I’ll be honest. It’s usually impossible for me to accept feedback with a smile on my face.
I have very thin skin. It’s hard for me to separate myself from my work—in many cases, I feel as though my work is, in a very real sense, a vital part of me. And so to see it critiqued can be painful. Instead of listening and learning, I retreat and defend.
I think many creators—from writers to composers to artists and more—have the same problem. And who can blame us? When you spend so many hours working on such a personal project, it’s hard not to take criticism personally.
Unfortunately, such a stance prevents our work from growing. Feedback and criticism give us tangible handholds to grasp onto and improve our work, and choosing to ignore that feedback can prevent our work from reaching its true potential.
So here are a few tips to help you get through an editing session—from one thin-skinned writer to another.
1. Toughen up
The first point on my list is also the least palatable, so let’s get it out of the way.
You have to toughen up.
I know, I know. It’s easier said than done. But if we don’t toughen up, then we’ll miss out on the comments and criticisms that can improve our work.
How, then, do we distance ourselves from the project to which we devoted so much time and effort?
One age-old trick is just that—distance. Give yourself a buffer, a chronological barrier between yourself and your work. Set aside your book for a week or two; allow your poem to rest for a while. Give your heart and your mind some time to drift away. When you come back, it’ll be with fresher eyes and a more objective perspective.
But we don’t always have the luxury of time. Sometimes we need feedback right in the thick of it, when we’re still fully engaged with our work and at our most vulnerable.
This is when your mind powers come in. No, not x-ray vision or telekinesis (though the trick you’re about to pull certainly comes close.) You have to train your brain to receive feedback as positive rather than negative.
Oftentimes, I receive feedback as a kind of attack. My word choice is off? Does that mean you think I’m stupid? It’s ridiculous and petty and totally nonsensical—but that’s where my mind goes every time. So when my blood starts to boil or my heart begins to race, I have to remind myself (forcibly and repeatedly) that feedback is about helping me, not hurting me.
If you’re really put off by criticism, then maybe your only goal should be to get through the allotted time without crying or shouting. (I skew toward the former.)
Maybe you need to take a few deep breaths, or chant a mantra or phrase in your head (mine goes something like, IT’S NOT PERSONAL, IT’S NOT PERSONAL.) Maybe you need to take notes with a kind of detached consciousness and then unpack your reviewer’s comments later, when you’re alone and not in danger of being overheard muttering or swearing. Whatever it takes, do what you can to remind yourself that feedback is for your benefit.
And on that note, we’re onto the second point: shut up.
2. Hold your tongue
When I receive feedback, my first instinct is often to defend or explain myself. But this instinct shouldn’t be trusted—it will only derail your reviewer’s train of thought and leave you both irritated.
Though it may hurt, the best way to get your reviewer’s unfiltered opinion is to shut up and let them have their say.
If you must, you can reserve your response until the end of the session, but in all honesty these kinds of defenses don’t contribute much to the conversation. Instead of stubbornly defending your word choice, a much better pursuit is to ask your reviewer why they didn’t like your word choice.
You have to accept your reviewer’s point of view, regardless of how different it may be from your own. You have to believe them.
3. Believe them
If you ask for feedback but then discount your reviewer’s point of view, then what was the point?
It’s true that not everyone has the same taste, but that’s not exactly what I’m getting at here.
I mean, you have to be willing to admit when something doesn’t make sense.
In writing, it’s hard to accept the comments of others because we, as the author, have a kind of omniscient understanding of our own work. That is to say, when I use the phrase “conked out,” it’s a comforting allusion to the words my own mom used when I was a little girl. “Conked out” invokes cozy bedtimes and picture books. But to my beta reader, who doesn’t have this personal history, the phrase is jarring and out of place.
My first instinct (as always) is to fight—no, you don’t understand! But that’s the point, isn’t it? She didn’t understand—and it pulled her out of the narrative.
4. Ask specific questions
When you encounter moments like these—when your reviewer says, huh?—dig into them. Moments of confusion generally mean that something’s off, something’s wrong. Something you may not have even noticed.
Ask specific questions: why don’t you like this? How does it make you feel?
The best reviewers will do this intentionally, backing up their comments with specific details and explanations.
5. Say thank you
This one’s important. Sometimes, we’re so caught up in the moment, so discouraged or disgruntled that we forget to thank our reviewers for their work and their time. Honestly, editing another person’s work is an act of great benevolence—a person is taking time out of their day to look over your work with a critical eye in order to help you improve.
Thank your reviewer even if you don’t feel like it. In time, their comments will come to guide you and reshape your work for the better.
6. Don’t wallow
Finally, don’t wallow. If you find yourself obsessing over feedback, take a step back. It’s not healthy to dwell on something that only brings you down, and if you’re in this negative state, it probably won’t help your work in the long run.
Go on a walk, watch a funny episode of your favorite show, call your mom or your best friend. Remind yourself that you’re worthwhile, that your efforts matter, that your work matters. Try not to get dragged down into negativity.
7. Stick to your guns
I want to leave you with a final caveat. Yes, it’s important to believe your reviewers and empathize with their point of view—but at the end of the day, this is your work. It’s your project, defined by your own taste, interests, dreams, and desires. If someone rains on your parade, reject them! Don’t let someone discourage you from pursuing what you truly love.
How do you walk the line between accepting hard critiques and ignoring hurtful and unhelpful comments? It’s not easy, but if a piece of feedback makes your stomach drop or your heart constrict—if you feel like your reviewer’s comment conflicts with the driving force of your work—ignore it.
And as always, keep on creating.