Ouch! Dealing With The Tough Criticism

Last night I went to critique group with a very short chapter to read aloud. It wasn’t my best effort, but technically, I thought it worked.

Boy, did I think wrong!  I mean, talk about your blunt criticism. Plenty of not-ready-for-prime-time feedback there. It was enough to make me drive home with an angry headache and the determination to blow off my group forever–well, at least until next week.

So how do you handle critiques that don’t go your way?  Should you crawl into a hole of embarrassment and never show your face again?  Should you cry and stomp your feet?  Should you rip back at those people who are “only trying to help?”

Okay, so I didn’t sleep so well after that.  I’ve been up since two-thirty or three, playing Sudoku and licking my wounds.  Now it’s time to get back to being a pro about my work.


I have to realize that not everything I write has a golden touch.  Hard to believe, I know,  but true.  Even Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been known to produce the occasional “oops.” I’m allowed a bad night at the keyboard.

But, I also have to believe that when I receive opinions from others, those are simply other people’s knee jerk reactions to my work, not carved stone tablets. And one thing I’ve noticed is that if my first critic is harsh, the rest of the group tends to pile on.  That’s why our group’s rule is to SAY SOMETHING NICE before ripping into the person you’re reviewing.  This may not have happened, but that was my critic’s problem, not mine.

The key is that if multiple critics focus in on the same challenge points, there’s where you start looking to improve.


One of the best things about having others read your work, is that it allows you to step back and see it from a reader’s perspective.  And when you have three, four, or five other sets of eyes on your work, you’re definitely going to get some very different perspectives.

Last night, my story was challenged on two levels: the pages had “no conflict”–an absolute no-no in story telling–and my main character–my Daisy, for heaven’s sake!–was too wimpy, not loyal enough to Gabe, and a doggone victim! Ouch, ouch, double ouch.


After the sting wears off, I try to step into my critics’ shoes.  At this point, I allow myself to agree and disagree with the comments, and think through how I might adjust a chapter.

Was there truly no conflict?  The conflict was there, but so soft and internal that it made for dull reading.  Do I have to have a flaming argument to make the point?  No.  I was using this chapter to set up Daisy and Gabe for an explosive disagreement a few pages down the road.  However, if I don’t shove those two into battle on these pages, then I can’t allow Daisy to wimp out entirely.  Maybe she can snap at others around her, trying to diffuse her own anger. Or  maybe she does confront Gabe, but in a dump-the-guilt-on-you kind of way.

Was Daisy too wimpy? Yes.  I saw that immediately after, of course, it was pointed out to me. I can’t have her hide from the situation, even though she may want to.  Daisy definitely needs backbone surgery in those pages.

Should Daisy be more loyal to Gabe? Here lots of people will disagree with me, but I think these days, women are allowed to have thoughts about other men, even when they’re in a committed relationship. It may be fun to become all consumed with love, but that’s for junior high school and cheesy made-for-TV movies.  You can love and be loyal to one man, but you can’t ask your eyes to stop working.

One of my critique friends is writing a romance.  Her hero and heroine always seem to have eyes for no one else, so their internal conflicts tend to be more along the lines of “am I good enough for this other person, or will the guilt of my past life come in and stop all this fun I want to have?”  Sorry, but as a grown-up, I like to have a more exciting internal conflicts–do I want creme brulee or will I stick with an ice-cream sundae?  What’s a woman to choose?


Just like with everything else in life, your attitude determines how you’ll grow from an experience.  If you can’t handle the occasional off night, then maybe writing isn’t for you.  Me? I’m going to treat myself to a bunch of sweets today for having earned a bad critique, and jump right back into writing.  I can do this!

Now it’s your turn.  How do you deal with harsh criticism?  How do you grow from the experience?

Write well, my friend, but if you don’t, at least have fun with your words.

11 thoughts on “Ouch! Dealing With The Tough Criticism

  1. I decide who’s opinion counts. Some folks have opinions that carry more weight with me than others. I get to decide what the criteria is for meaningful criticsm of my work. It usually involves the critic’s experience, honesty, and my respect for that person.

  2. I learned in Toastmasters there is a way to offer help that is truly helpful. A gifted speaker in our group said something like, “I really enjoyed . . . about your talk. One thing I noticed, that may be just me, was a lack of wrap up for your main points. Others may have heard it – it’s just my thought.” So easy to hear this kind – and kind – of help. I never stayed up late after hearing his critique, unless it was with excitement over how I could be even better 🙂

    • I learn so much from you, Linda! Thanks for a great way to critique, phrased succinctly and clearly. I’m going to work on becoming more like your friend, and not worry about those who haven’t had the advantage of Toastmasters to learn this important skill.

  3. As a visual artist….these would also apply. Depends who is critiquing, how the critique fits into the concepts of art…..and my mood! I’m having pumpkin bread today with my Starbucks. I so understand the idea of sweets and licking your wounds. But I paint because I have to, if anyone sees the beauty in it, so much the better. Love your blog, Lisa!

    • Thanks, Cindy. I love your perspective. Next time, I’ll be right there with you and your pumpkin bread. And I agree about acting on our creativity because we have to–our creativity is who we are, not just something we do.

      For those who haven’t had a chance to meet her, Cindy is a terrific Lakewood, Colorado artist. Check out her site : http://cynthiahaase.com — great stuff there!

  4. I thought your experience was so interesting. I know when my students peer review each other’s papers, I always remind them that, while they should take each other’s comments into consideration, they should remember that they are the author of their own work and to never forget that. What might seem unconventional and uncomfortable to one person, may in fact be original and thought provoking to another! Granted, I don’t teach fiction, but perhaps it still applies, I don’t know. Nevertheless, your post got me thinking as they so often do….

    • Thanks Letizia! You’re absolutely on target with the way creative efforts are received and interpreted. This definitely applies to fiction writing. What sort of teaching do you do?

      • I teach literature and philosophy courses so my students have to write a lot of essays (and I have to grade a lot of essays!).

        • Wow! I often wish I had made better use of my literature courses, the few where I managed to read the books were great. And teachers are always my heroes. Thanks for taking on such an important job.

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