise my work. Criticism stings, but I can't improve if I don't get it. What I hate most of all is when people don't say anything just to protect my feelings. How can I better my writing if readers don't tell me (honestly) what they think? And while it bugs me that I can't write how I want to write and I have to take into consideration what the reader needs, my ultimate goal IS publication.

    Although it feels as though I'll never get there . . .

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  12. I love praise! It gives me warm fuzzies for a moment and then I coach myself not to let it go to my head, I'm not Nicolas Sparks - yet. ;)

    Criticism is equally as great - I'm a sucker for criticism I guess. But then the criticism I've received always seems positive to me even if it says my work stinks. I appreciate honesty. Like when my DH says my butt DOES look big in these jeans. Why would I want him to lie and say it doesn't then let me walk out of the house looking like I have a hot air balloon in teh back of my pants?

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  13. I have to say I linger way too long in the criticism and not enough in the praise. I'd like to think I can handle both in large quantities but that's probably not so. Like you I find myself questioning the praise and completely believing the negativity. It's a hard thing to put your paper baby out there.

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  14. Thanks for another great post, Jody.

    I don't like to admit this, but I tend to be a glass is half empty kinda gal. My natural inclination is to latch onto criticism and discount compliments. However, the Lord is working a change. I received some excellent feedback recently that included praise as well as suggestions for improvement, and I welcomed both. My story isn't perfect, but it isn't garbage either. By embracing the positives and learning from the negatives, it will get even better.

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  15. This is such a wise post, Jody. You really nailed the insecurities (or arrogance) that we feel as writers. I think I lean more toward wanting praise but struggling to accept it. I'm usually pretty good about dealing with constructive criticism well.

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  16. Very well put. It's like when you compare yourself to others. Either you think your better or worse and both feelings aren't good.

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  17. A tenuous tightrope indeed to walk. Truth from trusted critique partners, agents, publishers, those who have the book's best interest at heart, should be carefully mounted on a slide and studied.

    Nice post, as usual!
    Patti

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  18. I said to my husband over coffee the other day, "They're just words. Just words on a page. I can move them around, change them, even erase them. They aren't me."

    He nodded. " Like Lego blocks," he added. We both smiled and sipped our coffee.

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  19. Balance : a tricky but necessary thing in all of life. I strive for it in my writing especially where the negative is concerned. I haven't been involved in a writing community in a long while, but I struggle with the negativity I see in the industry reports.

    We have to take the good with the bad and focus on what we do, trusting we're doing our best. The criticisms can make us stronger if we let them. The praise will help us through the bad times.

    Happy Wednesday,
    Jen

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  20. I was just thinking about this last night. In fact, I almost posted about it. I agree with you here. We need to keep a fine balance when it comes to what others say about our writing.

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  21. Writing praise or crits are kinda like those you receive on your new hair-do. You enjoy the comments that validate your choice of a hot pink streak in your hair, and dismiss the ones who pooh-pooh it. After all, it's YOUR hair. :D

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  22. Yep. If I'm not sure how my chapter will be received, I don't read its critique on my writing day or it can kill my creative juices. I start to obsess over how I can improve that chapter instead of moving on to the next. LOL

    Lynnette Labelle
    http://lynnettelabelle.blogspot.com

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  23. This is such an important topic, and we all have our own ways of dealing with praise and criticism. I think the first step is to become aware of what our gut instinct is - especially if it is to hide, defend ourselves, crawl into a hole. Then we can separate out those feelings and use the feedback in a positive, useful way - which is probably how it was intended. And if your critquer didn't intend to be helpful, just give them a thump.

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  24. It can be so difficult to balance praise and criticism. I enjoy hearing praise, but often do the brushing off of it. Criticism I appreciate, but have to really look at it for what it is. Sometimes I let it weigh heavily on me and sometimes that is not a good thing:)

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  25. Excellent post, Jody, and a subject of pertinence to me. I like the idea of letting the feedback 'light a fire' inside you, and you make an excellent point in that the creative responsibility always lies with the writer in the end. Sometimes I feel I'm hoping too much for somebody to tell me how to 'fix' my work, when in the end, the decisions remain mine.
    I have also blogged on this topic, if anyone is interested.

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  26. The ego is a tricky mistress. I'm like you, I listen for the kernels of truth, and let it go. Life is too short to dwell on the praise or the criticism. Getting on with the work and joy of writing is where our time and energy is best spent. ;-)

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  27. I am anxious to receive either praise or criticism and I think I am gracious in my handling of both. But either way, I want reasons, evidence, and suggestions regarding why something is praised or criticized so it will help me to grow as a writer.
    If something tells me something is good, I want to know why they thought it was good and what I had done to make it so.
    If they are criticizing, I don't want them to just tell me they didn't like it or didn't agree, I want to know what was wrong with the writing in their opinion and how I could have made it better.

    That is often the problem with blogging. A lot of folks just slap on a comment (in most cases nice and genteel) and don't say anything beyond that. Please don't stop, but maybe they could expand by saying something like, "That was so nice ..... because (fill in the blank).

    Jody, your post was really well done because the thoughts were well structured and this is something that we as writers (as well as anyone else) think about and deal with on a regular basis.

    Lee

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  28. I think I've always been pretty good at accepting criticism (as long as it's given nicely). I can take it and channel it into making my work better.

    I'm not as good with praise though. It makes me uncomfortable and I, like you, always wonder if people are just saying it to be nice.

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  29. I find that when receiving feedback about my writing, I sometimes only hear the negative. The comment can be "I loved your opening chapter. I think you need to work on putting your main character into action and give her more life the reader can relate to." All I might hear is the part 2 of that. I'm working on accepting praise, being thankful for it, and then, like you said, take what I can from the negative and get back to work.

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  30. I pay much closer attention to the criticism than I do praise. Praise embarasses me actually, but I expect to be criticised. Geez, that sure sounded negative, didn't it. Hmmm, I think I need to take a closer look at my attitude. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

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  31. Hi Jody -

    I find it hard to strike a balance in this area. When I work so hard, and people tell me it's still not good enough, discouragement can rob me of motivation.

    The solution: I pray and ask God to show me how to improve my writing. After all, He's the ultimate writer.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  32. I have a hard time accepting praise. I'm learning to get better at it. And I have a bad habit of dwelling on criticism. Trying to get better at that too.

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  33. I think it comes down to humility and grace.

    Humble enough to accept criticism gracefully, humble enough to accept praise gracefully.

    And to know that not all praise or criticism is created equally.

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  34. Great questions. I hope that with criticism I neither brush it off or take it to heavily. I try to take it seriously and weigh whether it feels right to me.
    With praise, I'm tempted to brush it off. I always feel like people are being nice.
    It's easier to handle anonymous praise because an anonymous critiquer has no reason to say something unless they mean it. :-)

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  35. When the praise comes from a friend or family I love it but I don’t place it too high - 'cause they love me. BUT when they criticize it I'm all sad about it, because that hold more weight because they wouldn’t say anything bad if they didn’t love me. I know I sound like a crazy person, but I’m trying hard to balance the crazy!

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  36. So far I think I teeter pretty balanced. Probably because I have a great writing group that does a wonderful job of balancing the praise and helpful criticism. :)

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  37. All of the above???

    Except maybe letting the critisism get to me. Usually it just emboldens me to either a.) do better or b.) prove them wrong.

    But the praise... sometimes it is so easy to be like, "Somebody LIKED it!!!" but in the end, I tend towards the "they're just saying that..." attitude.

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  38. I tend to think people exaggerate the positive. When I get compliments, I think they are saying it in order to say something. I need to learn to believe what people are saying. Thanks for sharing this, Jody.

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  39. That is a tricky one. I think I see-saw. Mostly I shun praise and embrace the negative. I tend to believe the negative more because I think if someone has the guts to say that something is wrong with my work then they really mean it. Where as if someone says my work is good, I don't know if they mean it. I don't know where they are coming from. So I probably don't handle any feedback, positive or negative as well as I could. I actually like negative feedback though. It always drives me further. Positive feedback almost pulls me down sometimes because I tend to think people aren't being real with me. How crazy is that! :)

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  40. Tabitha -

    You have a good point and to a great extent I agree with you. I wouldn't go so far as to say that positive feedback pulls me down, but I tend to disregard the positve more unless it is backed up by something.
    Lee

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  41. A very informative post again. It's always good to have positive feedback but I've also considered whether the feedback was actually from a writer or perhaps a friend who just wants to make you feel better. We need the positive approach when writing I think, but to be criticized is also a good thing in so far as it can encourage us to re-think.

    CJ xx

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  42. I am definitely my harshest critic, so when I've received feedback, it's never been as bad as what I've dealt myself.

    So far, anyway.

    It's been easy for me to accept the feedback, even when it's been negative. It's much harder for me to accept praise because it's mostly been from non-writers and...well...what does my mom know anyway?

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  43. Criticism sometimes weighs me down. Praise only momentarily makes me big-headed. You're right, we need to look to our Creator for His direction and mood altering, not what others think.

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  44. I'm also of the skipping over the praise to really want the hard stuff inclination. This is a thoughtful and through-provoking piece. Thank you (as always) for this food for thought.

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  45. I confess that I let some criticism get me down.

    I forget any praise and only see the glaring red. I feel so lost, so sad. I feel as if I am kidding myself by even thinking that I could do this whole writing thing.

    I'm coming off a recent bout of self-pity. Thankfully, God booted me in the hiney and told me to grow up.

    Good post!

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  47. Most interesting post. I think I get neither praise nor criticism because I tend to run and hide after I've written anything - which is ridiculous if I intend others to read anything I've written. It's especially bad at church, where I've worked on a prayer book, and shared some other writing. I'm happy to offer my gifts but I have a hard time being acknowledged. But maybe it speaks to how I might handle praise and criticism. Beats me but you've given me much to ponder!

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  48. Great post, Jody. I think the key to both is to receive and respond graciously, which isn't always easy, even with praise.

    With praise, we need to learn to accept it, embrace it and respond to it without dismissing ourselves or buying into it so much that we lose perspective.

    With criticism, we need to step back and take a breath. We need, first of all, to ask, "what place does this person have in my life?" some people criticize because lashing out at others gives them a sense of power, and those are the ones you do dismiss.

    But sometimes, there's something valid and useful in the criticism. Not every project is going to work. And, while we want/hope our readers will go on the journey of growth with us and continue to support us even when we stumble, sometimes someone can point out something and we can learn more from what doesn't work than from what does.

    The intent behind both the praise and the criticism is as important as its content, in my opinion. You don't want to be surrounded by either brown-nosers or the toxic.

    When we put our work out there, not everyone is going to love it. We can't lash back and we can't threaten to pack our toys and go home, and we especially can't allow some anonymous troll to censor us or bully us. We have to develop the resilience to handle both the ups and the downs.

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  49. if someone has a valid reason for their criticism I don't mind, but deconstructive criticism is annoying

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