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How to Respond to Criticism

Last time, I looked at how to deal with your own inner critic [1], and this month it seems appropriate and timely to look at external criticism. Any kind of feedback on your writing—whether good or bad—can be useful, but the negative stuff can hit hard, causing a burst of emotions within you. What’s the best way to deal with that and respond to those who criticize your writing?

Since the latest and final series of Game of Thrones aired, more than a 1.5 million have signed a petition to have it remade. The petition calls the main writers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, “woefully incompetent.” Benioff and Weiss, and the show’s network, HBO, have not yet responded. They probably know that it rarely helps to react impulsively to criticism when you’re full of those initial emotions.

‘Writers are like prize fighters,’ said Norman Mailer. ‘You wake up, sit down at your desk, put yourself through your paces—and wait for the critical blows to fall.’

And Mailer knew what he was talking about. Gore Vidal once likened his book The Prisoner of Sex to ‘three days of menstrual flow.’ Some years later, Mailer saw Vidal at a party, threw a drink over him and punched him. As Vidal got up from the floor, he is said to have replied, ‘As usual, words fail him.’

Ouch!

Authors, a typically solitary pursuit, can feel particularly vulnerable to those harsh critical blows. That’s especially so these days as they can appear not only in the established media but on book forums or even on your own social network pages. Or maybe from that one—you know the one—in your writing group who can’t resist getting in that little dig.

And what do you do? You can get angry, consider hitting back, worry about your writing, start thinking about changing your new book to suit the critics, or worse, consider giving up writing altogether.

So what can you do when confronted by a bad book review or harsh criticism? Change your whole writing style because of some negative feedback, or persist in believing you know better?

The answer is a bit of both.

You should always be open to feedback (providing it’s constructive), accepting that the novel you worked so hard on might have some flaws, but you can still write the kinds of novels you really care about.

Easily said, but how do you go about it?

When writers respond

Whenever you get caught up in those thoughts of revenge, working out witty or angry retorts, or dwelling on the negative aspects of all the criticism, you use up a lot of time and energy that you could be putting into other things, such as your writing.

By going over and over the issue in your mind, you start to give the criticism more attention than it deserves, which leads to further anger and resentment.

These emotions and thoughts can start to cloud your mind. You can think of little else. You then disconnect from the people around you, the people you care about, and you can become reactive. You start acting impulsively, and that’s rarely a good idea.

The internet is full of reports of authors who have hit back at critics, usually on twitter these days (and often involving Brett Easton Ellis). Very few are successful in bringing public opinion back on their side, as Alice Hoffman found out [2], for example. These articles bring even more publicity and the risk of even more harsh comments, and it’s easy to see how a vicious spiral can start.

Also, that takedown you so carefully constructed might not be as perfect as you think. Few people write well when angry. ‘Rage impairs style,’ said Zoë Heller [3] of such matters.

Don’t give the critics a chance to think they were right. Instead, and admittedly this can be difficult, you could try to see this as a learning opportunity. Maybe you could improve some aspects of your writing from the feedback you’ve had.

Take a moment to reflect and ask yourself if you will really benefit in the long run if you react impulsively. Do you want to let this criticism dictate your behavior? Will it help if you allow all those thoughts and emotions to consume you? Or would it be better to see it for what it is—someone else’s opinion—and get on with your writing, the one thing you really want to do?

It certainly won’t help to criticize someone who has criticized you. Don’t get defensive or demeaning. Don’t start arguing or disagreeing.

Feel the pain

You might think that sending off an angry reply will relieve you of those uncomfortable feelings, but that relief is often temporary. You’ll more than likely start checking for a reply to your reply, looking for that apology, or some sign you’ve been vindicated, taking up even more of your precious time.

That’s not to say you should ignore those painful emotions. It’s very natural to be upset or even angry when you feel harshly judged. Acknowledge those feelings and your suffering. You’ve worked hard, put in a lot of time and effort, and a book is often a very personal work. You had expectations and it might look like those will never materialize now. It’s natural to feel the way you do.

But don’t give up. You can still use your talents to write about those feelings. What thoughts and emotions are you struggling with? Anger, frustration, resentment, sadness, fear, and rejection? Try to dig deep and work out why you feel that way. Why is this causing so much pain and anger? And write about it.

For once, don’t try to make it perfect prose, write what comes to mind, stream-of-consciousness style. Remember, this is not for publication. It’s for yourself, and you never know, you might find some inspiration or a few lines you can use in your next book. And then, you could take the opportunity to get even.

Tom Wolfe, for example, hit back at not one but three critics, and big names too. After receiving poor reviews of his novel, A Man in Full, from John Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer (who really should’ve known better), Wolfe took his time and two years later published an essay in reply. It’s title pretty much says it all: My Three Stooges.

How do you deal with harsh criticism? How do you use feedback—good or bad—to improve your writing? If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com and I’ll do my best to help.

About Jim Dempsey [4]

Jim Dempsey specializes in detailed analysis of novel manuscripts. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [5] website, where he looks at different aspects of fiction—character development, plot, story structure, etc.—and uses concepts from proven techniques in modern psychotherapy to offer editing advice to authors who want to publish their novels. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit.