How to cope with criticism without losing your mind

Peanuts criticism cartoonGive someone half a chance, and he’ll criticize you for the smallest thing. People who read my manuscripts criticize the color of a character’s boots, or the choice of “a” over “the.” We give acres of screen space and paper to members of the chattering class who have nothing better to do than to point out our flaws. Critics can win a Pulitzer Prize, for Christ’s sake. Imagine this: Two Pulitzer winners standing on a stage, one the winner of the criticism award, who slammed the novel of the writer standing next to him, having just won the literature prize. Awkward!

The word “critic” implies finger-wagging in the popular culture. A more nuanced definition points out the critic’s role as an objective viewer who offers explanatory analysis. (Or he’s just a finger-wagger with a bigger vocabulary.) In the creative world, we have to put up with critics, and by the same token, reviewers. And in the literary world, criticism has become a pastime, rather than a vocation.

The new writer is especially vulnerable to critics. If the idea of someone criticizing your work terrifies you, here’s some ideas for coping.

It’s Never Personal. Well, almost never. I swear some of my reviewers were out to get me because I transposed two letters of their name or said they were 34 years old instead of 33. Lay off, already! Fortunately, the larger reality is comforting. The vast majority of people who pick nits don’t know you, and so the criticism can’t be personal. That’s especially true on Amazon and other online booksellers. Some critics just feel the need to speak their mind, no matter how empty it is. If you’re lucky enough to have friends and relatives who’ll give you honest feedback about your novel or poem without hurting your feelings, my hat’s off to you. On the other hand, you may have handed them the best passive-aggressive hate tool ever.

They’re Trying to Help. Most critics who offer positive suggestions are either loving friends and family or editors. An editor is a unique type of critic, in that he or she is paid to criticize you, and then must put up with whatever updated drek you send back to him or her for further criticism. I’ve had a few editors who had no idea what they wanted or what they were doing, and these people ought to be registered as instruments of torture.  It’s a joy to find a reader or an editor whose ideas actually improve a story or manuscript in substantive ways. Believe it or not, they’re out there.

Let It Roll Off Your Back. Like water off a duck’s feathers, that is. This is probably the hardest thing for new writers, or practically anyone who has to endure a review of some kind, to internalize. The trick is separating the facts and concrete suggestions from the emotionally charged packaging. We tend to focus on our own hurt feelings, even if the critic tries to let us down easy. For writers, it’s easy to withdraw after a bout of negative feedback. But then you’ll never build those emotional calluses that help us survive future onslaughts. Or you could just do what I do: Imagine that the critic wrote their review without their pants on. It’ll make your day.

How do you cope with criticism? Comment below.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s