How to Overcome Brutal Criticism Without Losing Your Zest for Writing (and Life)

It’s your worst nightmare:

You’ve just poured your heart and soul into your latest story/article, hit “publish” with bated breath, and waited for the comments to start rolling in.

This latest piece cost you a lot, too. Every word felt like self-immolation, like you were digging out a soft, squishy, vulnerable piece of your heart and putting it out there for everyone to see.

You weren’t even sure you wanted to publish it…but there, it’s done.

And here come the comments. Some of them are are encouraging, with their “thank you’s” and “me too!’s”

But then you see it.

The stabbing black words of a critic, lambasting your article, piercing your eyeballs, ripping your fragile heart to shreds.

You want to reach through the screen and give that inconsiderate lout a thorough beating. Or break down and cry, and never ever write another word again.

But even in your miasma of pain, you know neither of those options are really helpful. So…what should you do?

Take a deep breath, and don’t respond (immediately)

“Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed” — Hemingway or Red SmithClick To Tweet

Don’t react when the pain is fresh. Do something else, something to make you feel better.

Give yourself at least a day to sleep on it before you answer — if you answer at all. Some uncomfortable comments are worth replying to, others aren’t.

But no matter what, don’t react reflexively. Otherwise, you may say (or write) something you regret.

Remember: whatever you post on the internet lasts a very long time.

Clear up misunderstandings

“You always risk people misunderstanding you when you say anything.” — Phil LordClick To Tweet

Words are tricky things.

What one word means to you may mean something entirely different to someone else.

What you thought was obviously a joke may be taken the wrong way by a reader from a different culture, or generation, or…whatever.

Before you argue with a critic, read their comment as dispassionately as you can, and see if the problem is as simple as — you misunderstood them, or they misunderstood you.

Most people are not trolls; they may simply not understand what you want to say.

And the opposite is true as well — maybe that critical comment wasn’t meant to be as critical as you thought it was.

If you’re not sure, clarify.

If you’re still not sure, give them the benefit of the doubt.

And remember Stephen Covey’s wise advice:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.Click To Tweet

Don’t dismiss ALL criticism right off the bat

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” — Winston ChurchillClick To Tweet

Critical comments can be painful. But feeling hurt does not always mean that your critic is wrong.

They may be wrong in writing with a mean spirit, but correct in their criticism.

So do your best to separate spirit or style from content. Perhaps that person is really pointing out a legitimate flaw in your thinking and/or writing. In that case, you should thank him, not hate him.

The human sense of taste is a miraculous thing. For instance, when we smell or taste something bitter, that can be a sign that what we’re eating is poisonous.

But on the other hand, certain vitamin supplements and life-saving medications also taste bitter.

If you refused to eat anything bitter, we’d be able to avoid many poisons, true, but then we wouldn’t be able to receive life-saving medications when we’re sick.

Same thing with writing. If you consider critical comments with humility and wisdom, you will be able to distinguish the painful-but-helpful comments from the trolls’ attacks.

Legitimate criticism will always help you become a better person and writer, if you can ignore the bitterness of the pain and use the content of the comment to improve.

So before you dismiss all painful comments, separate the helpful ones from the hateful ones.

Then use the former to make your writing better, and ignore the latter.

Hold on to your principles

“In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” — St. AugustineClick To Tweet

If a critic is challenging something you truly believe, don’t let your self-protective tendencies get in the way of giving their argument a fair trial.

However, if you have considered their point fairly, and still feel that they are wrong, don’t sacrifice your principles by denying your words.

When you write important things, you will attract certain people and repel others. It’s inevitable.

So don’t try to please everyone, and don’t compromise on the things that matter.

This doesn’t mean you are now free to bash your critic, though.

If responding to their comment is helpful to you or to them, then respond. But do it respectfully, and only with the intention to clarify and elucidate, not attack or retaliate.

It can be extremely difficult to change people’s minds — especially on certain sensitive/controversial topics.

You can try, if you think it is worth it. But be gracious. And if a debate is no longer productive, let it go.

Don’t treat people as they deserve to be treated

“Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, but it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving” — Dale CarnegieClick To Tweet

If the commenter really IS a troll, a mean-spirited person, an envious malcontent, don’t let your inner troll come out and bite his/her head off.

First of all, fiery dialogues between two angry people make other readers uncomfortable.

It also makes you look bad, and it is no good for your blood pressure.

If you do the noble thing and respond graciously and kindly (or at least refrain from saying what you really want to say), you can feel proud of yourself for being the better person (and rightly so!)

Of course, if you leave a comment like, “I will not answer your mean-spirited comment because I am a better person than you,” you kind of just negated your noble-feel-good points, so don’t do that either.

Be careful how YOU comment

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help” — Abraham LincolnClick To Tweet

In general, leave helpful but kind comments. Even critiques should be level-headed and gracious.

(After all, if you really dislike a piece, the best thing to do would be to let it fade into internet obscurity, not start a word-war with its author, which would have the opposite effect)

Treat other writers as you would like to be treated. Err on the side of caution, of gentleness, of kindness.

If you feel compelled to leave a corrective comment or something that may be taken the wrong way, do your best to take the sting out of it — and make sure you are opposing the IDEA, not the PERSON.

This is a delicate balance, of course, and requires practice and skill. But it’s a skill worth cultivating if you want to go far in writing and in life.

The Unwritten Rules of Writing

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” — Proverbs 15:1Click To Tweet

I once wrote a vulnerable article about a personal health problem.

A while later, a critic sent me a message: something along the lines of “you shouldn’t be writing about such-and-such a topic, because I don’t think you know enough about it.”

I disagreed with much of the note, (Ex: because the piece was based on personal experience, critiquing my knowledge of the topic didn’t make sense)

But still, I replied as kindly as I could, arguing that lack of knowledge about a topic should not be a hard and fast rule against writing things you don’t know everything about.*

If anything, the only rules for writing should be:

  1. write honestly, and
  2. write graciously.

That applies to when you are writing content, and when you are commenting on others’ content.

Writing is a learning process, and criticism is part of that process. You can learn something from almost every critique, even the mean-spirited ones.

I have to admit, I was angry when I read my critic’s email at first. But I slept on it and waited to reply. When I did, I had some distance from the initial shock of receiving negative feedback, and I was able to see that the critic was writing because she herself had experienced a similar health issue and was probably still in pain from it.

When I replied, acknowleding her feelings, but clarifying my own position, she actually wrote back a far more friendly message, apologizing for being so harsh the first time.

Not only was I able to defend my ideas without descending into petty squabbles, I was able to redeem and improve my relationship with this critic, who went on to be a supportive reader.

As a writer, then, don’t be afraid to receive criticism. Instead, let it stretch and grow you into a better writer and communicator.

Keep writing

“It’s easy to attack and destroy an act of creation. It’s a lot more difficult to perform one.” — Chuck PalahniukClick To Tweet

Writing is a fearful, vulnerable activity. Any kind of art or expression is, really.

But it is worth it.

You have stories and ideas that need to be shared. There are people out there who need to hear your stories and ideas.

Some of these people will appreciate your thoughts — others might not, and will let you know — maybe in ways that don’t feel so great.

That’s okay. Keep writing.

There will also be people who don’t need to hear those ideas, and may tell you so honestly.

That’s okay too. You’re not writing for them, but for others. So keep writing.

Learn to receive and to give criticism well, and it will serve you well in every area of life.

And, whatever else…

Keep writing.

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2 thoughts on “How to Overcome Brutal Criticism Without Losing Your Zest for Writing (and Life)”

  1. Hi Sarah
    You said to write honestly but sometimes honesty sucks so bad and it’s not just when you’re writing. The only things that keep me sane are my writing and my vegetarian diet. I also find it hard to find many honest people these days. I’m sitting here writing to you all alone in the world. My friends and family don’t give me any support whatsoever which makes it even harder. Sometimes I just want to give it all up and do something else but I keep going with my writing. I wrote an article today on my travel and health blog but the day hasn’t been going very well. I can take all the criticism because I also love to write controversial subjects to get attention, whether people think it’s right or wrong. I just had to write and tell you this. Not what I usually do.

  2. Hi Grahame,

    Thank you for your trust and courage in writing! I know how you feel, it’s hard for everyone to write honestly. It takes a lot of courage and strength, and some days, there just doesn’t seem to be enough to go around. Don’t beat yourself up. If you are moved to write, then write. Do it for yourself, to begin with, and then when you write something that you think will benefit someone out there, take baby courage steps and try sharing it with a small group or a couple trusted friends, and see where that takes you! In the meantime, you can always write to me, I do my best to listen 🙂

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