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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Criticism Can be a Good Thing: A Four-Step Process to Make it Work for You

When you freelance, you take a critical step from writing for yourself and writing for others—editors, clients, and readers. That means you can sell and get paid (hopefully well!) for your work, but it also means that you’re subject to criticism. The way you respond to it can impact your success as a freelancer.

How you respond to criticism depends on a on a variety of factors, including who’s making the comment, your relationship with that person, what’s said or communicated, and how it’s communicated.

Consider an editor who tells you she loves your approach to a topic but wants you to add a couple more anecdotes to the piece. If you have a good working relationship with your editor, you’re likely to accept the criticism as fair (especially if you know her market tends to use anecdote-heavy stories), and make the requested changes. If the same comment comes from an editor you’ve had trouble with in the past, your reaction may be anger or annoyance--and you may be less willing to make the requested edits.

In a perfect world, every article, blog post, book, and book proposal I write would be accepted "as is," and I’d never have to rewrite anything, ever. But that’s not the case, nor will it be for you.

Here’s my four-step method for handling criticism:

1. Consider the source. If the criticism is from a client or editor, I pay attention. If it’s from someone like the person who just posted a nasty (and untrue) review about Goodbye, Byline, I try to let it go. (Obviously I'm not always successful as my ire resulted in this blog post.)

2. Consider the criticism. Several years ago, an editor took me to task for using the phrase “read on” too often. A quick check of the stories I’d written for her revealed that she was right. I was encouraging readers to "read on" constantly. (I also had been overusing pet phrases like “you’re not alone,” “fear not,” and “good news/bad news” comparisons. Oops!)

3. Consider how you can address it. Often with a client or editor, it’s as simple as reworking a piece. That's part of freelancing. But if you get a nasty email (almost certainly anonymous) from a reader who hates your latest piece on Huffington post or find someone trashing your book on Amazon, you can’t do much. Do you really want get into a toxic email exchange with a scary stranger? If you have seven glowing reviews (several from people you don’t even know!), should one negative one make you question the value of your book? I think not.

4. Consider how it can help you. In the case of my editor’s comment about my “fear not” overuse, I focused on eliminating my go-to phrases from my work. It made my writing stronger, and meant fewer edits, too! If a ghostwriting client complains that a chapter doesn’t sound like his voice, I make sure I do a better job with that, not only with him but with other ghosting clients as well. In other words, instead of tuning out well-founded criticism, I use the negative feedback as an opportunity to improve my work.

No writer enjoys being criticized, but instead of ignoring it or getting angry, turn it into a positive thing for your writing. Consider whether it’s legit, and if it is, let it spur you to take your work up a notch. And if you know it isn't legit. let it slide...and move on.

Readers, do you agree with this four-step analysis? How do you react to criticism? Do you find it a helpful tool for stronger writing?

***The book cover at the top of this post is the one for my new book, Writer for Hire, which will be released in April, 2012 but you can preorder it on Amazon already.


  1. This is great if the client actually WANTS you to make edits. It's happened to me a few times where I turned in some work that wasn't exactly what the client was looking for. Instead, of wanting to come back to the drawing board and work with me some more, they just said "Thanks, but no thanks," and terminated business. I understand there's not a whole lot you can, but it also doesn't help me in improving for the next client.

  2. Great advice, Kelly. I remember an editor who bluntly told me I was not up to their standards, after one rewrite. The published piece was exactly my outline with different details and some added quotes about a new project the subject was working on. I wish she had said she wanted me to "add a couple more anecdotes" the new project to the piece.