A three-step plan for learning from criticism
Thirty-two years of writing for a living has made me familiar with having my work criticized by anyone who can read and write. In other words, people age 5 and older. Welcome to my world.
Sure, some of that criticism has felt like unmedicated dental surgery. But, just as the right attitude can make regular trips to the dentist a way to avoid pain, the right mindset can also transform criticism from emotional pain to professional gain. Here’s my three-step program for how to learn from criticism. Even though I talk about writers, most of the steps also apply to many other professions.
Step 1: Minimize your emotional response (aka learn to take criticism)
Ignore criticism that contains no “why.” This is the number one step. I guarantee you’re going to run into criticism that consists entirely of “Horrible!” or a worse word. I got the following review on one of my books: “Couldn’t even finish.” That was it. I would have loved to know why. Without it, there’s no way I can improve from this criticism, so I ignore it. Likewise for mean-spirited criticism. Don’t dwell on it (much easier said than done, I know). Move on.
Ask for more detail when you get vague criticism like “make it more conversational” or “make it more professional.”
NEVER take criticism personally. Writers often pour our hearts and souls into our writing. It’s brilliant and beautiful, like a newborn baby, eyes full of sparkle and life. Then someone comes along and calls it crap. If you put a lot of yourself into doing work you care about, it’s easy to associate criticism of your work to criticism of you. That’s almost never the case, so turn away from the knee-jerk feeling that your honor has been impugned. If you take criticism personally, you’ll become angry and sad and won’t last long as a writer.
Don’t fall in love with your work (or yourself). This is a huge danger that snares many of us. Pro tip: Even though your mom, friends, and the random five-star reviewer say so, you’re not the greatest writer in the world. Neither am I. An overestimation of your own talent leads to being defensive, which is a death sentence to your career.
Also, keep in mind this isn’t a competition where only one person wins. If someone else is great, you can still be great too. There can be two (or 2,000) winners here. The only person you should measure yourself against is you. Are you improving day after day, year after year? That’s all that matters.
Step 2: Learn to seek criticism. Not because you are a masochist, but because it’s the raw material for improvement
Find the grains of truth. Almost all criticism that goes beyond a simple condemnation (“Couldn’t even finish”) contains at least a grain of truth. Learn to embrace the concept of “Harsh, but fair.” Critics will sometimes cause me to look at things I didn’t consider before, like sentence length, passive voice, word efficiency, organization, and more. Prompted by these comments, a fair review of my work often confirms some of the reviewers’ points.
That’s OK because I don’t take it personally, and I know I’m not the greatest. Sometimes you have to weed through a lot of useless or even angry stuff to find the nuggets of truth, but they are usually there. The best criticism contains boulders of truth. Using criticism to build honest self-evaluation skills will come into play at the next stage.
Find your fair critics. The classic definition of “criticism” involves providing both good and bad feedback. Seek this holistic criticism from someone whose talents you respect and who can communicate what’s good and bad. You do NOT want a go-to critic who always tells you you’re awesome. Praise is like sugar: It tastes good and gives you a buzz, but if that’s all you live on, you’ll die. You’ll never improve if all you get is positive, and you’ll go insane or give up if all you get is negative. Find fair critics.
Step 3: Be your own toughest critic, aka apply lessons learned from your critics
Have high expectations for yourself. If you want to grow as a writer, use criticism to identify weaknesses necessary for improvement. When you learn to unsparingly find the good and bad in your own work, you will steadily improve.
Bonus tip: Experience helps. It’s very hard for rookie writers to take criticism because 1) they aren’t as experienced as veteran writers, as a rule, and 2) they tend to lack confidence. When you’re just starting out, there is more to criticize. Accept that you’re inexperienced. I did, and it helped a lot. You’ll build confidence, which is critical to helping you decide if the criticism is fair or not. If you keep at it, you’ll get there.