How To Take Criticism & Use Feedback
There’s no nice way to say this. When I was doing my undergrad degree in creative writing, I had a major attitude problem.
I was highly respected by my professors, who were always quick to praise my work. I was in something like four honors societies. By the end of my junior year, I’d received three publication acceptances, one of which was a paid opportunity. And I kind of let it go to my head. Okay, not kind of. I totally let it go to my head.
I lorded my knowledge of books over everyone. I was a total jerk to a bunch of people.
I was Hermione Granger on crack.
Getting accepted to an MFA program only boosted my ego, and I think a part of me thought that my grad school world was going to be a continuation of my charmed undergrad experience.
On the first day of class when we went around the table for introductions, I reeled off my long list of honors and my publication credits, only to be met with total silence. No one was impressed.
Then, I had my first story workshopped. I’ve written about this before in a previous post, and if you’re a subscriber to my newsletter, you’ve read it there as well. But to put it mildly, the feedback took me down several notches, and I realized I wasn’t quite the budding genius I thought I was. But that wasn’t all.
In addition to a soul-shattering hour of criticism in class, I took home a stack of critiques and marked up copies of my story that was easily 100 pages thick. So there I was, sitting on the carpet in my crappy efficiency apartment with this monolith of feedback in front of me, still reeling from the workshop experience and thinking that I was way, way in over my head…and the biggest question on my mind was, What am I supposed to do this thing? I started flipping through the critiques. Little by little, the amount of work I needed to do to make the story better crashed down around me. I started to get mad, and the more I read, the angrier and more overwhelmed I got.
These people don’t get it. They don’t see what I’m trying to do. Ugh, what am I doing here? Maybe I actually suck. Maybe I should just go home.
Then, after watching about two hours of Kids in the Hall sketches, I pulled up the story on my computer and got to work. One by one, I flipped through those critiques and started outlining how I was going to do this. Then I started typing like a maniac.
About three hours later, I’d made some progress, but not nearly enough. The story still sucked. So, I closed up my computer and went to bed, hoping that things would look better in the morning. Okay. Let’s hit the pause button on my story.
This experience is a case study in how not to respond to getting feedback. I did several things wrong in this scenario, and I’ll break them down shortly. But first, let’s acknowledge an important fact:
Having people comment on your story is a risk.
Handing your writing over to someone else to read is like giving someone your baby. There’s always the possibility they won’t understand it, their criticism will be too harsh, or you’ll discover that your amazing story is actually “just okay” and you’ll be faced with a ton of work to do. That’s why it’s important to understand how to handle the feedback you receive and what to do with it: so you don’t get discouraged and completely lose your mind. With that being said, here are my best practices for receiving and implementing feedback in your writing.
#1: Know who you are writing for.
I’ve said it before in past posts, but let me say it again.
You aren’t writing for you. You’re writing for an audience. That means you need to identify who your readers are, know the kinds of stories they like, and understand how your story can impact them. (NOTE: If you need a little help figuring out who your ideal reader is, you’ll want to grab my Ultimate Writing Project Workbook, which contains the Ideal Reader Avatar worksheet. Plus, the entire workbook is packed with templates, writing prompts, and other goodies to help you develop your projects)
Why does this matter for receiving feedback? Because it makes it easier to understand which of your fellow writers will catch your vision and which ones won’t. I wrote about this a little in my post from two weeks ago, but it bears repeating. Sometimes, you can choose the right people to read your drafts. But if you’re in a workshop, a writing group, or another setting where there are a lot of people, that isn’t always in your control.
When you get that stack of critiques back, it’s okay to not read them all. You can front load the ones from people who you think “get” what you’re trying to accomplish and look at the others later. The main point is to know who you are writing for so you can identify who is best fitted to critique it. Which brings me to my next point…
#2: Let the feedback sit for awhile
You are under no obligation to read your feedback immediately. Especially if you’ve just been through a hardcore personal critique in a workshop situation, it’s best to just put that stack of critiques away somewhere and move on with your life until you’re in the right headspace to deal with them. If you try to explore anyone’s comments immediately, you’re more likely to get frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, and you just don’t have time for that negativity. #3: Don’t try to please everyone.
When it comes to getting people’s critiques, some of them are right and some of them are wrong. Everyone is ultimately reading each other’s’ work from the perspective of their own aesthetics and world views.
Very precious few people are able to completely separate themselves from these preferences, which is why you need to identify the readers who are most equipped to set you up for success. If you try to take everyone’s advice, you won’t end up with a story. You’ll end up with a mess. When you finally dig into those papers, you’ll be able to tell immediately what works for you. Set those aside. I always identified my “top five,” and then used those to explore deeper when I was ready to begin my revision. Your story is your story. Letting other people into your process is essential to making your work stronger—but you need to be selective about whose feedback best fits your personal vision.
It’s easy to just want to jump in with both feet out of a desire to remove the giant stack of paper from your life. But identifying your ideal reader, your vision, and the people who truly get what you’re trying to accomplish will make the process a lot easier. And if you have people totally raving about your work…don’t let it go to your head. Trust me on that.
At Inkling Creative Strategies, I take pride in being able to look objectively at people’s work, to understand each client’s mission and passion for their project. Looking for a reader who will give you an honest assessment of your writing according to your goals? I’d love to help. Schedule a free Virtual Meetup on Zoom so you can get answers to your pressing writing questions, share your goals, and see if we might be a fit. Click here to grab some time on my calendar!