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5 mindsets you can adopt to avoid feeling sucker-punched by feedback

Three people sitting around a table looking at papers with pictures on them.
Photo by Thomas Drouault on Unsplash

Asking for and getting feedback on your story feels like requesting a slap in the face, hoping for a high five, but getting punched in the gut instead. It’s hard to see or hear your story picked apart even if you know it is for the story’s own good. Knowing the good intentions behind constructive criticism, or that it’s necessary to improve as a writer, doesn’t always make negative comments easier to swallow. It takes work to adapt your mindset and be objective about feedback.

Mayweather vs. Ortiz sucker punch
A long time ago, in a publishing house far far away…

During my tenure as a graphic designer, my work was criticized regularly. Each and every day, I was told my designs weren’t quite “right” yet. I’d go back and make changes over multiple drafts until I did get it “right,” which I did, without fail. I learned early on I couldn’t take each criticism personally if I was going to continue in graphic design. With every design I had to rework, I improved. I didn’t make the same mistakes again and again, but instead made brand new and more exciting mistakes.

I’d like to say my boxing gloves always stay on when it comes to my own writing, but I’d be lying. Generally, I distance myself from my stories the way I do with design projects, but there are times when I’m caught off-guard and let a critique land an uppercut. It’s usually with stories I’m connecting to emotionally. Once I let criticism on a story I was enjoying writing cripple my process for a year (it may have been longer but I’m pretending otherwise). Why? My gloves were at the bottom of my bag that day. It’s natural to feel like crap when someone doesn’t think your story is as amazing or they aren’t seeing your vision they way you do.

What can you do to feel less beat up when feedback comes in?
  1. Believe feedback helps you improve as a writer even if it is cold comfort at the moment. That can come in the form of the feedback itself or how you choose to approach it. Getting better at discerning helpful from subjective criticism is a skill that will also improve your writing.
  2. If you are getting feedback in person, try to resist the need to explain why you did something the reader had a problem with. Because if you have to explain yourself, there may be an issue you’re missing. Just listen. You can’t evaluate an issue if you are scrambling to defend your work. Nod, take notes, let it digest. Then go back later and be as objective as you can be.
  3. Recognize there are two kinds of feedback absolutely worth paying attention to: the kind that resonates with you, and any consensus between multiple readers. See what fits into those two categories and shelve the rest for the moment.
  4. Don’t take feedback personally. It won’t help you or your story. You are not your story. It came from you; it isn’t you. Your story not working right away doesn’t mean you’re broken. This is the hardest skill of all to master, but it is necessary and worth learning to do.
  5. Remember you are in charge of your story. You can take or leave any feedback, even your editor’s.

I know this advice won’t land and stick right away if it is something you are really struggling with. Being o.k. with negative feedback is a process with varying degrees of success, just like writing a book. We are our own worst critics more often than not. Someone verifying parts of our story not working may incorrectly translate to validation that we aren’t working either. I promise that’s not true.

Rocky FTW!

Every muscle needs regular exercise to get stronger—including your brain when dealing with feedback. The more you write and seek out criticism, the better you will be at interpreting and accepting it without feeling like you should snap your pencils in half or throw your laptop from the tallest building and give up writing. It takes time and experience. Pretty soon you’ll be taking feedback like a champ.

In the comments below, tell me how you deal—or don’t deal—with feedback.

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