Can you handle criticism of your work?

You’re wrong.

You’re not doing it right.

Can’t you see that’s the complete opposite of what you’re trying to say?

Sounds familiar? You’ve either heard this being said to you or (infinitely more interesting), you’ve said this to someone else. Nobody likes criticism. It’s hard to hear it, it’s annoying to accept and it’s downright irritating to set out and correct it.

You can't handle criticism, Meme generator

Half the time, though, I’m the one giving the critique, finding myself in Jack Nicholson’s position where he’s yelling his head off in the courtroom in A Few Good Men. *Aside: That’s a great movie!

While growing up, I recall when my dad would critique me- my writing, my singing, my work on a task. He’d look it over or listen and say, ‘Not your best work. This is what you’ve done wrong.’

While I initially fumed at what I perceived as ‘being mean’, as I grew older, I realised how much he’d shaped my being open to the voices of others.

Thanks to him, I could take it when a teacher dismissed my essay as being too wordy. When I received a rejection letter from an editor for a micro story, I learnt to take it in the right spirit. When friends and fellow bloggers point out typos in my post or the fact that the story doesn’t shape up quite that well, I listen and act on it.

Plus, I know I’ve said it enough times, but one of the best sites out there to help writers grow in their craft is Yeah Write. They have a team of dedicated editors who scan pieces for errors, stylistic flaws, bad construction of sentences and send you a personalised e-mail which point out your mistakes.

It took me a whole year to get a nod of approval from them and I cherish it to this day. After that, there have been ups and downs on the journey, but I think long and hard before submitting a piece each week. In my mind, if it is sub-par, I won’t submit it and I’m glad.

Writing a book is actually a very challenging task. If it isn’t paucity of time that is your enemy, it’s your laziness. Once you start writing, you tend to worry about what people will think of the book. Once you’re halfway through you wonder if it is even worth finishing. I’m not sure what happens when the book is actually finished. Guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

So, it’s very easy to succumb to the inner critic and feel even worse when someone else reads your work and says , ‘What absolute bilge!’

Why am I even talking about this? I’ve seen a growing trend of late, of published work that doesn’t come up to par. Sub-standard writing seems to be the norm and it is worrying. Reading this piece by Sreesha had me nodding along. I’m not entirely sure what is driving this but I’m guessing there are a few factors:

  1. Inability to receive critique (no surprises there)
  2. Praise for written work which is sub-standard
  3. Sugar coating criticism to the point of being so soft that the recipient does not feel offended
  4. Unwillingness to accept that what one has written is just not good quality

It’s sad, really. If we chose to receive criticism in the right spirit, think of how different things would be.Whether you like it or despise it (I’m guessing most of us fall into the latter group), criticism is good for us. It helps us grow. It helps us reshape our words and reform our thinking. It puts us in the other person’s shoes.

If you can’t handle criticism, ask yourself why and you may find that the answer is staring you in the face. You’re just not ready to hear it.

Or, as Nicholson eloquently puts it, ‘You can’t handle the truth.’

~~~o~~~

Can you handle constructive criticism? Do you defend yourself when someone points out your errors or do you stay open and receptive?  How has it helped you- as a writer, blogger or just an individual?

49 thoughts on “Can you handle criticism of your work?

  1. Interestingly, I saw the exact response I was going to type in Tulika’s comment. I do that too. A lot. Every piece of criticism is accepted and analyzed in hibernation.

    I am normally not offended by criticism, as the kind I have received so far, has almost always come from a good place. I am actually thankful for these guys, who come out and say it like it is. It is not the easiest thing to do.

    I know that as I have been on the other end of this spectrum too, and have come to the conclusion that most people don’t want reviews. They don’t want your opinion.They want praise. Like you said – they can’t handle the truth.

    So, I just thank my lucky stars that I have people in my life who feel I am receptive enough to hear their honest, unfiltered opinion. These are the ones who have my best interests in their heart and so to me, they are worth their weight in gold. 😀

  2. I think a lot would depend on who you’re getting it from and what frame of mind you are in when you get it. My first instinct when I am critisiced is to just disappear and evaluate the truth of it all in solitude! Not the best way to do it but that’s how it is.

  3. In my case, it was my sister who used to give me constructive criticism. I remember the day, when i was in eighth grade, i was selected to represent my school at a Ward-Level Essay Writing Competition. So I had started writing one essay and presented it to my sister for approval. She tore it up, and told me, “You can do way better than this.” I remember crying so bitterly and sitting awake till midnight trying to rewrite the essay. When I finally completed the essay and showed it to her again, she said, “Now that’s a little better than the previous one.”
    And the criticism had the required effect. I won the first place at the competition!
    Since that day, I have always asked her to go through what I have written, and give me her feedback. And then I reached a point when she told me to keep writing without asking for her opinion. Now, she reads my blog posts and analyses it, gives me some praise. But mostly, she still watches out for what I write, and helps me out.
    I get a lot of flattery and praises from my friends, who are in total awe of the fact that I can put down my feelings to words at such a young age. But the only thing that keeps my head on my shoulders, is that one night of crying and criticism. Criticism really keeps you calm and cool when you get all flustered with the praise. I’m sure you agree?

  4. Very true Shailaja. Taking criticism is not an easy thing and the “Being open” has to be a decision one takes, because instinctively we do become defensive. I have seen so many people being promoted for sub-standard work, agree completely with you. But sometimes, the criticism needs to be understood as positive or negative and also separate out any biases or prejudices the person might have.

    1. i typically take negative reviews with a bucket of salt, unless the number of negative reviews significantly outweigh the positive. In which case, I try and read an excerpt and then take a call accordingly. Must sya I have been shocked at the number of positive reviews for a badly written book! I steer clear of most book review situations these days. I cannot give an untruthful review.

  5. Criticism – such a fine line between encouraging a person and putting them down.
    A fine line between sounding smug and holier-than-thou and encouraging.

    I think people who offer criticism should be ready to take criticism as well because its so easy to preach and so very hard to be on the receiving end.

    Well rounded post Shailaja.. I was nodding all along 😀

    1. Yes, that line, that almost invisible line is what people don’t know how to tread. I wonder, is it such a lost art? Sigh, I miss the days when people were not so quick-gun-murugan on online forums. People rarely think and respond instinctively these days. Also not a good thing. Good critique must be delivered after deliberate thought.

  6. Criticism is hard to take. But, like you say, it is for our own good, and without it, how would we learn? How would we ever improve? I don’t believe in just tearing someone apart though. I think you can always find something nice to say too. I don’t believe that is sugar coating. I believe it simply is telling the person, hey…you got it wrong. I don’t get it but I really did like this part…so it isn’t a complete loss. You have something to work with, don’t give up! Being just plain rude and critical for the sake of it, is counterproductive to me. For some people it could mean the difference of trying again or giving up entirely.

    1. Being plain rude is a no-no, of course, but I do think some of the reviews out there are way too soft almost as if they are afraid of offending the writer. I mean, if the writing is bad, and you put it out there for public review, be ready to hear the brickbats. This is more rampant in published work, I notice and the sub-standard writing out there. Sigh, I rant. 😀

  7. There is only one person who offered criticisms on what I wrote and that was ages ago. His remarks on what could have been better were something that helped me in sharing my scribbles with the rest of the world. Sadly he is too busy to read my writings nowadays. I always welcome constructive criticisms, but no one else has ever said anything of that sort. It’s even more disheartening for me when I go back to one of my old posts and find many obvious mistakes and that no one had pointed it out. When I encounter such mistakes in other blogs, I usually email the person. I think only people with good intention can offer constructive criticism. 🙂

    1. I like the idea of e-mailing the person to let them know. Isn’t it? You convey the critique and still don’t do it in a manner to cause public embarrassment. I hope you find someone who will continue to do the same for you <3

  8. You know when I I got a 9/10 on my essay for the first time in school, I was more happy about the red marks and green marks on the paper than the 9. Because it meant that it survived tremendous scrutiny.

    Criticism is the only way to grow when done right. Most of the times ypur best critic

    1. Hehe this is what happens when S gets to the phone in my hand. Sorry.

      I was saying that the best critic is most often the person closest to you. The problem is people more often than not forget that criticism does not mean negating everything a person as done, it means to help a person get better and build them up.

      1. Yes it is a fine line to tread between constructive criticism and pulling a person down. I think it depends a lot on a few things: what you feel about the writing, what you feel about the person, how you convey it and what motivates you to say it.

  9. Criticism equals growth, most of the time. Taking it in the right spirit is the only way to go. Of course, I’d say that one must beware of people who like to criticize just to make someone feel bad. You know how it is – 100 good reviews and the one that is unfairly mean is the one that stays in your heart. 🙂 Nevertheless – feedback is a wonderful thing. We can’t be all things to all people – so…taking the rough with the smooth, to use a cliche…and taking it in our stride is the best way.

    Yes, I’ve received loads of criticism from those I love and I sincerely believe that I owe them all the appreciation I receive today for any good work I do. Constructive criticism is a gift.

    I am glad your Dad was honest. He truly cared.

    1. You know I adore you and criticism is one of the reasons. You say it like it is and for that I am always grateful. I have so many things to be thankful for. Without criticism, I would not be where I am today and I am glad. I really am.

  10. I think I handle criticism pretty well, most times anyway. Of course, I dole out gyaan pretty often too. Some people take it. Some people ask me, ‘So, who do you think you are?’; some others just mutter it under their breath.
    Criticism is key to us developing as a person, a blogger, a writer – even as a human being. The problem though is that a lot of people do not know to critique. In fact, sometimes the feedback sounds like personal vendetta against the writer/blogger. That’s when the trouble usually starts too.

    On the whole, it is understandable if someone feels bad about readers criticising their work. But they also need to be open to learning from others. No matter, what stage they’re at.

  11. Though I am generally quite open to criticism, I think that giving a constructive critique is an art and not everyone has the hang of it :). Both the giver and receiver need to make a differentiation between the writer and the work, to ensure that it doesn’t amount to beating down someone but is instead giving them a chance to grow.

    1. That’s a valid point- making a distinction between the writer and the work. I doubt many critics would set aside their personal agenda and critique just the work. Now you understand why I worry about publishing a book 😛

  12. I would love to hear criticism cos else how I learn? when I started my blog, I had a habit of using many smileys and a reader pointed that out. She said – if your post is funny, people will smile. No need for those faces and I did change. The use of smileys came down substantially and I am still grateful to this reader for her honest feedback. I write cos I want to be read and that should be enough to improve. Right?
    I would love to hear more but I feel people do not say a word that is not positive. May be we can start such a thing on BAR and keep it open for criticism?
    Great post Shailaja!

    1. That is wonderful to hear, Parul! How nice of that reader to give honest feedback! As for this activity on BAR, I had raised it and suggested that we have an anonymous submission form, but not many people were interested and shot down the idea. So I haven’t followed it through there.

  13. As you mentioned, criticism has to be a part of growing up for each one of us. One must learn to take constructive criticism sportingly. Only then will it help improve oneself. Thankfully, my Dad used to be my biggest critic during my childhood. He still is my biggest critic. As I look back, I wouldn’t have been able to be what I am without his constant criticism. Of course, one also has to learn to defend themselves when the other person goes overboard for no specific reason. And thank you for introducing me to Yeah Write. Going to try it out.

    1. It does have to be a part of our growth- personal and spiritual. A lot of people shun it because it makes them see what is wrong with themselves and it’s the uncomfortable truth. I remember my dad asking me once, ‘Does my criticism make you angry or defensive?’ And when I said, ‘Yes’, he replied, ‘That’s probably because it’s true and you know it. If I was wrong, it wouldn’t bother you this much. ‘ 🙂

  14. Here’s the thing: As writers, we love our work so much, that if someone tells us what’s wrong with it, it’s like the nosy neighbor telling us something’s wrong with our kid. We refuse to see it. The eye doesn’t see its own lashes, as they say.
    But criticism is good. Someday we’ll grow to see that. In the past, whenever a work of mine used to get rejected, I used to wonder why. Then one of the literary journals I submitted my work to actually gave me a reason for rejection – it helped me, I must say! If they hadn’t given me that reason, I would be obliviously happy and giddy about my work.
    But I do wish the substandard work stops getting published! It makes me soooo angry, I have no words!

  15. Hi,
    1. I loved this movie and Nicholson and Cruise. A Few Good Men title?
    2. I am trying to find the person who mentioned me on Twitter in a Twitter Chat. What a thrill! I thought I’d put it in my Weekly roundup and link back to your site. Was it you?
    Janice

  16. Yes, its true…criticism stings. But when someone critiques your work it also means they took the time to read it. And by responding, they’re letting you know that either they care enough to help you improve your craft or you somehow lit their fire enough for them to speak out…. but somehow, in some small measure at least, you engaged them. And that’s what we all strive for. And have to say…nothing feels sweeter than praise from a formerly critical source!

    1. I’ve always left myself open to critique. I think it is the only way we can polish our craft and hone our writing. Plus it keeps us from getting over confident, to be honest. Not everyone else thinks this way. More’s the pity.

      Thank you for reading and welcome to my blog, Kelly 🙂

  17. You’ve said something very significant here Shailaja. People seem to be churning out atrocious stuff in print… and on their blogs. And I see a dismaying bunch of people praising absolutely pathetic stuff. It has put me off trying to read new blogs. I have been disappointed too many times.

    But every once in a while I come across a blog like yours too. Which is very rewarding.

    Thank you for saying it like it is. So rare… and so precious consequently. 🙂

    1. I’ve stopped praising people Dagny, especially fellow bloggers who cannot seem to string a few sentences together without error. There comes a point when you just give up and realise nothing is going to change them.

      To know that what I write draws in discerning readers such as yourself is so very heartwarming. Thank you so much for your honest views. 🙂

  18. I totally agree with you Shailaja, I used to be part of poetry group where we would constructively criticise each other’s work… It was a beautiful way to learn, grow and respect people’s opinions. I invite criticism because how else will I improve my writing.

    1. You’re a wonderful person and I know you welcome critique. If I could name the people who would benefit from some constructive critique, believe me, I would. But no, people will say, ‘I write for myself’. Well, guess they don’t want critiques then 🙂

  19. There is an incredible book I recommend to you called “Lying” by Sam Harris. He writes about how generally everybody lies almost all of the time but we tell ourselves we are being tactful or we are just telling a little white lie, etc., but he advocates always in every situation, telling the truth because even small lies hurt other people eventually. He is so articulate and I find this book fascinating. In your case, or the case of any writer, how would hearing white lies that your work is excellent all the time and doesn’t need any improvement help anyone grow as a writer or push themselves? Maybe a reason so many can’t handle criticism is because they so rarely receive constructive criticism. It has become “offensive” to give a thoughtfully put yet honest appraisal.
    We maybe take things too personally when they are not personal.
    Excellent post! (And I mean it!!) 😉

    1. That does sound like a fascinating book, Colleen! Must look it up on Amazon! Exactly my point. How would people ever get out of the rut of bad writing if nobody told them that their work needed improvement? Baffling, to be honest!

      Thank you for the honest comment 😉

  20. Wise words indeed – I completely agree. I find it frustrating when a post goes up and little more than “great post” or some other generic comment pops up. I would much prefer critique, even if “bad.” So that I can get a measure of my own writing and hopefully improve. Thanks for this honest post.

  21. I was nodding my head right through your post. First, high five for the A Few Good Men. I just love that movie and have seen it multiple times. I even showed it to my kids especially for the “You can’t handle the truth” speech. Oh gosh, Jack Nicholson was outstanding!

    That said, I found a lot of worth in what you said at the end. Think why you don’t want to hear criticism and you have the answer staring at you in the face. Personally, I believe that the day I stop accepting criticism and working to get better is the day I cease to progress both in writing and in life. Loved the post, Shy!

  22. Funny coincidence as I’ve been thinking about this lately and planning to write about it too. I used to hate any form of criticism and well, doing a writing course at uni has meant that the work is open to constructive criticism from your peers. I would be shitting myself before posting my piece up for the class to read. So bloody hard. I think though, criticism given correctly is a lot easier to take.For instance, again for writing at uni, we get what’s working first, and then what can be changed. I like that format. I did feel really down recently after receiving feedback for a feature writing assignment in class by the lecturer…started to doubt my abilities and wonder if I’m cut out for this whole thing after all. I think when you are emotionally not in a good place, criticism is much harder to take.

    1. Hit the nail on the head pretty well there. Yes, if you are emotionally down, then you can’t take the criticism. I agree. It becomes much harder for us to accept it. Negative criticism, meant to put people down with no motivation to help them better themselves is a no-no. But somewhere people can’t handle any criticism these days. That’s just plain mule-headedness. I doubt that’s your problem though. From what I know of you, you’re the kind who will be open to critique 🙂

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