Coping with Critics
My son hands me a picture he has drawn and asks, “Do you like it?”
His attention is tuned for my reaction, expectant, hopeful…vulnerable.
Most writers are at least a few decades older, but inside each of us, a child lives, wanting only to know if what we’ve created measures up. Beginners are often terrified to show their work to that first encouraging friend–to expose their naked thoughts to the possibility of scorn. Experience does not always bring with it a surplus of confidence. Many multi-published authors cringe every time a review or reader email arrives. Some sink into bouts of depression as the result of others’ hurtful words. Left unchecked, these self-doubts can weaken–or even destroy–the ability to write.
So how does a writer manage to move past the hunger for approval to
continue spinning stories? Here are some tips gleaned from conversations with seasoned authors.
1. By the time any project comes out in print, make sure you’re immersed in something new. This gives you some emotional distance from the published project, and it also helps you stay in business. Sitting around waiting for the glory–or criticism–to roll in does little more than open the door to self-doubts and all sorts of other neurotic behavior.
2. Realize that the critics you fear most–your relatives, old friends, and former Sunday school teachers–are almost always proud that you’ve managed to write something. They are much more likely to give you enthusiastic pats on the back than objectively analyze your work. Unlike you, they usually don’t know a lot of other writers, so they won’t have anyone with whom they can compare your level of success.
3. Read other writers’ reviews: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Amazon.com is an excellent place to see that not everyone loves Stephen King, Anita Shreve, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, or Tom Clancy. Not even Shakespeare–or any other author you admire. Plenty of unsatisfied readers write really nasty comments. Hopefully, reading these reviews will illuminate the fact that different writers target different readers, and that no one writer on the planet could ever–or should ever–try to please them all.
4. Consider the source. Old friends who want to know when they can expect to see you spotlighted on Oprah aren’t trying to insult you–they simply don’t understand the complex realities of publishing. If your aunt, who happens who hate your mother, responds to her bragging over your latest work with a nasty comment, realize that this is about family rivalries and not your writing. If a reviewer who clearly neither reads nor enjoys genre fiction trashes your science fiction story, don’t take it as an indictment of your talent. Some low-circulation newsletters and fan sites on the Internet review books as a way of getting advance reader copies
for no cost. These reviewers are sometimes inexperienced, unprofessional, or, worse yet, venomous. If you notice a newsletter or website regularly publishes what look more like personal attacks than reviews, avoid sending them review copies in the future.
5. When you receive stinging criticism, designate a limited time period for self-pity. That’s right. Indulge your inner whiner. Set a timer for a half-hour and call a sympathetic friend to rail against the injustice done to you, the obvious idiocy of the perpetrator, and the unfairness of the world in general. You’ll probably get sick of hearing yourself before the half-hour is up. As soon as you’re finished, get back to work on your current project and put aside the slight. If the criticism was particularly vicious and personal, feel free to self-medicate with a massage, a long
walk, or small quantities of really excellent chocolate.
6. When you do receive written notes, emails, and reviews, save them
to reexamine at a later date. There is something in human nature that magnifies the negative, so we will humbly dismiss any number of compliments, yet dwell on any atom of criticism we encounter. When you take out your “feedback folder” at a later time, you will probably realize that you received much more encouragement than you remembered. Also, after time elapses and pain fades, it may be possible to learn something from fair criticism and even to use it to improve your future writing.
7. Last and most important, remember why you write. Respect and acclaim are both wonderful rewards, but both are relatively rare and fleeting. Instead, think back to the sheer joy of putting your thoughts in physical form and finessing them until the words sing on the paper. There must be magic in the process itself. Why else would so many work so hard for so long against such incredible odds, mailing submission after submission to aloof agents and dismissive editors, if not for the sake of the writing itself?
From the moment the choice is made to pursue publication, you are faced with the near-certainty that not everyone will love your work. The skills needed to cope with the unpleasant realities of judgment, criticism, and rejection are as important as any in your writer’s toolbox, for they allow you to continue doing what you love.
This article first appeared in the Fiction Fix newsletter, 8/29/00. Please do not reprint without permission of the author.