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Dealing with criticism for our writing

Girl in a kayak
When criticism hurts, take a break
Published by Julia Lane

This blog post was written by former employee and SLC Writing Services Coordinator Hermine Chan.

No matter what it’s for, receiving criticisms can hurt. When you write, you pour a part of your soul into words and make it visible for all to see. Writing feels permanent–a written record for all eternity that can be referenced even decades down the road. Unlike speaking, people tend to judge what you write more harshly as they assume you’ve had more time to process your thoughts and polish them. Just ask any writer on Goodreads. Who hasn’t received a spiteful comment from a reader ragging on the author’s typos and grammar mistakes? The proclamations of “Oh I couldn’t possibly keep reading because there’s one misspelled word that the editor didn’t catch!”? Some readers are just mean that way.  

Sometimes, you put days of work into writing your paper and you end up getting a C- and your professor rips it apart with their comments in the margins. What can you do? 

You are human 

Cry. Scream. Punch a pillow. You are human, and it’s okay to have emotions!  BUT don’t take it personally. You are not your writing. You are not your failures. And this is not the end of the world. You can do better next time. 

As a former professional copywriter and now an aspiring screenwriter, I can tell you that a writer’s life is full of people telling you that they don’t like your work. Clients tell you to your face that they want you to change everything. Editors and literary agents tell you no, you’re not good enough to get published. Even if your book does get published or if your movie gets made, there will still be people who will swear hands down it’s the worst book/movie that they’ve ever seen. Sure, it hurts, but it doesn’t mean they hate you as a person. Let yourself be human and vent your frustrations, but after that, focus on what can be done. 

Find the actionable items  

Look at the criticism that you’ve collected and find something that you can actually work on. Sure, “I just didn’t like that” can be legitimate feedback, but there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t change your reader’s mind. But if your critic says “I didn’t like X because it wasn’t clear how Y works”, you can absolutely take action and look at the X and Y and see if there’s something that you can work on to clarify and improve your writing.  

Not all feedback is useful. Not all feedback is actionable. Sometimes, not everything needs fixing. Take a deep breath and determine what to take in and what to let go of–it will help you to not get overwhelmed.  

Seek a second opinion 

Sometimes, bad writing is just one person’s opinion, and one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Famous writers got rejected too. Stephen King’s first manuscript was rejected 30 times before finding a publisher. Just because one person (or a few people) tells you that your piece isn’t up to par doesn’t mean that someone else won’t cherish it.
You could certainly reach out for a second opinion to see if another reader sees something different. Your TA could be a good resource, or you could also book a one-on-one appointment with a Writing & Learning Peer at the Student Learning Commons. Our peer educators can sit down with you and go over your instructor’s comments and give you some pointers on how you may be able to improve your writing. It might be helpful to hear from someone else. If one person says something doesn’t work for them, it could be just their opinion. If more than one person tells you the same thing, it might be an actionable item. 

Do I really have to change it?  

That depends on who your critic is. If it’s your professor who comments that something isn’t good enough for them, hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to get through their course. You can prove them wrong later when you become a world-renowned scholar.

There is also your own authorial intent. If you know why you’re writing the way that you’re writing, and it’s important that you get the message across in the way that you do, by all means, keep at it.  

Take a break and have some fun 

It’s okay to take a break from academic writing, too. Reading Week sure is a good time for you to catch up with your assignments. But taking time off is also important for self-care. This may be the perfect time for you to write something else–like get started with the creative writing project that you always wanted to do. Write a play. Film a YouTube video. Paint a painting--a picture says a thousand words anyway. Do something fun that would take your mind off of your academic writing for a while, so that when you’re back, you can be fully back!  

Enjoy your week off! 

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