Criticism: Three Tips for Writers to Take It

by | December 3, 2015 |

Criticism. First: Aaaarrrrggghhh! Taking criticism is the worst. Horrible, horrible, viscera-writhing horrible.

Okay, that’s done. Deep breath. The reality is: Taking criticism is a crucial way to grow as a writer.

Consider the source of the criticism before you consider whether you can learn from it

Take, for instance, reviews on Amazon. It’s wonderful if someone loves a story you’ve written, but you’re not going to learn anything from praise, except maybe to keep doing what you’re doing. But should you take the negative reviews to heart when you sit down to write your next book?

I’ve read plenty of negative reviews of other people’s books I cannot imagine would help the writer in question grow. Maybe there are helpful negative reviews on Amazon, but wading through all of the hurtful ones to get to the helpful ones seems like an exercise in unnecessary torture.

I got a one-star review for My Lord Roland, which in its entirety is: “Too many words.” Any suggestions for which words to take out? No. But I can guess: all the ones creating the atmosphere of a medieval castle, technical terms like parapet, barbican, guarderobe. I took delight in bringing this world to life through the words appropriate to the time. This particular person found no delight in reading them.

By the way, the brevity of this three-word review is beautiful as a criticism of what was deemed to be a word-heavy book. But it’s just not helpful.

So, the first thing you need to find is a critic/reader that: a) engages with what you’re trying to do in a particular story; and b) is sincere in helping you make the story better.

The ideal reader is an editor who has bought your story, since this is a person as invested as you in making the story the best it can be. Here’s a link to an excellent editor: Serena McLemore.

Writing groups are also good places for honest, helpful feedback, because you’re all in it together, and you’ll do your part when it’s your turn to critique.

Listen creatively to the criticism

While you’re still working on a story and a reliable reader says, “It makes no sense what your character did in Chapter 12,” I would be pretty sure this reader is giving you valuable feedback, even if you think what your character did in Chapter 12 is totally logical.

The point is, there’s a problem somewhere, but not necessarily in Chapter 12. It’s your job to interpret the criticism then figure out what to fix earlier in the manuscript so that what the character does in Chapter 12 makes sense.

The first time this happened to me, it was like a light bulb turned on when I realized there was a problem, just not where the reader identified it. The reader found the place where the negative consequences of the earlier problem became clear.

You have to love that kind of criticism.

Accept all reliable feedback as a gift

Here’s where we pull up our big girl panties.

If someone has taken her time and energy to read what you’ve written, this effort is already a gift. If she spends time thinking about your story in order to formulate some feedback, hopefully useful, you are receiving a further gift.

Criticism of your story is not criticism of you.

Egad, that’s a tough one to believe, isn’t it?Startup Stock Photos

The good news is, the more professional you become as a writer, the more you are able to separate criticism of your work from any beliefs you hold about yourself.

Your manuscripts are not your babies and, yes, there will be some ugly ones. It’s useful to have another set of eyes helping you to see that ugliness. Maybe you can fix it, but maybe you can’t, and it’s time to start a different story.

It all boils down to belief, not in yourself, but in your story.


Experienced writers, when faced with what they know to be honest, helpful criticism, will say, “Thanks. Any suggestions for how to fix it?”

If you’re a beginning writer, go ahead and jump to the experienced level in taking criticism.

Practice saying, “Thanks. Any suggestions for how to fix it?’”

See also: All My Writing Tips

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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