There are many types of criticism, but for the purpose of this post, I will deal with the two main types – constructive criticism and negative criticism.
But what separates criticism from judgement? Being a writer, I’m paying particular attention to the criticism or judgement we receive when publishing our work.
Difference between criticism and judgement
Criticism should not attack a person’s character for the error they display. Instead, it should inform them of the error – either to their face, or written with a review that clearly explains.
Judgement, on the other hand, is often done behind the person’s back and attacks who they are for making the error. It is usually obvious that the accuser has no real scholarly knowledge to even be bringing up the error; and simply doesn’t approve of your actions.
We can feel a little sensitive when we first receive our manuscript back from the editor. We’ve slogged over the computer putting our ideas into thousands of words, spending hours working out plot lines, character development, and original settings for our scenes. We then go through several edits until we finally feel we can pour no more blood sweat and tears on the page. At this point, I usually feel like I never want to read my manuscript ever again, and this is the point where it is ready to go to the editor for its first edit.
When the editor’s report comes back, we naturally tend to ignore the words of encouragement and praise, homing-in on the suggestions for improvement – immediately thinking our book is being criticised. It is, but it’s positive criticism!
If you bear in mind that the editor is only doing this to support you; that she is working with you and not against you, you will get your book to its absolute best. This is both yours and your editor’s goal.
I would be concerned if my first edit came back with no corrections or comments for improvement. Feedback will only make your product (book) stronger, so try not to take it personally.
My editor has given me great insight with her comments, and I’ve learnt so much from her – including improvements to my punctuation and word choice. Yes, it stings a bit when I see all my well thought out similes crossed out (less is more!), but then, we always have the ultimate say. If there is something you feel determined to keep, then do so…that is your prerogative as the author!
The more your write, the greater it feels when your manuscript comes back with less (or different) comments. This shows how much you have taken onboard and that your writing is improving!
When we put our book out into the world, we open ourselves up to criticism. We may receive a one- or two-star review, which can feel devastating at first. But, so long as it is accompanied with constructive comments for improvement, and clarification for the reasons of the opinion given, we should take it on the chin and try to learn something from it. (Or you can ignore it completely if you prefer). Remember, not everybody will give us 4- or 5-star reviews.
A fair negative review or criticism should focus on actions to be taken, and should be based on the material of the book, NOT on the person responsible for writing it. The same applies in life: our work or actions can be criticised for not being up to scratch, but comments should never be personal or harsh.
Naysayers – the worst of the worse
A truly aggressive critic may try to goad you into a fight. But remember, ‘you haven’t done anything wrong’. People who feel compelled to insult you with rude criticisms may be jealous of your achievement, feel threatened, and tend to speak-out purely to build their own ego. This does not mean that you should respond! If you have a harsh negative review that is clearly inappropriate, others will see it for what it is.
As for one-star reviews, if the reader doesn’t take the time to justify their decision with a written review, they are merely being a coward, and it’s not worth giving it another thought.
An example of poorly constructed criticism would be when a parent confuses his own worth with his child’s performance. He reacts to the child’s missteps with hostility and judgement rather than sensitivity and compassion.
For example, if your child lies to you, instead of shouting at them and telling them they are a liar… you would say:
“I know how hard it is to tell the truth sometimes. It’s brave to tell the truth when you’re worried about getting into trouble. I know you’re honest and that you will make the right decision; you’re clever like that. Now, can we talk about what happened?”
This is something I am (sadly) all too familiar with. I have had the misfortune of receiving a great deal of negative criticism from what were, my family.
The first book I wrote, ‘Catch Me If I Fall’, is a brave memoir that has been well-received by medics, spinal cord patients, and specialists. It has also been instrumental in pioneering change with mental health stigma, and helping those who struggle with mental health issues. My family, however, only saw the negative in the book. Why? Because they were far more interested in themselves, wanting to know what may have been said about them, rather than focusing on the true meaning of the book and the brave journey that I travelled.
Only I know the intention of my book and the difficulties of breaking my back. It was a long-haul recovery that followed – both physically and mentally. So, I had to ask myself, “Am I going to focus on the three or four family members who choose to scapegoat me with their own inadequacies, or focus on everyone else who praise me for the braveness of talking about my own mental health journey?” The latter won thankfully!
At the time of publishing my memoir, I asked my editor to report back to me whether I had been disrespectful to my family in anyway, and from her point of view as both a reader and an editor, she said ‘no’. Other readers have told me they were totally unaware that my family were even mentioned in the book! (Probably because I only received one twenty minute visit during my four-month hospital stay).
I appreciate my situation is unique, so how do we actually know when criticism is harmful?
Well, it depends on the motivation of the person criticising. Do they want to support you and help you to improve? Or do they want to draw blood? If the latter, their criticism is an oblique form of self-commendation.
Sadly, as a writer/author, this is something that is out of our control. But if you have the following mindset, it can certainly make things easier to accept:
“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.
Top Tips to Handle Criticism
In life, we can walk away from those who try to destroy us with their negative criticism. In fact, it is psychologically unsafe to keep toxic people around us, so removing them is essential. But with our writing, we don’t have that choice. So we need to grow a thick skin. Some of the following points may help:
- Don’t doubt your ability. So long as you employ a good editor and proof-reader, your work is more than worthy of being published.
- Remember that most people have no idea what is involved in writing a book or the hard work involved. How many people have you met as a writer/author, who say, “I’ve been thinking of writing a book?” Yes, everyone has a book in them it seems, but only a few have the determination and drive to reach the finish line; only a few take the time to learn how to write a book and overcome the difficulties that are involved.
- Take constructive criticism and use it to learn something about yourself or your writing.
- Use negative/unconstructive criticism to learn something about the other person. If nothing else, learn how to not react! What is news today is tomorrow’s chip paper!
- Know the difference between legitimate criticism and destructive or toxic criticism.
- The more copies you sell, the more feedback or criticism you will receive. Be prepared!
TROLLS (people who attack you on social media).
Attacking your character, ideas or reputation is on them! If you are on the receiving end, it is designed to inflict harm, so recognise this for what it is and ignore it! Do not enter into their negativity publicly, and stop listening.
Again, this is something that I have (sadly) experienced. There are trolls who are anonymous and go around searching for trouble. Then there are the ones who, perhaps, know you, and just want an opportunity to bring you down. Do not respond! They highlight their own weaknesses and the general public will see their actions for what they are.
There are elements of being a writer that can be difficult; especially when it comes to criticism and reviews. I recommend you dig deep and remember your reasons for writing in the first place. I also recommend you print off each 5-star review you receive and take the time to read (and share) these.
Finally, no matter how tough the criticism is, I implore you to do this…. KEEP WRITING! Your voice is important and your words need to be read!