A Step-By-Step Guide to Take Criticism Well and Learn From It

taking & learning from criticismMost writers seek out critiques, reviews, beta-readers, even their mum or dad, sibling or spouse to help them improve on their work. Some people can take even the harshest criticisms (note: a criticism isn’t, “Hey, your writing sucks!” That’s just hate and pretty dang nasty), and some can’t even take, “Well, your grammar needs work…” And so, here’s my step-by-step guide of how to take criticism well and learn from it. (Can you tell I’ve had a lot of criticism in my time?)

  1. Take a deep breath. Whatever you’re about to hear will criticise your writing, your work and what you’ve spent so much time on – and probably negatively at that. So make sure you’re calm before opening it. Even if much of it is positive, take a deep breath anyway ’cause if you squeal in delight too quickly you’ll probably get hiccups.
  2. Read the criticism. Just the once. Work out your initial reaction. If you’re super upset, angry or frustrated, don’t do anything. Just have a cup of tea or coffee or whatever works for you and take yourself away from your work for a little while. Come back with a fresh, calm head. It’s ok to be upset if the criticism is very negative. Hell, have a cry if you want. But basically what I’m trying to say here is: don’t do anything rash which might damage you, your work and/or your reputation AND/OR, a friendship with someone (eg angrily emailing the person who gave you the critique and saying they’re a blithering idiot who shouldn’t even be allowed to read other people’s work). 
  3. Once you’re calm, read the criticism again, and then once more but slowly. It’ll help you to take it all in, and by the third time you’ve read it (make sure to read it slowly: by this time, you’ll know the text and can tend to skip over the words. Don’t. Read it properly) you’ll be calm and knowing what to do next as well as knowing the text well enough to be able to mull it over when you don’t have it in front of you.
  4. Thank the person who gave you the critique. Just a simple email, text or if you can see them face to face say “thanks” to them. A good critique takes a long time, so thank them for their time, even if it’s quite negative. And they might even help you out again! – And, they’ll probably be more likely to if you’re nice to them.
  5. Make a plan of what to do next. Did they continually pick up on your grammar/spelling/punctuation? Do they think the romance is too fake? Is the main character too perfect or too flawed to be believable? A step-by-step plan helps you in your organisation and it also means you won’t forget anything if you just tick it off.
  6. Work through your plan and implement it in your work and hopefully you’ll get a better piece of work from it! 
  7. Give yourself a pat on the back and do something enjoyable. You’ve done pretty well.

Remember that critiques are designed to help you, not hinder you. Just make sure that the person knows what they’re doing as much as possible. If you can, get more than one critique of your work and compare them before acting on them. If the critiquers are saying the same thing, then that’s probably something to work on. If only one is saying something (or, worse, if one says they hate something and the other loves it) it’s probably safe to use your own judgement here, or even seek a third opinion if you can find one.

Don’t take negative criticism as a, “Hey, you suck!” It might just mean a, “Hey, you know if you worked on this it would help you a lot…” And remember, as I say a lot, writing is meant to be enjoyable. So enjoy it. (As much as possible anyway; I mean, sometimes those characters can be right old codgers.)

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