Most writers cringe at the idea of criticism. Yet they desperately crave feedback.
Some feel they need to hear they are doing something right. Others want to know everything they are doing wrong, so they can go off and figure out how to do better.
It’s a tough part of the process to navigate. But if you know the different types of feedback you are likely to receive once you start putting yourself out there, you’ll be much more equipped to deal with it. So here’s your not-so-quick guide to handling feedback and criticism in publishing.
Helpful, gentle, constructive feedback
This is the kind of criticism everyone hopes for but doesn’t get from everyone (or anyone). It generally involves a healthy balance of helpful feedback that is presented in a kind and teachable manner, both in its positive and negative aspects.
In one of my writing internships in college, we learned about something I came to call “3×3 feedback.” This required an editor to reply in a very specific way when sending edits and comments back to a writer: Three things the writer could have done differently/better and should keep in mind for next time, followed by three notes about things the writer had done well.
It’s exceptionally important to provide that balance — and very beneficial to receive it. If you’re lucky, you’ll work with a handful of people throughout your writing life who provide this kind of feedback. It requires a well-trained professional who draws on their experience as a writer — and someone willing to take the time and effort to give well thought-out feedback — to offer this gift. When you find these people, hold them close. They are treasures.
How to deal: Appreciate a healthy balance of negative and positive comments. Take note of the things you are doing well, but also remember to take into account the things you aren’t doing well. These are likely your greatest weaknesses, and it can sometimes sting when an editor or manager points them out. Don’t let yourself get discouraged, though. Stay positive while working on the things that need improvement.
Kind, positive, not really all that helpful feedback
This is the kind of feedback writers THINK they want, but actually despise. Because while there is nothing wrong with overly positive statements and kind words, no one is perfect — even you’re aware you’re far from it. And this kind of feedback can make you start to wonder if you’re doing things wrong and aren’t being told about them.
I don’t mind a frequent “great job on that last article” or the occasional “we’re so glad to have you on our team!” Who would? But I’ve worked under people who have done nothing but offer positive feedback, and it’s frustrating. It’s ego-boosting to be told you’re doing good things. But all good writers seek to improve, and how are you supposed to know what to improve on if no one is telling you what you’re doing wrong?
How to deal: In this case, there may be an appropriate time and place to ask for feedback. A simple, “Is there anything I can work on improving?” Is a simple and harmless ask, even if your editor or manager doesn’t have direct feedback for you in that moment.
Also keep in mind that while it’s in our nature to seek out things we’re doing wrong, the case might be that you’re technically doing everything “right.” If you’re someone who follows instructions, pays attention to details, and really makes an effort to produce good work, an editor or manager simply might not have much to go off of.
It takes a little bit more digging to tell someone what they can do better when they’re technically not doing anything wrong. It’s possible, but it’s not always going to come naturally — or at all. Try not to worry. Doing a good job is, after all, a pretty good thing.
Well-meaning feedback that comes off as cold and harsh
Let’s get right to the point here: Some people are extremely blunt when telling people what they think. They’re not being mean or offensive. They’re not on a mission to destroy your confidence. They’re just the type of people to say it like it is. That’s not going to change — which means you might have to.
How to deal: Understand that not everyone wants to sugar-coat their criticism. I’ve heard that Americans in particular are pretty soft when it comes to giving and receiving feedback compared to people from other parts of the world, and honestly, it’s so true it hurts. Our feelings are way too fragile and it’s not worth trying to blame any particular group or generation for that. Basically: Stop being so soft. I’ve screamed this into the mirror way more times than I’m willing to admit. Take blunt criticism for what it is, find the value in it, and don’t take it personally. I’ve gotten a lot better at this the more time I’ve spent putting myself and my work out there, and you can, too.
Harsh, but surprisingly beneficial criticism
One of my favorite parts of Ginger Zee’s memoir is when she describes the figurative beating she took the first week of her first “real” job as a meteorologist. Her bosses sat her down and pointed out every single thing she had done wrong on camera that week — all the way down to her hair and makeup. She was humiliated, and went as far as to wonder if she had chosen the right path after all.
Obviously she didn’t quit because of a few “bad cops” picking away at her greatest weaknesses. She learned from that experience and used it to grow and perform better. She didn’t become instantly amazing, but she took the harsh criticism to heart because someone had told her straight up what she had been doing wrong.
How to deal: Look for the good in the seemingly harsh words. It is there, and you are meant to dig deep to find it. People who offer harsh criticism are using a very specific approach to teaching you how to do your job better. It’s not fun and it might leave you hanging your head. But that’s the point. No one likes to be told they’re not doing a good job. It’s a dark, twisty motivator. It’s going to make you want to pick yourself up and prove you’re more competent than you feel. And it works.
All negative criticism and no positive feedback
This criticism is possibly the toughest to deal with, because it’s usually not coming from a bad place. It’s just extremely unbalanced, and can tire you out rather quickly.
I worked with a managing editor once who did nothing but tell me when I did something wrong. They were kind about it and the feedback was straightforward and much appreciated — after all, I couldn’t have known to do something differently if I hadn’t been told to do so. But by the time I left that position, I could quite literally count on one hand the times they had pointed out something I had been doing well.
I did not take this personally. Most managers with no formal management training aren’t taught to balance their feedback (giving both positive and negative statements) and don’t even realize everything they’re telling you falls into the “you’re doing this wrong/could be doing it better” category. Managers are busy, especially when it comes to coordinating editorial content. They’re almost never doing this on purpose.
However, it did kind of get old pretty quick. I’d see other managers recognizing their writers and editors for jobs well done and I’ll admit I got a little jealous a few times. It’s discouraging to work very hard and feel like no one is noticing, even if, logically, you know they are. Some people don’t point out the good things — that’s simply the reality of the business no matter who you’re writing or editing for.
How to deal: Do the best you can to focus on improving on the suggestions that are being made and keep your chin up. While it’s not exactly a good idea to expect someone to “run out” of negative things to say — though that would leave plenty of room for positives, right? — you do still want to show that you take criticism well and are willing to adapt to the changes you’re being asked to make.
There’s really no smooth way to ask for applause and a pat on the back, if that’s what you’re after. I’m embarrassed to admit it took me a while to realize fishing for compliments really isn’t a practice that belongs in the professional writing world. Nine times out of 10, if you’re doing a good job, silence is how you know. Learn to accept that as the norm — and give yourself a pat on the back every once in a while if you need to.
Hostile feedback from people who don’t know you and don’t want to know you
Let’s keep this last one short and simple: Some people — especially people on the internet hiding behind their avatars and Twitter handles — are mean. They deliberately go out of their way to be mean. They do the best they can to turn criticism of your work into various forms of personal attacks, and they love it when you respond to them.
They are using negativity to seek attention, because they know there are a lot of people out there who will give it to them if they push hard enough. These people are not trying to help you be a better writer or teaching you anything of value. They are simply acting mean, and you have nothing to gain by engaging in conversation with them.
How to deal: Don’t respond. Trolls will almost always remain trolls no matter how kindly you might try to reason with them. Don’t give them the attention they’re after. Don’t even waste any energy worrying about what they’ve said to you. Move on.
Feedback is important. But you can’t pick and choose what you get and tune out what you don’t want to hear. Take it all in, let it make you better, and thank those who set out to help you. No writer ever improved by being told they’re perfect. Expect to be criticized. Embrace it. And keep moving forward, no matter what.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.