6 steps to deal with constructive criticism
It’s never easy to accept criticism gracefully. After you’ve poured sweat and tears into a creation, getting negative comments can be at best bruising and at worst devastating. But, like taking knocks from a sparring partner, good constructive criticism can spur you on to be better.
Constructive vs. destructive
Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.
If the comments are based solely on what the commenter liked or didn’t like about the piece, without any objective elements, beware. You’ll find nothing useful there. Family and friends often say they love your work (if they say anything at all). Or they might say they hate it. Neither is helpful, though they can still elicit an emotional response.
Unrelieved negativity, especially if spiced with personal vitriol, says more about the commenter than their target.
Put up your guard
Whether or not you sought it out, critique can help. But assess it first as above. Critique does not consist of insults and slurs. Don’t stoop to that level. Walk away from trolls and don’t engage in a flame war that will hurt your brand and your soul.
Defence not attack
Don’t hit back immediately. You’re here to learn something, so first listen to the comments. Take extra time to process the message if you need it.
Probing for weaknesses
A sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them. The idea is to improve and strengthen those areas. Nobody’s perfect and if you think you are above criticism, here’s one: that idea needs to change if you want to improve. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person. You are not your creation, though part of you may be in it. Breathe and listen.
Engage in rational discussion
You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight. It might take time for the emotional hit to lessen. Take that time and come back to it cold.
- Look for the kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept.
- Consider the alternatives presented.
- If you maintain your present position, be prepared to justify it.
- You don’t have to accept all parts of the critique. You, the creator, are in charge.
- Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end.
- Thank your critique partner for their time and attention.
Having considered the critique and decided what lessons you have drawn from it, put them into action. Good critique is focussed and objective, with examples, and offers specific remedies.
Poor critique says “I didn’t like that piece but I can’t explain why. You’re useless.”
Good critique says “I found that piece hard to read because the sentences and paragraphs were very long. You could try having just one idea in each sentence and two or three sentences per paragraph. That will give more white space on the page, which is easier to read on a screen.”
Now you have something to work with. You might cut down your sentences and play with them until you see that it does look better. Or you might find that short sentences don’t suit your writing style. Either way, you know more than before. You can make informed choices in future.
The student becomes the teacher
Everyone’s a critic and dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving out useful critique though: that’s hard. I invite you to try it, and learn the other side of the challenge. A writers’ group IRL or online will give opportunities to try it out. Being respectful is the first and golden rule. Producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions, like all good teaching, is harder than it looks.
Sharpening your own critical faculties makes it easier to read and watch like a writer. Deconstructing the magic trick helps you understand how to do it yourself.
Your writing relationships and your own work can only benefit when you learn how to give and take criticism like a pro.