Writing Tip: Handling Your Critics Like a Boss

As an artist, criticism can easily stifle and destroy your creativity. And yet, it’s essential for improving your art.

I can remember my first creative jobs. What people liked and what they didn’t, what was praised and critiqued harshly often seemed random. How was I to process and understand? How could I improve? I wanted more praise and less of the harsh destructive criticism. Don’t we all?

Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way that help me process criticism in a useful way.  You can get better without letting it tear you apart:

Ask for meaningful criticism.

Don’t show your work to someone and ask them, “What do you think?” Instead, give them a meaningful question to answer. Do you feel connected to my character? Do you want to read/see more? What did the story say to you? Why?

Look for questions that help you discover a few key things:

  • Are your characters relatable?
  • Does your story make sense and are people moved by it?
  • Does it say what you intend?

Ignore individual responses.

It’s tempting to hand your work to someone significant (a spouse, close friend, or artist you admire) and then take their concerns as gospel. Well, if Sue says that my plot is a mess, I just need to scrap the whole thing and start over

Instead, seek a range of feedback and look for trends. Three or four responses is not enough. Aim to get ten or more people giving feedback on your work. I prefer upwards of fifty. Then look at their feedback. Are there patterns? Most people love my character but get confused during the climactic scene. That’s useful info. But one person’s confusion may just be them. We’re all different, and nothing you make is going to work for everyone.

Embrace anonymous feedback.

Your friends and family love you. They root for your success. At least in America, they’re inclined to sugar coat their responses to you because they care.

They also know a lot about you and have some impressions of who you are. If you’ve done your job correctly and really been honest with your characters and your story, it’s likely that your writing will make them uncomfortable.

Those are roadblocks to good feedback. However, there is a wonderful source of anonymous feedback at your disposal. It’s called the Internet! 🙂 Don’t be afraid to share your work. There are many online writing groups where writers can share and swap feedback with one another. For short films, I’ve even used crowdsourcing — paying workers small amounts of money to watch the film and fill out a survey. Be creative in seeking out readers and viewers for your work. But try to find feedback which is unhindered by relationship. Afterall, your target demographic probably isn’t limited to people who know you.

Don’t waste time on overly harsh criticism.

If someone says your work stinks or something even worse, dump their feedback and move on. It’s entirely possible that your work does stink and they aren’t wrong, but harsh feedback is virtually impossible to hear and internalize in a healthy way.

Say Joe reads my book, then he writes me and says, “Ted, you can’t write your way out of a paper bag. Your characters are all stupid and this was a huge waste of my time.” My natural response is to internalize this as an indictment of me as a person. That won’t help me to write or get better. But even if I could remove the emotional component, the feedback isn’t useful. It doesn’t matter what Joe thinks of my writing ability and I need to know why he doesn’t like my characters. Specifics are critical.

Joe could give me the exact same feedback in a receivable way if he said this: “Ted, I found your story very confusing. Page after page, I kept rereading things just to follow the action. The sentences seemed long and convoluted to me. In addition to that, I didn’t connect with any of your characters. They seemed like stereotypes. I really wanted to see them struggle and fail a bit more. Their life seemed a bit too easy.” That’s feedback I can work with. I can tidy up my prose, work on simplifying sentences where possible and breaking them up where I can’t. I can also take a hard look at my characters and see if Joe is right about their struggles. But most significantly of all, Joe has shown himself to be a reasonable person of whom I can ask some clarifying questions. 🙂 Again — none of this matters if Joe is the only person who sees these problems!

The strength of an opinion does not determine it’s value.

I don’t care how powerfully or persuasively it’s expressed, that doesn’t mean it’s right. You may have a reader who says exactly what you want to hear, or who knows just the right words to cut the legs out from under you. I’m being a bit repetitive but this bears repeating. One person’s opinion isn’t that significant — unless they’re your client or you really are writing just for them. Be polite. Listen to their concerns. Thank them for expressing them and move on.

Embrace the process.

Occasionally someone may come back to you and try to call you out because you didn’t incorporate some piece of feedback they gave into your final product. Don’t sweat it. Just tell them that you solicit feedback from a broad variety of sources, and their suggestions weren’t in line with the majority of the folks who read your work. Most people understand that, and appreciate that you’ve got a system.


Get a broad range of feedback, and only sweat the trends.

Happy writing!

I’d love to hear about your projects and how you’re handling feedback in the comments. Do you have a great place you go to find early readers?

8 Tips to Give Receivable Criticism

National Novel Writing Month is coming to a close. A lot of people have just finished, or at least made great progress on a first draft. In the next few days, some of them may be pounding on your door asking you to read it and tell them what you think.

Before you flee in terror, take a look at a few techniques to turn your cutting remarks into constructive criticism. Because at the end of the day, you have a great opportunity to do your friend a favor. You just have to learn to give them the bad news (or hopefully the good news) in a format they can receive. You can give the best advice in the world, but if your listener can’t hear it, it’s just wasted breath.

While I’m writing specifically to people reading novels, I use these same techniques when criticizing scripts, films, videos, live theater… they’re pretty universal.

  1. 1. Ask what kind of feedback your friend wants.

Some people would love for you to correct all their typos and grammar — which I would call utterly pointless in a first draft — while others may be looking for whether or not the story makes sense, if you follow key turning points, whether or not you’re emotionally attached to the characters, etc. Invite them to tell you what they want. In doing so, they will give you explicit permission to share.

2. Be specific.

“I love it” and “I hate it” are both fairly useless pieces of criticism. They don’t help the author understand what they’ve done right, or what  they need to change. Pick a part of the story and tell them how it made you feel, and take a swipe at telling them why.

3. Tell them where.

This is especially important in longer works, but it’s applicable to anything. “I didn’t like the part where Henry walks in the woods” is great if Henry only walks in the woods one time. But, what if you forgot that when he and Harriet sneak off to the lake, they walk right through the woods? Provide additional details that help your friend know exactly what part of the story to which you’re referring.

4. Avoid absolutes.

“The part where he gets the sword sucks.” Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. You’re allowed to think so, but your criticism will be infinitely more receivable if you phrase it that way. For example, “I didn’t like the part where he gets the sword.” Now, I know it’s your opinion, rather than absolute truth.

5. Be nice.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying go easy. If you’re friend really wants feedback, you’re doing them a disservice telling them something is good when it isn’t. But, there’s a huge difference between “this scene isn’t working for me” and “this scene makes me throw up in my mouth a little.”

6. Find the good.

When we put our critic hat on, it’s easy to forget to mention the good along with the bad. Try to start out and finish your critique by noting things they did well, parts that worked, or characters or traits you liked. Positive feedback (knowing what you did right) is just as valuable as negative feedback (what you did wrong). Don’t tell people you really liked parts that stink, but try to find things that you do genuinely like. This also helps to make your negative critiques more receivable.

7. Hold your criticism loosely.

It’s easy to puff up our chests and think, “they asked for my expertise. Hence, I am an expert!” In reality, you may be one of many different people giving feedback. Remember that no matter how passionately you believe what you’re saying, it’s still just your opinion. They can take it or leave it.

8. Stay friends.

Nothing you have to say about your friends novel, screenplay, or whatever is more important than your friendship. If you feel like the process is just creating tension between you… stop. Tell them gently that you don’t feel like your criticism is really helping them, and suggest they go to someone else. In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever run into this situation when I was doing 1-7 well, but sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

My thoughts on giving good criticism have been heavily shaped by the writing of Andrew Burt over at Critters. So, if you’d like to read further on this topic, I recommend checking him out.

Have fun reading your friend’s hardwork, and if you have any good criticism tips, leave them in the comments.