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

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