why it hurts (and how to soothe the pain)
It was the second time my writing critique group had seen this particular essay. I had revised based on their first round of feedback, most of which had been about a tweak here and an adjustment there. I’d already submitted it to a publication, of which the editor had promptly rejected it. I wanted my group to help me refine it further so that I could try again with confidence.
The essay was about my struggle with missing my hometown – which ultimately represented my youth – and how I still didn’t know who I was if I didn’t live there since it was embedded in my identity.
This time, the feedback was a little more direct.
“There are things here that I don’t understand.”
“I don’t think you know what you are trying to say here.”
“I don’t think you are actually ready to write about this.”
Criticism of our writing can be painful, whether it comes from trusted friends or an editor you’ve never met. We have chosen a topic, labored over the word choice and phrasing, revised and revised until our eyes crossed. Not only that, but often the topic is extremely personal, the characters and events so close to our hearts that even if they are fictional they feel like an extension of us.
In my experience there are three circumstances under which “constructive feedback” hurts. Let’s start with the most obvious one first.
It seems mean-spirited. Without going into a lecture on the philosophy of sticks and stones, let’s just say this: if you think a reader is putting you down for the sake of making themselves feel like a literary genius or just to make you feel small, then that’s about them, not you. But it is worth considering that sometimes people aren’t well-practiced in the fine art of tact, and that maybe there is valuable feedback underneath their harsh words.
You know the feedback is true, but you don’t want to admit it. This is what happened to me with my writing group. When my friend said “I don’t think you are ready to write about this,” I knew instantly that she was right. My thoughts instantly went down a path that sounded like this: Great! I just wasted a bunch of time. Why aren’t I over this thing? I’ve been living away from my hometown for two decades! What is wrong with me? Why did I choose this stupid topic? I’m a terrible writer. I should quit. And so on. No wonder I immediately felt terrible!
It hits a particularly vulnerable spot. My essay about home dealt with a very tender topic and wove in anecdotes and thoughts that I had never shared with anyone before. To hear that it wasn’t effective was hard. Other ways that feedback can poke your wounds might include comments within areas of perceived weakness in your writing skills that you’ve been working hard to overcome, comments that question values that you hold dear, and more.
So what do you do when you feel your face begin to burn or that sinking feeling in your gut?
Action steps for receiving criticism that stings:
- Notice your reaction. Are you flushed? Teeth clenched? Stomach turning? These are physical responses to stress. Simply notice that it is happening, and breathe into it. Relax. Repeat after me: This criticism will not kill me.
- Take the person out of it. If you can, just hear the words. Ask yourself this: if someone had said the same thing in a different way or if someone else had said exactly the same thing, would it be as hard to hear?
- Make notes of practical feedback in a separate place. Write it in your words, not theirs. This way you can save it and return to it when you are ready.
- Later, consider why it felt particularly painful. Does it fit into one of the three categories above? If so, do some work with your thoughts around the issue. Can you change your own perspective a little?
One more thing, and this might be just me. If someone tells me my writing is “good” or “confusing” or “tedious” or whatever, I disregard it unless they give me some specific examples or suggestions. I don’t find it useful otherwise.
Actually, I don’t disregard it if someone says it’s good. I’ll take that any day.
Keep your heads up, writers. Your stories matter…even if someone criticizes them.
If you are interested in diving into this topic a little more, I have a gift for you! I am putting the finishing touches on a FREE downloadable pdf, Care and Feeding of a Critique Group: how to give and receive constructive criticism in a way that moves your writing forward. It will be available on October 15, 2018. If you are interested, put your name on the list and you’ll be the first to receive it!