When Constructive Criticism Hurts

For every person who says, “No, thanks,” there are two more who will be willing to work with you, who want to see you grow and improve.

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Every now and then, when working on trial with a prospective client, I will submit a test article, following all instructions and requests; in response, I will get something like, “Thanks, but this isn’t what I asked for. I guess this isn’t going to work out after all.”

Usually, if the client isn’t willing to work on revisions, the test contract ends; I keep looking for another client. It’s how the business works.

A few times out of many, this situation has left me in a state of crippling doubt. Did I miss something? Don’t they know this is just the beginning? Should I have done something different?

And the worst of the many thoughts a struggling freelancer has, all too often: Am I skilled enough for this?

As a writer, over time, you build up a sturdy wall between you as a professional and you as a human being. What you come to realize is that successful writers do not take professional criticism in any form as a personal attack. If someone doesn’t like what you’ve written on their behalf, for any reason, it’s not because they don’t like you.

However, many of us – myself included – base much of our identities on our profession. You’re a writer; a designer; a manager. My perspective: I write professionally because I have skills and experience in this field; I wouldn’t do it if I weren’t proud to call myself a professional creator of Things People Will Click On and Maybe Even Read All the Way Through.

Being a writer is who I am. I’ve built a life around it, because starting a career as a writer isn’t just exhausting. It’s draining. Sometimes disappointing and soul-crushing. It takes a lot of effort. It makes you feel like you can, and then can’t, and then can again, all in the same day.

So there’s a reason why I will never tell you, “Suck it up and go work for someone else” when you receive criticism on your writing that cuts a little too deep. Because you may be a writer, but you’re also human. You’re allowed to feel a little hurt – a little.

I’m not saying you should wallow and whine and quit writing because a few people are hyper-specific about what they want someone to do for them. Working with clients online is hard. Traditionally, the publishing process is supposed to be about writing a first draft, receiving feedback from a higher-up, revising the original draft and working together until it meets the highest standards possible. Some people still work through this process. Some don’t want to pay good money for quality work, so as soon as they realize they aren’t 150% satisfied with something they’ve paid $20 for, they walk away – because they can.

No, you shouldn’t stomp your feet and threaten to give up. You can’t fall apart completely when you make one too many errors on your first try, or you’ll never make it. But you’re also allowed to take a step back and evaluate why your work wasn’t quite good enough. You’re allowed to question yourself – you’re allowed to say, OK, let’s see – what really happened here? What can I do better next time?

There are some things you should know, before writing something for someone else:

  • Some people are very good at giving good feedback. They will take the time to go over what didn’t go right, even if they’re planning on moving ahead with someone else. They are well-trained and experienced communicators. Even if you don’t work with them for long, cherish them – they can teach you a lot about what you could do better next time.
  • Some people have very high expectations but aren’t willing to take the time to clearly communicate what they want. They get frustrated when there is any miscommunication. Instead of explaining what part of the process went south, they just quit on you. That’s not your fault. Even if you did miss something somewhere, it’s not worth working with someone who doesn’t understand that sometimes, in writing, things get lost – it’s human nature.
  • Remember: they reached out to you. If they didn’t think you had the basic skills and experience to do the work – and do it well – it’s LIKELY they wouldn’t still try to hire you anyway (there are, of course, exceptions – I’m not going to get into that right now). Sometimes, things just don’t work out. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not good at what you do or that you’re not cut out for this business. Maybe it means you should spend more time on proposals, or that you should ask more questions, or you should try to find clients that believe in a more structured editorial process (they do exist).

Sometimes, professional criticism hits us where it hurts. When you’ve worked hard to build up a solid foundation of professional experience, and someone throws away your work like it’s your first day on the job, it can sting. That’s normal. But I can assure you, for every person who says, “No, thanks,” there are two more who will be willing to work with you, who want to see you grow and improve. It might take awhile to find them, but they’re out there. In the meantime, you just have to keep trying. Keep writing. Keep refining those skills. Even if it doesn’t feel like you’re improving, chances are, it’s happening – you’re just to close to it to be able to see it.

People aren’t thinking about your feelings when they’re critiquing your work. There’s a reason we don’t ask friends and family to read our work, generally: because we need to get as used to having our work ripped apart as we can. Yes, often, it feels personal. I know it hurts. When you get a piece of writing back with what feels like more negative commentary than positive feedback, remember that learning isn’t always easy. Growing is sometimes painful. But in the end, you will be a better writer for enduring it all.

Accept the flaws others see in your work. Let go of the people who don’t bother to explain what you could have done better. Ask those who are willing to teach you how you can improve. The strongest writers are the ones who can admit they didn’t do their best – and are willing to treat those moments as learning experiences.

Learn from your mistakes, your failures to communicate, others’ seemingly ridiculous demands. This is a rough life. But you do it, hopefully, because writing is Your Thing. At the end of the day, it gives you life. There will be good times; bad times, too. Keep going. Keep trying. Trying, and failing, has a much higher eventual success rate than never trying, or giving up too soon.


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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