What I’ve Learned from Handling Criticism (and Nice Words on How Some Famous People Handle it Too)

By Emily Catenzaro

Frustration. (Photo/Peter Alfred Hess/Flickr|Creative Commons).
Frustration. (Photo/Peter Alfred Hess/Flickr|Creative Commons).

We’ve heard it all before: with writing comes criticism. But until you experience those first rejection letters (or a 2,000 word letter from a reader detailing nearly everything wrong with your story), it’s hard to predict exactly how you’re going to handle criticism. Actually, it’s hard for anyone to know how to handle criticism, period.

I was a competitive figure skater for fifteen years. During that time, I learned a lot of lessons from growing up in a subjective industry. An important, major lesson I learned is that rejection oftentimes isn’t personal. For example, rejection is often more about environment than most people realize. In skating, there are environmental factors to contend with such as, a) your competitors and the order in which you all perform, b) a judging panel’s random expectations for that day’s performances, c) the judges’ subjective opinions about how well you met those unspoken, random expectations, and d) arbitrary factors like the time of day you compete at and/or how cold the rink is (cold judges = more picky, temperamental judging).

Environment also has a heavy hand in writing. If you’ve ever judged a writing contest or read another friend’s or fellow student’s work, you know that environmental factors can and will influence your judgment. Maybe you couldn’t grasp the symbolic message behind that submission because you were half asleep when you read it. Or maybe a solid piece seemed just okay to you because it was the filler in an extraordinary submission sandwich. Just like in competitive skating, environmental factors are completely applicable to writing. And while it’s easy to rationalize or downplay these factors when you’re the one doing the judging, keep in mind that these factors may be at play when someone else is judging your writing. In other words, consider the source.

However, with writing you rarely (if ever) get a glimpse at just how close to the top you were, unlike in skating. In skating, there are ordinals; in writing, there are either acceptance or rejection letters. It can be so easy to lose sight of the gray in the black and white scenario of the publishing world, but if it helps, try to hold onto the gray. You never know how the editors were feeling at the time they read your story. They may have turned your piece down, but maybe it was one of the hardest decisions they’ve ever had to make. Maybe they fought for you story until the end, but it didn’t pan out. So don’t give up in the face of endless no’s, because someday your timing may go from bad to good. Someday, you may put that one piece together that receives a bunch of yes’s instead of no’s.

For those times when you’re feeling particularly down about your writing (and thinking positively feels more like an exercise in mocking yourself), it may help to find out how some established writers have handled criticism in the past. Any writer who has published anything has probably experienced at least a dozen rejections prior to the instance of publishing, either by editors, or friends, or fellow writers. So without further ado, here are some established writers on the subject of criticism:

Laura van den Berg (her latest book, Find Me, earned her the title “best young writer in America” from Salon):

“For me it’s important to acknowledge the inevitability of negative criticism. If I continue to write and to publish, it is going to happen. It has happened. It is a fact of any writer’s existence. And when we get negative criticism, we are in excellent company, since it has probably happened at some point, if not at multiple points, to every writer we have ever admired…. When faced with negative criticism, I first try to keep things in perspective….I remind myself that nothing can be for everyone. More than anything, though, I try to funnel whatever hurt I might be feeling back into my work…. I remind myself that what matters most (always, always, always) is my ability to dig in and write through it.”1

Jeff VanderMeer, author of the New York Times Bestselling Southern Reach trilogy:

“Ideally, you want [first draft] readers who are good at providing cogent, analytical comments on your work and don’t get hung up on petty details or are unable to sympathize with what you are trying to do. Any reader who continually brings their own agenda to your work and tries to impose their own vision shouldn’t be part of your revision process for very long…. Consider processing [feedback] in a systematic way. Why? To get the most out of [beneficial] comments and to better weed out irrelevant or harmful comments without losing valuable information. [A] systematic approach will allow you to get the most out of feedback in the same way that an expert butcher wastes not a bit of the meat from a carcass.”2

New York Times bestselling author Chuck Wendig:

“Understand that [writing] is a purely subjective industry. It’s nothing personal. You maybe just haven’t found the right editor or agent yet. When I was submitting to agents, I found that some really loved what I was showing them, but I also had rejections like, ‘I’m just not feeling it.’ Nothing personal. They don’t hate you. Let that lessen the sting…. Let rejection energize you, not enervate you. As one project is out there drawing fire, take each rejection on the chin and as you get jacked up, keep writing. Write more. It’s not only a good way to use that energy, but it’s also a good way to remain distracted from the rejections.”3

Elizabeth Gilbert, the worldwide bestselling author of Eat Pray Love:

“It has never been easy for me to understand why people work so hard to create something beautiful, but then refuse to share it with anyone, for fear of criticism. Wasn’t that the point of the creation – to communicate something to the world? So PUT IT OUT THERE. Send your work off to editors and agents as much as possible, show it to your neighbors, plaster it on the walls of the bus stops – just don’t sit on your work and suffocate it…. And when the powers-that-be send you back your manuscript (and they will), take a deep breath and try again…. Don’t pre-reject yourself. That’s [the industry’s] job. Your job is only to write your heart out, and let destiny take care of the rest.”4

Now in both sports and writing, there are always exceptions to the rule. Yes, it is true that you can easily win a gold medal in figure skating if you are such an extraordinary skater that a even a single judge cannot contest your status. (A literary equivalent might be a J.K. Rowling or a Stephen King—you know, those writers who manage to produce instant bestsellers out of everything they touch). But you can be sure that successful athletes and bestselling authors have had their share of rejection in the past. More often than not, it’s what motivated them to get to where they are now. You, too, could be the next exception to the rule, but if you don’t power through that criticism, you’ll never know. Let criticism and rejection drive you deeper into your work. And if all else fails, I’ve found that spending an evening eating Ben & Jerry’s from the carton and binge-watching Orange is the New Black works just fine, too.

End Notes:

  1. http://flavorwire.com/446215/11-writers-on-how-they-deal-with-criticism/6
  2. Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook (pages 269, 274)
  3. http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/01/17/how-a-writer-makes-use-of-rejection/
  4. http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/thoughts-on-writing/

Emily Catenzaro is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut. She spends way too much time at ice skating rinks.

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