How to Handle Criticism

Critic

Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain… and most fools do. ~ Dale Carnegie

At some point somebody’s going to have something to say about something you’ve written, and you might not like it.

Your first reaction could be any one of these:

“Why is everyone smarter than me?” or “That’s it, I’m quitting,” or even… “I’m gonna find out where you live and head over to deliver a boot full of whoop-ass.”

Criticism comes with the territory when you put your work out there for people to read, so you’d better figure out ways to handle it confidently so that it doesn’t send you into a spiral of hurt or anger.

Here are my top 5.

1. Enjoy it.

Someone’s said something bad about your writing? So what. No schools have burned down and no hospitals have exploded, so don’t take it so damn seriously.

Your writing has been read and people are talking about it – isn’t that what you wanted? Criticism is no big deal, so instead look at it with a playfulness, humor or even camaraderie. What could you do that would defuse things or put a human, humorous spin on things?

2. Nobody’s right.

You wrote about your experience, your perspective and your ideas, and that’s just as it should be. Whoever criticized your writing (whether in a constructive or destructive way) is talking from their point of view based on their experience. And that’s just fine too.

Everyone looks at ‘reality’ through a filter based on what they’ve learned, and this filter puts a unique spin on everything you see and experience in the world.

That means that every opinion is valid, nobody’s right and it’s okay for people to disagree with you. Kind of gets you off the hook doesn’t it?

3. Some people just won’t get it.

Believe it or not but some folks out there are idiots. Some folks are struggling, others are bitter and some others are just plain angry.

Some people will read what you’ve written, fly off the handle and spew abuse for the simple reason that they can.

Criticizing your writing is especially easy online as it’s an instant medium – in mere moments someone can appease their anger and scratch that itch by venting in your direction. This isn’t personal and it isn’t even about your words – it’s about them and where they are.

4. Look for a new idea.

You get your ideas from the people and the world around you, so be curious. What is there in the criticism that’s new to you? What new idea has been presented or where are the points of difference?

Knowing that nobody’s right, there’s always another way to look at things. Take a look and see what you can learn – there just might be something incredibly useful.

5. Let it go.

The moment you feel your hackles rising, let it go. If you let it upset you what follows is anger, and to quote Yoda, that leads to the dark side.

Be sure to notice when you feel that piece of criticism being internalized and interrupt it. Look at the other 4 tips or find your own way of accepting things with grace.

Your work’s out there and it can’t be changed, and sometimes the very best thing to do is let it go and start on your next idea.

About the Author: As a leading confidence coach with clients right around the world, Steve Errey has a reputation for talking sense and getting results. Get more from him at The Confidence Guy.

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Comments

  1. Excellent tips. One thing I do to help myself calm down when one of my books gets a negative review is to look at the reviews for some of my hero-authors.

    Every one of Seth’s books has a whole list of negative reviews. And yet, I think most of us would agree that he’s one of the most successful writers around today.

  2. Personal attacks and mudslinging will probably always get under my skin. But just criticizing and offering suggestions are not a problem for me. It does take wisdom to know the difference some times!

  3. Thanks, Steve – this is something I needed to read today. I’ve always handled criticism by reminding myself that what matters is that my writing/product/whatever is actually getting talked about (your very first point)!

    I’m always looking for ways to thicken my business skin and appreciate this post.

  4. Steve,

    #2 Nobody’s Right is dead on. I’ve been doing a lot of research around how people’s personal experiences shape their view, opinions, preferences. We all look at the world through our own filters. One filter isn’t right or wrong – it’s just how we see things based on our life experience.

    It’s important to remember this when dealing with criticism of your writing, but also when dealing with critism of creative ideas. Who is to say if one commercial is good or bad? It’s why you need to truly understand your audience and test, test test. Too often, your “gut” can be wrong if your life experience and filter is different from that of your target audience.

    Great article – thanks!

  5. I have zero problem with criticism, so long as it isn’t cutting. I’ve never learned a thing by wallowing in a vacuum or being too sure of myself. We cannot ever stand up if we never fall down. I’ve been told that my (autobiographical) stories are unrealistic and that my children’s literature has “vocabulary that is too rich for young minds.”

    Yeah, that one made me snort too, but there is still learning there. It told me precisely what publishers are looking for. At that point I can either learn to do it their way or forge ahead in my own direction. Either way, criticism has value.

  6. I’ve not gotten any criticism on my blog posts…yet. But, I know there will be a day that I probably will. And I’ve been holding back and writing caveats to appease people. Thank you so much for this article. I’ll keep it on hand and when I get that first comment I’ll remember these excellent tips. Until then, I’ll write more freely knowing that sometimes, criticism happens but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

  7. Look at it from this POV: Someone criticising your article means they have read your article. Isn’t that a wonderful thing, given the information overload our target audience is undergoing these days?

    Also, a response is a response, and criticism is a response, isn’t a response the reason for your article? If someone has something bad to say, then someone has good to say as well.

    Finally, if you take criticism as a kind of motivation to do a better job next time, you’re on your way to good life!

  8. Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” should be mandatory reading for all humans who will have to deal with humans.

    I’ve experienced very little negativity in the comment section of my blog, but when I do I respond to it in a very laidback fashion. I respond intelligently, sometimes humorously, but never emotionally.

  9. Good post Steve, those are five solid points.

    Everyone needs to remember that without diversity the world would be a boring place. Besides, when people disagree they bring others to the plate — and that equates to traffic. Now picking fights isn’t a good idea, but good ol’ arguments with a peaceful ending can be a great way to increase traffic on a blog.

    Nobody if right, everyone is an idiot. That helps to dull the pain!

  10. Good notes to keep in mind. My distilled version, adopted from a beloved high school English teacher:

    Tough girls get ice cream.

  11. This article can very handy because am about to have my own colunm in an off line magazine.

  12. Wonderful article to refresh our memory, and stabilize our confidence! Thank you for sharing!

  13. Another thing about criticism is that what they say is not always what they mean.

    People say mean things sometimes and what they might want is for you to prove your points more thoroughly. By saying “you’re an idiot” they might be really saying I need more convincing.

    When somebody attacks you when they see flaws in your writing you can take it as an affront or you can see it from their perspective: they wanted what you wrote to be good and it didn’t meet their standards.

    Consider the intent behind comments instead of simply reacting to hurt feelings and you could make a new buddy.

    Sometimes our worst critics can end up being out best friends. Ever had a kid in school you physically fought that you later were best friends with?

  14. I strongly disagree with the ‘Nobody is right’. The writer can be wrong and a critic can correct them with an insightful comment.

    This has happened to me and I usually respond with a thank you note and edit the article to highlight this new insight. People can be wrong. And other people can point out that very fact.

  15. Khurram Zahid :

    Superb post, i have been facing the same Criticism issue these days as i am a content writer. Same feeling was with me, feeling everybody else is better, and even thinking to quit the job, but this post consoles me very much, and i am going to face the evil of criticism confidently and positively ….

  16. Excellent post. I can remember when I first “launched” my blog. It was scary putting my work out there for the first time, especially as I haven’t had experience as a professional writer. You are opening the door for criticism but, in my opinion, nothing ventured, nothing gained! These are great tips. I especially like the idea of using humour to diffuse. Thanks Steve!

  17. This information came right on time! I’ve started blogging again after a 2-3 hiatus and I really want to start submitting what I write to magazines. I appreciate this preparation. You definitely need thick skin in this industry.

  18. This post is great. I recently sent a shout out to all my writer comrades about this issue, but didn’t get the hard facts that I needed. Thanks for filling in the holes.

  19. Awesome article. The first time I received criticism — I came pretty close to giving it all up and lost about a week in the process. Your words are like pearls of wisdom.

  20. @Manshu: I know exactly what you mean – it’s amazing how one negative comment can cancel out so many positives and leave me feeling despondent. Then I realize what a fool I am for responding that way and I feel better!

  21. Criticism, my least favorite thing, but over time I’ve gotten significantly less insane about it.

    I’ve gotten good at spotting #3 and not worrying much about it.

    My dad has a good expression that helps me remember #2. “That’s how I see it. You may see it differently.” Even if one of us is rat’s-ass crazy, that’s sort of neither here nor there. We’re just looking at it differently.

  22. Great post, thanks Steve! I see criticism as the shortest, surest path to excellence. With every piece I send to my clients, I exhort them to give me their full, frank, fearless feedback ‘with both barrels’. This makes every piece I write better than the last. P. :)

  23. Cool view — cheers Charles.

  24. Very nice article. Honestly, it is one of my major problems. I can’t handle criticism that well. But after I’ve read this article, I’ve realized that I must be open on someone’s criticism. As what the article said, ideas can be formulated from criticism. So, still there is positive thing I can get from stupid and ugly criticism. THanks for the post!

  25. Criticism is just an opportunity to gain more perspective… not up to any one individual to be the judge of right or wrong.

    If you can’t take it in stride and pull something positive out of it, hang tight — it is going to be a long ride.

    Take it to the public. Comments from your readers can be so important, kind of like coaches on the sideline.

  26. Professionals are those who can separate their feeling and their mind. Any fool can criticize harsh, but every pro can stay calm. Don’t you agree?

  27. I really enjoyed this post. It is so hard not to take criticism to heart. However, it’s all a learning curve because receiving feedback means you can decided what to do with it. The bad comments you can look at and think ‘they have a point’ and remember this for your next piece of writing, or you can take them with a pinch of salt. Good comments, well of course you will thrive in them and your confidence will be at an all time high.

  28. Whenever I’m putting together a piece of work and worrying “will people criticize me for this” I stop myself and ask a different question – “will this help people get results?”

    At the end of the day that’s the most important goal, if my work is helping people get results, then, the critics become irrelevant.

  29. The first time your writing gets criticized, it’s pretty tough. But if you want to be a writer, you better get used to it fast.

    I always see criticism as an opportunity. An opportunity to make my writing better. If I can go back and edit something so that the person who disliked it the most finds it to be “pretty good,” then my writing has just gotten better.

    Otherwise, how else will you improve?

  30. I hate criticism. It really bites my ankles. These tips are helpful and I sometimes find it helpful to try to mentally ‘stand back’ from myself and my feelings a bit. I ask myself ‘why do you feel like this?’ ‘are these feelings going to be so poignant in a day, a week, a month?’ ‘can you do something to distract yourself or put things right?’ Of course, the worst possible thing to do is to react negatively – especially with an angry email. That is the path to the dark side! ;-)

  31. Thanks, Steve. I’m going into a job interview in a few hours, and I’ll need this confidence booster for when they start in on my portfolio!

  32. Brian Killian :

    If no one is right, what’s the point of having an opinion? Isn’t an opinion our stab at the truth of the matter?

    Telling ourselves that no one is right might make us feel better about criticism, but it won’t let us learn from that criticism. It’s true that we all have our own filters, but this doesn’t mean we are all wrong. It may be the case that we are all partially right and partially wrong.

    Criticism would then be something positive because it would help complete the picture that we couldn’t complete on our own. We all need each other, and we need constructive criticsm. We are not all wrong, we are all necessary. We all help to find the truth of the matter. Our ‘filters’ are a piece of the puzzle that only together makes the whole picture.

  33. Great post. Every blog is going to get criticism once and a while, and it is important to know how to deal with it.

  34. Great post. I would also add to take some positive from the criticism. You can always learn something and in very negative situation here is always something good you can learn from it.

  35. one thing that often works for me both in an online medium and in real-life meetings with other people present (gasp) is that when someone jumps up to attack my point of view, simply ask them what they would do differently? sometimes that person will actually have a better idea, so i have to be prepared for that possibility. but better yet, it puts the critic in a position to defend their own point of view instead of attacking mine. you quickly find out if that individual actually has something to contribute or if they just like to disagree.

  36. @Brian Killian “If no one is right, what’s the point of having an opinion? Isn’t an opinion our stab at the truth of the matter?”

    That is the point. It all boils down to what each individual perceives, this being the source of the opinion. It is a given that one must care about the topic in the first place, have some sort of investment. Otherwise, no interest no opinion.

    There is no universal truth, just individual truths. Most matters will have distributions of truth, either a single or multiple pole depending on the context.

    We are what we are exposed to and how that perception is processed. Your opinion can influence my perception, but only if I am exposed to it. So, it isn’t as simple as “the picture is this way because of all of the inputs” — we all see the picture regardless of the inputs. The inputs don’t matter, the picture is the picture. Now change the context (either another opinion or more time for one to gain insight into the picture) and increase the probability that the perception of the picture is altered.

  37. Steve,

    Bridging off of what you say, also remember who your target audience is. If you’re asking your elderly neighbor to critique something you’ve written for a teen magazine, it may simply be a problem of audience.

    And as a part of nobody’s right, remember that each bit of information is only that — one small piece. If somebody hates your writing, add 1 to the hate pile. If you have a good love:hate ratio, then everything’s all right. It’s when the proof starts to pile up, and criticisms start to develop patterns, that you need to change and change quickly.

  38. Rossi Stoyanova :

    “Criticism keeps you in check when it’s right and it keeps you in chuckles when it’s ridiculous” – I can’t remember where I read this but it’s very true.

  39. Awesome article. The first time I received criticism — I came pretty close to giving it all up and lost about a week in the process. Your words are like pearls of wisdom.

  40. @Bamboo: A great approach, and one that will be appreciated by your readers too.

    @REW: A bit of controversy is a well-known tactic in getting readers and participation going – but you’re right, it can’t be purely about picking fights.

    @ballywick: Love it. Guessing you get a lot of ice cream?

    @tyna: Glad to be of use!

    @Suzi: You’re very welcome :)

    @Julian: Great point, and one that I missed. Especially true as it’s easy to misinterpret black and white words on a screen or to imbue them with a meaning that isn’t intended. Thanks.

    @Marco: True enough, there’s always room to be wrong and to be corrected, although I guess that’s more for factual elements of a story. I could say that Obama was raised by wolves and have someone correct me, that’s fair enough. If I say that he’s a good orator then people might have other opinions, but nobody’s ‘wrong’ or ‘right’.

    @Khurram: Good for you – keep going!

    @Sami: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” indeed. Reminds me of Buzz Lightyear for some reason :P

    @Gia: Good luck with it all!

    @Devon: Thanks – hope it’s useful.

    @Manshu: I wouldn’t go as far as ‘pearls of wisdom’, but really glad you’ve found something you can put to good use. Keep writing.

    @Mark: Amen brother!

    @Sonia: Tough to argue with “That’s how I see it. You may see it differently” isn’t it?!

    @Paul: Interesting thought. I think there’s a balance between using constructive criticism to hone your craft and allowing yourself to write naturally. Kind of a nature/nurture thing. I’ll need to mull on that one…

    @Charles: Thanks!

    @macobex: You’re welcome. Don’t spend time looking into ‘stupid and ugly’ criticism for something to learn, sometimes it’s best to wipe it off and move on.

    @Emplic: Spot on, thank you.

    @Isaac: In some cases I’d agree, like doctors, psychiatrists, airline pilots, etc. With writing though, the combination of feeling and mind is extraordinarily powerful, which is why it’s easy to feel criticism personally. Having that awareness between heart and head can be really helpful to separate things out.

    @Jenny: It’s that ability to make a decision about it that’s crucial – without that you’ll just be reacting.

    @Paul: Nice perspective and really useful. Thanks.

    @Writers Coin: Learning is definately part of the process, but I’d always discourage people from ‘pandering’ or from having that edit end up diluting some of your writing.

    @Matthew: The dark side indeed! Looks like you’ve found some perfect ways to handle the ankle biters.

    @Erica: How’d it go?

    @Brian: Yep, it’s incredibly valuable for someone to give another idea or perspective to help a larger picture to take shape. When I’m talking about how nobody’s ‘right’, I don’t mean to imply that that means people are wrong, far from it. And without getting too existential, I don’t think there’s an ‘absolute’ truth, people might reach a consensus about the truth of something, but it’s all based on our subjective experience because that’s all we have to go on.

    @teenwebguru: Thanks!

    @Andrew: Agree – if there’s a nugget of value there, take it.

    @Michelle: You’re in situations with other people in the same room? Man, though everything was online these days… Nice idea, I sometimes simply ask people for their suggestions to get opther ideas and opinions coming in.

    @REW Blogs Ryland: Very nicely put, thank you.

    @David: 2 great points, and your 2nd point is a really interesting one. If all you get is criticism, then it’s really time to listen.

    @Rossi: I love that, thanks!

    @Geld: Glad you’re back on track.

  41. Is your goal to avoid getting upset or to learn? Learning is often initially a little painful.

    I don’t like the approach of hiding my ego behind the pretense that no one is right or everyone is right. I’d rather just take a deep breath and think to myself: “what if this nitwit actually has a point, how might they truly be right? What would have to be true for them to be right?”

    It’s a variations of Miller’s Law, a principle in psychology that helps you see from someone else’s perspective. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you do that, and how little you can learn by simply dismissing someone’s criticism or pretending that all criticisms are equally good or equally bad.

    Obviously some criticism is so pointless and so hostile that it should best just be dismissed or we’d waste our time trying to empathize with every sociopath on the web. But many people who criticize us actually have a point to make, and many of them offer a learning opportunity when we take a deep breath first and use Miller’s Law.

  42. Wow, Thanks! Needed this :)

  43. The trick is to know when to cut your losses I think. Everyone has a limit to what they can absorb before it gets unhealthy for them, and to paraphrase Clint, ya gotta know your limitations.

  44. This is a great article that teaches you to handle criticism effectively. Though at first the first bouts of criticism are really hard especially from sharp tongued people, you must learn to accept it or ditch it. Apparently criticism is like a ‘blessing-in-disguise’, unbeknownst to you, you are molding and improving your personality. Don’t take it seriously, criticisms can put you on top or make you fall from the mountain. Think of it as an obstacle blocking your way and get over it.

  45. One thing I’ve found: when people criticize anonymously, there is much less likelihood that you can interact constructively with them or that they really put any thought into their criticism, so anonymous criticism can and should more often be ignored, especially when it is unfair. We live and die on our social praises and condemnations, and online media tend to remove us from the direct effects of these things, especially when we don’t feel responsible for what we are writing.

    When people sign their name, there is at least a greater likelihood that you can have some honest dialog with them or “agree to disagree” rather than endure senseless hostility and ignorance. If you can point out unfairness or confusions, and find some value in their criticism without responding unfairly in kind, you can often get something out of it. Not always, but more often. Of course some people are just frustrated and toxic, even when not anonymous.

    The point is that all critics are not equal, some can become your collaborator even though they seem to be hostile and not to get it at all. This is a matter of experience and skill, there aren’t any magic rules other than to realize how important praise and condemnation are to us and that online media tends to remove us from a lot of the normal social encouragements and sanctions, or make them unfairly asymnmetric.

  46. Ha! I love this. Dale Carnegie said it best. Heck, if we CAN write, we’re one step ahead of the game. That’s good enough for me.

  47. FenderPlayer87 :

    This is a great post. I’m a musician and am always afraid of putting my work out there for someone to bash. But I try to focus on the positive things people say and thank them. Then when the negative person tears my songs apart, I thank them too.

    I really related to this post.

  48. Personal attacks and mudslinging will probably always get under my skin. But just criticizing and offering suggestions are not a problem for me. It does take wisdom to know the difference some times!

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  50. I always have the opposite where authors criticise ME for doing nothing wrong other then questioning their work as if they are “holier then thou” and that I shall accept without question.

    Example:

    If I ask questions about the authors work such as WHAT THE *beep* was character X thinking when he/she tried to kick at his/her attackers in a futile effort to escape the kidnap: I will either get ignored or accused of trolling.

    However on these same stories the reviewers who say: “I love character X as he/she isn’t flat and has lots of personality which you are doing a good job of fleshing out and I’d love for you to beta-read my story” will often receive thank you’s on authors notes.

    The best responses I have gotten are from authors whoe’s stories are not well known it seems and where the author has a lot of enthusiasum but peters out for no reason.

    Its’ really really WEIRD.

  51. @Kyle: I interact with authors a lot on Amazon. In my own experience I find that it’s important to account for human nature to some degree. To a writer, “What the *&$&# was X thinking?” might sound a lot like “What kind of *&$#$ing hack are you to have X thinking …?” and with that, they might ignore you out of defensiveness before realizing that you might have had an interesting or at least reasonable point.

    I’m not saying that people should avoid criticism by any means just for the sake of sparing the author’s feelings. Reviews would be pointless if we did that. Neither should we ignore the fact that authors are human beings with feelings who usually put a lot into their writing and sometimes even implicitly expect readers to put a lot of thought into reading them to try to figure out what they’re trying to get across.

    So I do think there’s an art to criticizing tactfully so that it doesn’t come off to the recipient as a personal insult. It’s often a good rule I think to be hard on principles but soft on people, if that makes sense? I’m still trying to learn it, but what I’ve learned so far has helped tremendously for my own dialogs with authors.

  52. I had a situation like this this past week from a topic and comment someone said at school that I brought up on Facebook and it ended up letting me see the real character of a few people who I thought were my friends. One of them didn’t even ask me personally why I had my opinion just attempted to state as fact in her comment that I was somehow a bad person and my friends were unethical and that she didn’t want anything to do with me while at the same time touting how perfect she was for getting out of bad situations without help.

    I commend people for being able to get out bad situations, I think its fantastic, I also firmly believe that having compassion for other people who are still struggling is a virtue and not a personality defect. I continued to defend my position with my own story and others came into the fray to beat me up with words and it did hurt my feelings, but after talking to some of my close friends I was able to accept that the words were meant to hurt, but that I didn’t have to let it stimy my personal opinion of the matter and i got over the hurt feelings and said my final say about the subject and let it drop.

    I realize I probably could have stopped defending my position sooner, but sometimes its hard to do that. But I did follow the advice of not throwing shit back at the people who were slamming me, I just continued to voice my opinion from my perspective and what I have personally gone through.

    I think that is all we can do.

  53. Steve, your words have been a tremendous help to me! With my first novel, I received possitive feedback and praise for my characters. With my second, some people are expressing anger that I introduced new characters and didn’t include the old characters often enough.
    I’ve felt all of the emotions you have described, and then some. Thanks for helping me keep things in perspective. After all, no hospitals have burned!