Swoon Author Karole Cozzo: 7 Tips for Handling Constructive Criticism
Constructive criticism and writing go together like new shoes and blisters, nature hikes and poison ivy, three frozen mango margaritas and a hangover. Basically, you can’t enjoy one without enduring the other, even if you’d just as soon not.
Disclaimer: more often than not, I still fail miserably at handling constructive criticism like a grown-up. In fact, I’m sort of wary about this blog going public, putting it into the hands of my husband*, friends, family members who can point to it during any inevitable future incident of me ranting about how undeserving I was of criticism in any way, shape, or form. Bottom line: it’s not my forte. But, I try.
There’s something about receiving criticism, even in its most constructive form, that brings out the inner toddler in us, right? There’s a temptation to stomp your foot, scream “that’s not fair!”, or fire off an insult in return, a la “I know you are, but what am I?” But part of being an adult is recognizing our own bad habits, being mindful of the temptation to stoop to levels beneath us, and trying to do better. Even if we don’t succeed every time, we can try.
As I’ve said in many blog posts before, writing is an art, not a science, and there’s really no such thing as perfecting it. If you want to write, if you’re going to write, you’re going to receive constructive criticism, from peers, editors, agents, and readers. With that in mind, today I’m sharing my tips on how to deal with constructive criticism, as it pertains to writing. And maybe life in general.
Tip #1: Keep your mouth shut. Yep, it’s that simple. Keep your mouth shut, put down the phone, step away from the keyboard. Don’t say that thing you’re most tempted to say in the heat of the moment. Chances are, it’s going to be something you wish you didn’t say later, so just… don’t.
Tip #2: Vent to someone who loves you unconditionally. A parent, spouse, friend, or colleague. Say to them the thing you wish you could say to the naysayer, just so you can get it off your chest and say the words aloud. “You suck.” “I hate you.” “You’re wrong.” “You don’t know anything.” Pop the finger. Stick your tongue out. Engage in your most base behaviors. You can act your worst to the people who love you best. But not people you engage with professionally.
Tip #3: Sleep on it. Trust me, I know. In the moment, when you’re enraged, incensed, distraught… you can’t imagine feeling any differently. But it’s amazing what twenty-four hours and a good night of sleep can do. Everything is… tempered. You still might disagree with the criticism, but you’ve given it time to sink in, to start processing. And I bet you’re much more capable of acting like a rational human being and coming up with a response or course of action that won’t burn bridges or destroy opportunities.
Tip #4: Remember there’s a difference between someone criticizing you and criticizing something you did. Man, this is huge. Criticism can feel like a knife being jabbed into the very heart of who you are as a person or an artist. Of course you want to react emotionally. But this distinction is huge, and something we sometimes need to tell ourselves. “They are not insulting me, Karole, the person, the writer. They are not saying I suck. They are not saying I failed. They are criticizing something I produced, something I tried, a tiny piece of who I am as a person.” Criticism isn’t as incapacitating in this light, is it?
Tip #5: Start listening. When you’re so mad at someone, so hurt by them, the last thing you want to do is consider the ways in which they might be right. Right? But chances are, there’s something to be gleaned from what they’re telling you, especially if they’re a person with more experience or insider knowledge than you might possess. I think it’s next to impossible to do this right away. But after 24 hours… 48 hours… even 72 hours, start listening. Find the takeaway message that will likely benefit you in the long run, if not immediately.
Tip #6: Don’t even think about responding until you’ve done #3, #4, and #5. If you need to offer a response, it’s perfectly appropriate to say “I need some time to consider what you’ve said; I’ll get back to you shortly.” But until you’re ready to listen, truly listen, there’s no sense in talking back. Again, you’re likely to say something unproductive, if not something you’ll flat out regret.
Tip #7: Remember the big picture. This is one idea. One review. One DNF. One chapter. One manuscript. After sinking blood, sweat, and tears into it, it feels like everything, yes. It’s your baby, as personal as it gets. But remember the big picture. You will come up with other ideas, write more chapters, finish more manuscripts. Get more positive reviews. Setbacks suck. But they only stop you, outright, if you let them. Don’t be your own worst enemy.
* close the window, James—we both know I’m perfect and never do anything wrong