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How to Handle Criticism

From Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools series:

Such criticism can be priceless — if you learn how to use it. The right frame of mind can transform criticism that is nasty, petty, insincere, biased, even profane, into gold.

This alchemy requires one magic strategy: The receptive writer must convert debate into conversation. In a debate, one side listens only to find a counter-argument. In a conversation, there is give and take. A debate ends with a winner and a loser. A conversation can conclude with both sides learning, and a promise of more to come.

As hard as it is to follow, I long ago made a resolution that will sound like a Herculean impossibility: I never defend my story against criticism… Here’s the alternative: Never defend your work, but explain what you were trying to accomplish. So, “Jack, I can see that all that peeping in my lead didn’t work for you. I was just trying to find a way for readers to be able to see the impact of this policy. I didn’t want to let the police action get lost in a lot of bureaucratic language.” That response is more likely to turn a debate (one the writer is likely to lose) into a conversation (in which the editor might convert from adversary to ally).


My response.
Sometimes even rude criticism can be helpful, because it is better than no criticism at all. People often don’t get around to giving you feedback, and often it can be surprising to the writer which parts of his writing succeed or fail. I frequently encounter the dilemma of whether to respond via a blog comment or website comment to someone who has critiqued my article for doing X. It’s hard to respond without sounding defensive (especially when you start talking about style and aesthetics and philosophies).

In the corporate world, feedback is a necesssary part of making documents, and frequently nonwriting types just spew out criticism without trying to understand why the text is lacking or bad. Often writers feel the need to defend their ignorance or mistakes when they feel too close to their text. Writers have to separate the bluntness of a reader’s criticism with his/her desire to give honest feedback.

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