How writers can learn to accept criticism

Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, presenter, keynote, technology, social media, Calgary, Canada, educator, education, professional developmentThis spring I am teaching a graduate level writing course for students enrolled in the Master’s of Education program at the University of Calgary. My students are mostly English as a an Additional Language teachers, plus one math teacher. They are from all over the world and are actively involved in the teaching profession. The objective of this course is to prepare them for professional writing as educators and scholarly academic writing. Their major assignment involves preparing a manuscript for submission to a reputable journal in the profession.

Some students have said that they cringe at the thought of their writing being rejected by an editor or criticized by a teacher. Most have never submitted a manuscript to a journal, with fear of criticism or rejection being a contributing factor. These tips are intended help novice writers learn to take criticism from instructors, peer reviewers and editors.

Start with the assumption that your work can be improved

The biggest mistake writers make is assuming that once they have submitted a piece of writing, that is finished… and perfect. This assumption sets the writer up for a frustration and anger when their work is returned with a request for revisions. Falling in love with your own writing is a dangerous thing.

It can be helpful to approach your writing from the point of view that a perfect piece of writing never (or at least only very rarely) exists. Assume that there is always room for improvement.

Expect rejection

There are many stories of famous writers whose work was rejected. Even great writers get multiple rejections. J.K. Rowling had Harry Potter rejected a dozen times, according to some reports.  Rather than assuming that your work will be accepted or accepted with minor revisions, instead expect that you will be rejected, not once, but numerous times. This will position you to be tenacious and resilient. Here’s a list of 50 iconic writers whose work was repeatedly rejected. Personally, I’d count myself lucky to ever be included on such a list.

Develop a thick skin

Some writers develop such a deep emotional attachment to their work that it can be unhealthy, or even destructive. It is healthy and productive to develop your writing until you are satisfied and proud of it. You have passed the point of healthy emotions when you are so fragile when anything but glowing praise leaves you feeling all crumpled up and hateful towards anyone who has offered you feedback.

I tell my students to think of TV shows such as Iron Chef. The chefs who make it to the top of their profession are deeply proud of their accomplishments, but they can also take criticism. They have a thick skin. Be your own version of an “Iron Writer”.

Learn the difference between criticism and cruelty

It is true that some editors are just plain mean. However, the majority are not cruel. They may be straightforward and clinical, but do not mistake this for cruelty. Your editor is not paid to be your friend. Sometimes they are not paid at all, particularly if they are editing an academic journal.

An editor’s job is to help ensure that the final written work adheres to an established set of guidelines and standards. If your work doesn’t meet a minimum set of standards, they have to tell you. That’s their job.

If you submit enough manuscripts to enough editors, chances are that you will eventually run into a jerk or two. When that happens, take whatever feedback you find helpful and disregard the rest.

In general though, editors are generally a clear headed and insightful bunch. Many really do want to help. Most love writing and words as much as you do, maybe even more. The truth is though, they see so much crap and poorly written material that sometimes, they  just get exasperated. They are human, too. So, they may learn to be unemotional or clinical in their responses. Do not mistake an editor’s lack of bubbly enthusiasm as a personal vengeance against you.

Accept the challenge of improving your work

Let’s use the analogy of TV chefs again. But this time, think of a cooking show such as Top Chef, where chefs have to compete for the title of “Top Chef”. One by one, chefs are eliminated. Those who reach the finale all have two things in common. First, their end creation is superb. Second, when they are given advice and criticisms by their judges, their attitude is “Bring it on!” They not only accept the judges’ criticism, they embrace the challenge of improving their work.

Focus first on creating stellar writing. Second, when you are faced with an editor or peer reviewer who challenges you to improve on your masterpiece, smile sincerely and say, “I’m here to bring my A-game… So bring on the feedback!” Take your editors or reviewers’ comments the same way a Top Chef takes criticism from a judge.

Be humble and gracious

Say thank you to your editor or reviewer. Chances are very high that your editor has just as much, if not more, experience in publishing as you do. He or she has likely experienced everything that you are experiencing yourself, including rejection. Editors vary in their tone, style and personality. You may be offended by an editor’s straight forward approach to your work.

An editor does not have the same emotional attachment to the work that you do; and nor should they. Their priorities include getting the publication out on time, and possibly working with an entire editorial or production team. By recognizing that your editor has more on his or her plate than your manuscript and and by being gracious, you are likely to build a better professional relationship. Trust me, it always pays to be on the good side of your editor.

Keep a lid on your anger

It is normal to feel angry when we are rejected. What is not OK is to take your anger out on your editor, your peer reviewer or your professor. Even if you believe your editor’s comments come across as cruel or unjustified, they may not have been intended that way. Besides, what you can not control is what others say or how they say it. What you can control is your own professional conduct. Never, ever send an e-mail when you are angry.

Here’s a trick I learned: If you need to write an angry letter to “get it all out”, the trick is not to put the recipient’s address in the “To” section of the e-mail. Instead, put your own address. Send yourself the e-mail first. Let it sit in your inbox for a minimum of 24 hours. Then, read it again. If you still feel angry. Leave it in your inbox for another  24 hours. Do not send it to the intended recipient until you can read it over yourself and not be flooded with the same feelings of rage. It is likely that you will revise and soften the language of your message when you do.

Don’t be a diva

Do not fight with your editor or go all “diva” on them. That means, do not tell them how wrong they are or how sorry they’ll be that they didn’t publish your precious manuscript. Seriously, nothing comes across as more arrogant or disdainful. The bottom line is, if your work really is that good, it will speak for itself… eventually.

Be patient and resilient

Writing is a process. It takes time. Revising and rewriting are part of that process. Mozart may have popped out masterpieces without revising them, but few musicians or writers can lay claim to such genius. Be patient with your editors and with yourself. Learn the subtle balancing act of having simultaneous confidence in your work and humility in yourself. Most editors, peer reviewers and instructors have benevolent intentions. They are not monsters set to duel to the death with your ego. When you see these people as your allies instead of your enemies, the writing process becomes easier. As they say… every rejection gets you one step closer to a “yes”. Patience is part of the process.

Resources related to this post:

How to Take Writing Criticism Gracefully – by Hannah Rice Myers, eHow

How (and Why) to Take Criticism – by Monique van den Berg

Developing a Thick Skin: How to Accept Criticism – by Betty L. Meeshack

How to Happily Accept Criticism – by Angus Shaw

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

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