Writing Your Way Home
5 Strategies for dealing with criticism and negative feedback.
Posted 6/19/06 | Updated 7/3/20
“The pleasure of criticizing takes away from us the pleasure of being moved by some very fine things.” —Jean de La Bruyere
My experience of being a writer is of walking a constant tight-rope between processing negative feedback and rejection, and feeling good enough about my work to not give up completely. There have been extreme highs and extreme lows over the years, and I'm not expecting things to get any easier as time goes on just different.
Although none of us would ever improve if we weren't able to take on feedback from others, we also need to manage this process so it doesn't overwhelm us. If we're not passionate about our work at least some of the time then how can we expect anyone else to value what we're doing? So how do we survive? Here are some strategies.
Harsh words about our work are much sharper and stickier than words of praise. I could repeat word for word an entire rejection slip I received a few years ago, but my memory of the more positive feedback I've received recently isn't so clear. For this reason I collect the best of the positive feedback I get (emails from people who like my newsletter, friend's responses to poems, encouraging rejection slips etc.) and keep them in a 'hurray for me' file. When the going gets tough I can re-read these words to remind myself of the things people have liked and get a little perspective again.
Although there are similarities between different artist's relationships with their audience (i.e. most of us like to be 'understood') we all have different idiosyncrasies and 'weak spots'. I'm prone to get caught up in judging my success by listening to the outside world, rather than focusing on what I believe is important. When I realised this I wrote about it in my journal, asked for advice from friends, and did reading around the subject. When this happens nowadays I'm much more likely to catch myself before I get too dispirited. What kind of feedback or rejection is particularly likely to floor you? What might be behind this? What work could you do to lessen the impact of it and support yourself through it?
When I finished my second novel and it was 'doing the rounds' and being looked at by various publishers, a work colleague asked if she could read the manuscript. I kept forgetting to bring it in for her, and eventually realised that I just didn't feel strong enough to hear her opinion on it at that point in time I couldn't guarantee that she'd like it, and I felt too wobbly to hear anything less than glowing. I explained this to her, and several months later I was in a completely different place and handed the book over to her happily. There isn't a rule that we should be on the look-out for feedback at all times and listen to everything that everyone says. Think carefully about who you ask for feedback, what kind of feedback you ask for (e.g. please can you tell me three things you liked and one that could be improved), and when you ask for it. Don't be afraid to say you're not in a good place for hearing feedback, or to ask for it in writing and put it away for when you're feeling more receptive.
There is a time and a place for our internal critic. I ban mine from the first drafts of novels, because if I listened to it I'd never finish a page never mind a hundred pages. It comes into its own during the second and subsequent drafts, telling me exactly what it thinks about that weak characterisation, or how bored it is by that paragraph. I also try to turn it off again when the book is 'finished' so I can read it through once more and just enjoy it, and feel smug about what a skilful writer I am.
Remember how much you enjoy doing the work. There's no need for me to say any more about this one.
Add to this list with a few ideas of your own You're the one who will learn best how to sustain yourself through the sticky patches. Try out different ideas having 'mutual fan-club' meetings with a colleague, collect stories of other artists who have successfully faced a lot of rejection, copy out the best bits of books on how to survive as an artist keep going until you find some things that work, and then keep on doing them. Your work deserves nothing less.
©2006 Fiona Robyn. All rights reserved.
Satya Robyn is a novelist, psychotherapist, Buddhist priest and the co-founder of Writing Our Way Home with her husband Kaspa. ...