I can predict fairly quickly whether or not you’re going to succeed as a writer.
All I have to see is how you respond to criticism.
Every writer on the planet gets criticized. I do, and I’ve been at this for more than half a century.
If you think that makes it easy for me, you’re wrong. Sure, maybe the suggestions I get are minor compared to those an amateur or a beginner would get. But no one likes negative input.
The veterans, myself included, will counsel you to not take it personally.
We’ll say the editor is trying to help (and they are).
We’ll say they’re on your side (and they are).
We’ll say they want you to succeed (and they do), want the best end product (and they do).
The choicest gem? That they’re not criticizing you—they’re criticizing the writing.
Which is true, but even we know how ridiculous that sounds—and is—as soon as it comes out of our mouths.
Because at the same time we’re telling you to spill your guts onto every page. To write with passion. To write what you care about and bleed for.
It is you—and me—on that page. So, criticize my writing and you’re criticizing me!
But Here’s the Rub
We’re not nine years old anymore. We don’t get to stomp and yell and let the tears roll when we don’t get the praise we want.
There are two ways to handle criticism. One is unhealthy and will end your career before it starts.
The other can keep you sane and in the game.
The Two Ways to Handle Criticism
1. Respond defensively.
Writers present a page or two to me, assuring me they want my “honest opinion. Give me both barrels. I mean it. I can take it.”
But I can see in their eyes that what they really want—let’s face it, what we all want when we start—is to be discovered. We want someone on the inside, someone we respect, someone with connections, to discover us.
We want someone to say, “Where have you been? You’re good! This is good! Let me introduce you to my agent. See you on The Tonight Show.”
I’m honest with people about their writing. I’ve learned over the years that there’s no value in sugarcoating things. I’m not mean. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t take the Simon Cowell/Piers Morgan approach.
I merely point out what I think works and what needs to be changed.
As soon as I offer anything other than praise, the defensive writer freezes. They try to hide it, but their body language says it all. The more I say, the less they move.
Despite their assurances that they wanted the unvarnished truth, this was clearly not what they wanted to hear, and they are no longer listening.
Loved ones told them their writing was great, and now the person they pinned their hopes on is telling them there’s more work ahead.
They weren’t seeking input or instruction, and certainly not criticism. They were seeking validation.
2. Devour feedback.
Writers sincerely eager to learn and grow and succeed (the ones likely to get published) are not afraid of criticism. Sure, it stings, but they’re leaning in, nodding, taking notes, asking questions.
Writers like that don’t even have to agree with everything. They ask for clarification. And often they say, “That makes sense. Yes, that didn’t feel right to me, so I wondered how to make that work. Oh, now I see it…”
I’d have to be naïve to think they aren’t disappointed that I wasn’t more thrilled with their work. But I always compliment them on their teachability and attitude, assuring them that this is what will carry them through the early stage of their career.
Syndicated radio talk show host Chris Fabry (Chris Fabry Live) is the epitome of a writer who began with the right attitude. He asked if I would teach him to write.
Sensing he was serious, I warned him it would be painful and that I would pull no punches. I would edit and rewrite his stuff until it started to make sense to him.
He convinced me he was serious and now admits it was painful. But anything worth doing is worth doing right and suffering for.
Chris wound up writing 34 of the Left Behind Kids books with me, 15 Red Rock Mysteries, and 5 Wormling Series books. He has since gone on to become an award-winning novelist in his own right.
Your Choice Should Be Obvious
Yes, it’s hard to get your writing back with marks all over it. If you must let your inner nine-year-old vent, give him 24 hours and no access to email.
In other words, resist the temptation to lash out at the editor. Fume and fuss and stomp and do whatever makes you feel better—in private.
And when you calm down, remind yourself that your editor has given you what you need to make your writing better.
Look at the fixes with a fresh eye the next morning and make the changes—even if you still disagree with them. Just see how the piece looks now.
Criticism can be your greatest ally. But defensiveness can end your career.
What will you do to improve your ability to take criticism? Tell me in the Comments below.