How to Deal with Criticism that Matters


Disappointment in isolation is more manageable than an onslaught: standardized rejection letters from publications, unexpected grades, let-downs in friendships and relationships, etc. Though the confidence I have in my writing abilities oscillates, I found that writing has always acted as a tether to the beauty and wonder in the world around me.

In the past week, however, I received a subpar grade on an essay that I absolutely loved--I wouldn’t have changed a single word, and stand by all of my decisions. For over a semester, I had seen this particular teacher, whom I trust and respect, about my writing. I was completely shocked by the numerical value they put on the quality of my work. Is this what they truly think about me as a writer? How does this reframe the rest of the feedback I received? It’s easier to brush off the words of the occasional critic than those of someone who knows your demons and dreams, who you felt comfortable with.

John Green put it best when he said: “It hurt because it mattered.” Falling short of expectations will hurt, especially when you receive criticism contrary to your previous conceptions of your abilities. The more your critic matters, the more their criticism hurts. There is no easy solution, but here I will discuss some advice that helped me move forward.

Ask for clarification. You aren’t a mind reader, so don’t attempt to put words in their mouths. Be direct and honest with them--endure the awkwardness and discomfort if you truly want to improve in your field of expertise.

One failure does not define you as a person or confine your future. In order to create meaningful work, you must brave failure after failure--fear of failure is what will confine you to the safe bounds of comfortable territory, not necessarily failure in and of itself. To be creative and innovative requires risk.

Remind yourself of previous successes. Past successes prove that you are capable of future successes. The mind focuses on that which you want to change, rather than the successes that remain unchanged. Disappointment doesn’t discount success--what worked matters more than what didn’t.

Approve of yourself. What matters most in relation to your field is confidence and assurance in your own abilities. Oftentimes I receive diverse, even contradictory, feedback on the same exact piece--seldom is there a consensus on its merits. What should matter to me, however, is my contentment with the work: what interests me about this piece? Take into consideration well-intentioned feedback, but know that you have the right to go in a different direction. After a period of reflection, I have rebuilt a sense of trust in myself as a writer. I will continue to face rejection and disappointment, but I will also continue to create work that brings me satisfaction. This is what I want to do and what I love to do. Period.