Constructive Criticism Vs. Complaining

In an earlier post, I mentioned that learning how to decipher between constructive feedback and complaints is key to becoming a better writer.

I know it’s easy to ignore other people’s opinions and focus on your own thoughts, but that’s a sure way to miss out on genuine advice that could improve your writing. And on the flip side, I know it’s easy to pay too much attention to opinion and doubt yourself. I’ve been on both sides. Finding a balance is not easy.

Constructive Criticism

Let me tell you a story about a time when I didn’t seek opinion. I was writing a creative nonfiction piece about a period of my life where I tried to move to Cambodia. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work out. I ended up having an extremely negative experience in Cambodia due to naivety, immaturity, stress, culture shock, and an unforeseen medical emergency regarding my husband. Naturally, this negativity spilled over into my writing about the experience.

To me, the story I wrote came across as a cautionary tale for people thinking about moving to a new country. I shared it with my close family and friends who were already familiar with these events and saw no glaring issues with the story. I didn’t share the story with anyone outside of my immediate circle.

That was a problem. Of course my family enjoyed the story. Think about your mother, would she ever tell you your story is bad? Chances are she still has your Kindergarten art stashed somewhere.

I submitted my essay to five journals. Within a couple months I got five rejections. No big deal, right? Rejections happen all the time. I submitted to five more journals. Five more rejections. Eventually, I ended up with sixteen rejections before one editor finally gave me feedback. Here is what this editor had to say:

“You have a really interesting story here, one that is unique and can pique the interests of many. However, if you were to delve deeper into the indications that display differences between two cultures this would be more of what (journal name redacted) is looking for. As the piece stands now, it seems a bit culturally insensitive, and displays a scary experience from the narrators time abroad with a fairly narrow view on the culture.”

Yikes. When I first read this feedback, my stomach dropped. I felt like a horrible human! These are not views I would ever associate myself with, and yet, this was what a fellow writer got from my writing.

Despite how much the truth hurts, this is the perfect example of constructive criticism. Here’s why:

  1. The editor tells me what they like about the writing, which means that aspects of the story are working. “It’s really interesting, unique, and can pique the interests of many.”
  2. The editor tells me what’s wrong with the story. “It seems a bit culturally insensitive, and displays a scary experience from the narrators time abroad with a fairly narrow view on the culture.”
  3. The editor tells me how I can improve the story. “Delve deeper into the indications that display differences between two cultures.”

With this constructive feedback, I went back and revised my story. When reading it from this new perspective, I realized just how one-sided and narrow-minded the story really was. I’ve since re-submitted the story. I don’t yet know what the outcome will be, but I’m incredibly thankful for this editor taking the time to give me genuine feedback.

Yes, opinions can hurt. And when it’s the truth, it hurts worse. But you must learn how to deal with criticism in order to learn and improve.

Complaining

Now, you’ve seen an example of constructive criticism. What about complaints? Let’s say someone on social media sent you this:

“Your story is bad.”

Ignore it! There is nothing constructive about this. It’s not telling you what the reader liked about the story, why the story is bad, or how it can be improved. It’s just a complaint and you should pay no mind to complainers.

Easier said than done though, right? I get it. I’m fortunate that I haven’t been exposed to too much negativity regarding my writing. Throughout my school years, career, and personal life, I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing people that give me meaningful criticism rather than outright negativity. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have constant anxiety about my writing.

Dealing With Negativity

I am a very anxious person, which I’ve found is common among writers. I’m constantly worrying what people think about my writing, worrying that they secretly hate it, worrying that they secretly hate me!

If you have anxiety, or suffer from self-doubt, I recommend taking a break. If you have to turn off the comments on social media, or even delete your social media temporarily, it’s okay. Writing should always be about making yourself happy first, and foremost. Everything else is less important.

If you need to take a break from writing altogether to relax and recharge, go for it! I know of a lot of great TV shows you could watch. Unfortunately, the internet can be a cruel place, there will always be complainers and trolls. But remember, there’s an entire writing community that understands you. We’re here for you. I’m here for you.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post! Have any tips for dealing with constructive criticism or complaints? Leave them in the comments!

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