How Do You Respond to Criticism of Your Work? 6 Patterns to Recognize

how do you respond to criticism of your work

One of the most popular guest posts at my site this year is How to Spot Toxic Feedback, which discusses signs that the writing advice you’re receiving may do more harm than good.

Its success isn’t a surprise to me because writers who receive criticism, constructive or otherwise, almost never forget it—and this post gave writers of all stripes an opportunity to sigh with satisfaction and say, “I knew it all along. Such-and-such critique was invalid and harmful and I should’ve been ignoring it.”

That might be true when it’s inexperienced writers or readers offering the critique. (And that’s why writing groups can be more dangerous than helpful.)

But how about cases where the person offering feedback is an experienced professional—someone who makes a living at offering and selling informed feedback? (Like myself?)

Let’s assume (and I know it can be a big assumption) that the experienced professional is self-aware and careful, and can offer feedback that’s useful and isn’t delivered in bad faith—that it’s an accurate and fair assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the work, at least from a market perspective.

I’ve found that writers, if they trust the source, generally respond in a few key ways. Looking for the pattern of your response can be useful in understanding if you’re getting the most from professional feedback, or if you’re inadvertently sabotaging progress.

1. You defend what you’ve done.

This is the stereotypical response of the inexperienced writer, who gets prickly and looks for ways to defend their work or excuse the weaknesses.

But there are more subtle ways that writers defend their work without looking defensive. Writers can argue that they’re trying to work against formula, or break the mold of what’s typically done. Their work is more enlightened because it’s not blindly following in the footsteps of all the other mediocre work out there, or they believe they’re the exception to the rule.

Alternatively, writers may cite other positive opinions they’ve received. “My writing group loves this” is a common defense. Or, “I worked with [another] professional editor.”

It’s perfectly normal to think of all the reasons the feedback might be wrong. (And it’s right to do so—not all feedback is useful.) But you also should consider evidence that the feedback might be right.

2. You rush to make changes.

Some writers do exactly the opposite of defend their work: they immediately look for ways to fix the problem. Not just that, they try to fix the problem within 24 hours of it being pointed out. This can be as problematic as ignoring feedback because it results in cosmetic changes that don’t really affect the quality of the work.

This is my theory as to why so many prologues exist in unpublished manuscripts. At some point, the writer’s first chapter was criticized. The solution: add a prologue! But easy or fast fixes tend to have a high failure rate.

Quality feedback can lead to large-scale revision or edits. Such changes can rarely be made overnight or even in a week or month. If you pull on one thread in a story, or reconsider something as seemingly simple as your first page, you’ve suddenly got a rewrite on your hands. But some writers don’t have the patience or fortitude for that.

3. You get a second opinion.

This is not a bad idea, assuming you have the time (and the resources, budget and/or necessary relationships). But it can put responsibility on other people—who may not be appropriate—to figure out the best way forward with your work. Know when you’re seeking a second opinion because you’re looking for additional clarity or dialogue (because it always helps to talk these things through), and when you’re trying to get someone else to make the hard decisions for you.  Avoid taking your second (or third…) opinion back to the first person who offered you the feedback. They’re not likely interested in having an argument or defending their position; in the end, you are the arbiter of what’s best for the work.

4. You sit on the feedback for a while.

I’ve often heard experienced novelists say that when they receive feedback that makes them angry or upset, they immediately put it away and don’t act on it. Then, after a week or two, they go back to it, and see that much of it was correct.

Whether you react to feedback with ease or anger, it’s always wise to sit on feedback for at least a few days before making any big decisions about it, or even responding to it. Give yourself time to digest it and let the emotional reaction dissipate. Then you’ll have distance and be in a position to make the best decision for the work.

5. You give up or move onto something else.

If the feedback is discouraging or overwhelming, sometimes you just want to hide from it. And hiding from it may mean abandoning the project, either temporarily or for good.

Worse things could happen. Sometimes we’re not ready to complete the projects we start and have to return at a different time. No shame in it.

6. You ask questions.

With any piece of feedback you receive, whether positive or negative, there were a million choices that went into crafting that feedback. Some things were left unstated; some matters were not expanded upon. But they could be. Just ask, especially during moments in the feedback where you wish: “Boy, I want to know more about that.”

After discouraging feedback, a good follow-up is always: What am I doing right that I can build on? Writers build on their strengths, and you want to know what parts of your work ought to be preserved.

Let me know in the comments: What strategies have you found successful for using feedback to improve your work?

Posted in Getting Published.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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44 Comments on "How Do You Respond to Criticism of Your Work? 6 Patterns to Recognize"

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Finn McDonagh

Great article! I think I’ve experienced each of these reactions to critique at some point. I’d like to think age has helped in building perspective for the value of good criticism. With that, I believe the most difficult thing is finding the right person for you as an author. Your spouse, best friend, or family member is usually not the best for a valuable critique. Finding someone whose ideas you value and in return who values your work is the tough part. Any recommendations for this?

JeffO

I try largely to stick to #4–sitting on feedback–and really giving it consideration before acting. I will ask questions if I don’t understand something or need more clarity.

Lyn Alexander

Some of the worst criticism had led to some of my best re-writing. I mourn the loss of my editor who succumbed to the stresses of publishing and has retired.

Ann Jerzowski

For the most part I enjoy my local Creative Writers group at a nearby library. We meet twice a month and some of the participants are published. The comments seem to have become a little more harsh recently about my work. The group seems to be focusing on one theme: “you must have conflict in every scene.” I think I may need a clearer explanation of what qualifies as “conflict.”

Carmen Amato

It is always best to sleep on feedback and revisit to see if the criticism will help you touch your target audience. If the criticism is coming from those who are not your intended readers and might not know your genre, take it with a grain of salt.

Holly

These are interesting responses to me because not all of them are bad instincts. For example, it can be really helpful to sit back and think about critique. It can be also helpful to want to act on that critique right away. The two might need some balancing but both are helpful.

Anita Rodgers
Great post, Jane. In the past, I think I’ve probably done all of the above. Though now, my response is to ask follow up questions. If I have a weakness in my story I want to know about it. If I don’t understand the feedback, I ask for clarification and sometimes that shifts things enormously. I think too, it’s important to categorize the source and type of feedback. I like to get feedback from all kinds of people. Writers, readers, friends, strangers. Each brings a different perspective and to me, that’s helpful. So certain feedback will carry more weight than… Read more »
Emily
“Does it have to be a whale?” This was an actual question posed to Herman Melville by a professional editor. Yes, it had to be a whale. Sometimes the writer DOES know best and this does not make him or her a “special snowflake” (can we please retire this term?). The trick is to get that balance between sticking to your guns (yes, sometimes what has been done a million times in a genre isn’t what needs to be done now) and also being open to feedback that could vastly improve a manuscript. Writers are just human and don’t always… Read more »
Harry
The feedback I’ve been getting for the last year or so has been positive. Friends, the editor of the one site I regularly write for, and the few anonymous reviewers who have posted comments or left reviews all seem pretty happy with my work. I received one complaint about a book being too short and a couple about books or stories being too cynical at times, but nothing constructive. I expect criticism, especially from editors, but I’m more experienced than the one I regularly write for and he’s reluctant or unable to give me any. The people who reject me… Read more »
Barbara Strickland
My reaction these days is to take a good look at the work and the words told to me. If it changes what I want to say I ask questions as to why. Feedback at times is about what that person thinks should happen. However I take all comments seriously and concentrate on separating my feelings from the statements. Teachers are taught to separate the behaviour from the child and it makes sense here as well. With comments on the use of language, grammar and techniques I remain very open-minded and often get the second opinion. The truth is we… Read more »
Michael LaRocca

I spent years being the king of prickly, ready to defend everything I’ve done, never willing to listen to any feedback. This explains why I received over 100 rejection letters before I got my head on straight.

Elle Mott

2 Things. 1) Most recently, I rcvd complimentary review of a few pages of a larger piece by an experienced professional. Internally, I thought, well, she hasn’t read the whole thing, so no wonder she Qs this part. I set it aside 2 days while discussing it w/ a trusted peer, who helped me compose my honest reply: “I appreciate your review and feedback. It gives me a lot to think about. Thank you.” Ok, Jane? And 2) My local writers group—I’ve learned to think about their feedback, take what makes sense and leave the rest. Ok?

Thomas Edmund
The need to defend is often strong, I remember in a brief Reddit critique someone said I had to use “dialogue” instead of ‘dialogue’. As far as I’m aware this is simply differences in convention, but when I saw the comment I was immediately composing a lengthy reply. Then I realized if: A.- I’m correct there is no need to reply it’s not like they’re going to apologize and pay me money – nor are they looking for a counter-critique or B.- I’ve got it wrong and I should double check this stuff. Now I always try to take feedback,… Read more »
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[…] https://janefriedman.com/respond-to-criticism-six-patterns/ How do you take criticism? In the past, I’ve rushed to fix things and even abandoned projects. I’m hoping, with my latest, to change that pattern. I know I need to read the criticism and then put it aside to let it sink in and only then correct what’s right for the story. […]

Christopher

Great article. I have always worked on the premise;
If one person says you are a dog you can ignore them.
If two people say you are a dog you need to ask yourself, “why are they saying this?”
If three people say you are a dog, buy yourself a kennel.

Christopher

Forgot to mention – there is also the saying “if you ask for criticism, don’t be surprised if you get… criticism.” Sometimes you might need to guide your readers by asking them specific questions because if you know yourself and your own writing you can guide readers to comment on things you tried to do by asking them if you pulled it off.

Greg Smith
Jane, I’ve followed your blog for quite some time now. At Agile Writers we have some great guidelines about how to give/get critique. It starts with positive feedback, but not glowing reviews. We find that constructive criticism goes a long way towards giving people what they need. We value honesty and civility. Criticism is never personal, and only about the work. We don’t allow defense of work – but we do allow follow-up questions. And we work in threes – the same group of three each week. This give continuity and a sense of commitment. My critique groups often become… Read more »
Michelle Schmidtke
I have had somewhat of a different problem with feedback on my work: I don’t think the professional editors that I submitted my work to were hard enough on me. They gave me a false impression that I had a novel that was better than it was, and I only discovered this after submitting it to a third editor/writer who found many things I needed to work on that the other two editors didn’t even touch on. What my third editor told me about my work stung, but it rang true, and it certainly required massive revision. But it made… Read more »
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[…] Friedman examines the 6 ways we respond to criticism, Debbie Young praises editors, and James Scott Bell addresses what to do when you’ve finished […]

Ernest

I would respond to a hater or person who disagrees with me by writing a positive comment. It is important because other people would see it as well. My reputation does matter.

On my blog, I mostly tell facts about international dating, foreign women, cultures, etc. People who hate or disagree with me are telling me that they do not know or care about the truth. I am fine with that. I say what I have to say regardless of how good or how bad the feedback I receive.

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[…] via How Do You Respond to Criticism of Your Work? 6 Patterns to Recognize — Jane Friedman […]

Signe Kopps

Number 5 rang a big bell with me. I recently had a bad experience with someone I trusted whose comments on a manuscript were sarcastic and insulting. Digging through the snark was hard, but some of it was useful, so I took that and tried to ignore the rest.
It did derail me for a while, but going through this experience has made me stronger; I can take harsher criticism now. However, given the way she attacked me, I no longer would ask for her help.

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[…] How Do You Respond to Criticism of Your Work? 6 Patterns to Recognize from Jane Friedman. Do you know the stages of criticism grief? […]

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