How to Handle Criticism as a New Writer

You’ve started writing. You’re excited about your work, and you want to talk about it more. Maybe even let a few people read something you wrote. There is a delicate balance between allowing your creativity to grow organically and getting feedback to help your skills as a writer improve. Sharing your work for the first time can be scary. What happens when the feedback hurts? There are a few ways to prepare yourself for constructive criticism.

Sharing Your Work Too Soon

There is such a thing as sharing your work too soon. If you are still getting your feet on the ground and experimenting with what kind of writer you are, hold off on sharing your work for now. Writing, even if you aren’t writing about yourself, is highly personal. Your writing is a part of you. The words on the page are your thoughts, dreams, fears, and so much more. Showing someone your work before you are mentally and emotionally ready for criticism can be a significant setback. Learning to take constructive criticism as feedback on your work and not feedback on you as a person takes time. Keep in mind most pianists don’t sit down in front of an audience at Carnegie Hall and perform within their first few days of starting lessons. Give yourself time to become comfortable with your work.

Who Should & Shouldn’t Reading Your Work

Once you are comfortable with your work, you should start showing it to someone who can help you grow and develop as a writer. Figuring out who should and shouldn’t read your work is the challenge. If you have found a writing group you like, that is a perfect audience. Each member of your writing group was a new writer at some point and, they hopefully have some skill at delivering constructive criticism. Without a writing group, look for friends who are avid readers, bonus points if they happen to read your genre. You may also consider a trusted English or Literature teacher or professor. Another option is to reach out to a local author and ask if they would consider reading a short piece of your work. In general, avoid sharing your work with close family members who think everything you do is terrific. The feedback might be lovely, but probably won’t be the most helpful.

Have Specific Questions for Your Reader

No matter who you choose to share your work with, be prepared with questions for them. What do you want to know about your writing? Before you share your work, sit down, and think about what would be the most valuable feedback for you. Do you want to know if your characters are believable? Do you want to know if a specific action sequence makes sense? Do you want to know if you developed the setting well enough that the reader believed they were on a planet in another galaxy? Even something as simple as asking your reader what does or doesn’t work for them is a great place to start. Make a list of two or three things you want to know and give that list to your reader. A list of questions will help focus their comments on your writing.

Dealing with Just Plain Mean

Unfortunately, some people are just plain mean when it comes to giving feedback. Sometimes the person isn’t skilled at constructively providing feedback. Hearing a reader say they would throw your book out a window not only hurts, but it doesn’t have any value. Learning how to handle criticism as a new writer can be a challenge when faced with someone like this.

First and foremost, don’t get defensive. Push back for clarification as to why they may want to toss your tome out the window by asking probing questions. Ask for specifics, but don’t go down the rabbit hole of trying to explain your work to that person. You may also want to ask what genres or types of books they read and enjoy. If you write horror and they read romance, they may not know who to respond to your writing. If asking clarifying questions doesn’t help clarify the comment, thank them for the feedback and move on with your life. As the saying goes, you can’t please everyone. Personally, I like to think there is just a smidge of jealousy behind the nasty comments.

Finding the Nuggets of Gold

Once you have the right, bad, and ugly feedback, you have to shift through it to find the nuggets of feedback gold. While positive feedback may feel good, it may not have any value, like fools gold. The negative comments may be hard to hear, but they may be the nugget you are looking for to become a better writer. How do you know the difference? First, think about what resonates most with you as a writer. When writing, you will start to develop a sense of what isn’t on point for your work. Maybe you can’t find the exact phrasing for something, or you feel like a character is coming across as too flat. Your readers can help confirm or refute what you see in your work. Next, think about how many times you got the same or similar feedback on a particular aspect of your writing. There’s a “rule” often attributed to Stephen King that goes something like if more than one person says to change something in your writing, then consider replacing it. Even if the passage is one of your favorite parts, your darling, if more than one reader says it isn’t working, you need to consider changing or cutting it.

As a new writer, letting others read your work can help your work improve. Learning how to handle criticism as a new writer can be challenging. There are certainly pitfalls to sharing your work too early or sharing it with the wrong person. To keep your reader focused, be sure to ask direct questions of your readers to get the best feedback. Be prepared for all types of feedback, both good and bad as you start to share your work. Take some time to think about the feedback you receive. Remember, the comments are about your writing, not you. Dig in and look for the nuggets you can polish to make them shine in your writing.

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