Criticism and Its Discontents

A reader asked me to write on handling criticism, hence this blog post today.

I’m fond of saying that if you want to find out who your friends are, throw (or be the star of) a bridal or baby shower. People you think won’t respond will come through amazingly, while a couple of people you were sure would come through remarkably won’t bother to send an RSVP.

Likewise, through my involvement in becoming a published author long ago and through friends’ experiences, I found that becoming a published author can also result in some surprises.

  • Group A will be eager to read your book.
  • Group B will encourage you but may not read your book. This is okay since this means they love you and are on your team.
  • Group C will give your book a cursory glance and find something wrong with it.
  • Group D will sneer if your book is self-published. Or if you are traditionally published, Group D will scoff that your publisher isn’t “important” or “big” enough.
  • Group E will deride that your book didn’t win a specific award, while the books they read all win that acclaim. If your book happens to win that particular prize, they’ll either say it’s a fluke or they’ll become silent.
  • Group F will ignore anything concerning your book. You will never know if it’s because they are jealous, they don’t care about the topic, or whatever.

How to respond?

When criticized, there’s no need to give anyone the chance to dwell on a litinay of complaints about your book. Sure, readers can disparage points about any book, even books they like overall. Constructive criticism can be helpful, and books edited with the greatest care can be flawed. Let the person speak. Once. Thank them, and assure them you have noted their thoughts and appreciate that they are interested in your work. Then move on.

If the person’s criticism is not constructive but seems to be coming from a place of disrespect, acknowledge that person. Don’t retort. Be kind. The worse thing you can do is think of a zinger an hour later and kick yourself for not delivering it at the time. Zingers are about you “winning” and do not solve problems.

Instead, pray for them and for your strength in overcoming their jealousy. Search your heart for areas where you might harbor envy for authors you perceive to be more successful than yourself. Praying in this manner may help you understand the person’s reaction to your success and improve your relationships with others.

Being ignored can feel worse than being the victim of active criticism. Force yourself not to be upset when someone doesn’t read your book. Know that time is limited, and tastes vary. Your book’s success doesn’t depend on one particular reader. Instead, focus on those readers who appreciate your work. By God’s grace, those readers will be many.

Your turn:

What tips do you have for dealing with criticism?

How have you seen people you admire deal with jealousy?

How do you deal with your jealousy?

Who is a beautiful example of a successful, yet humble person?

 

 

22 Responses to Criticism and Its Discontents

  1. Avatar
    Mel March 5, 2020 at 5:25 am #

    This is about non-constructive criticism. It seems only to address this side of it. Too many authors ignore constructive criticism that does point out a real flaw in the characters, plot, or structure. My own view is that if the criticism is valid, even if painful, learn from it. As an editor, I’ve dealt with clients who smile and thank me and walk away, certain that I am wrong because I pointed out problems with their book. And they the wonder, “Why would no one read it?”

  2. Avatar
    Stuart schadt March 5, 2020 at 6:27 am #

    Great post. I may not have always enjoyed critique I have always valued it. It was the disinterest of some friends and family that surprised or confused me. I’ve learned to accept it with a smile.

  3. Avatar
    Linda Landis March 5, 2020 at 6:34 am #

    I am Queen of the “hour later zingers.” My brain won’t let me stop … but my spirit needed to hear that this is about winning. My heart knows that, in Christ, I have already won. My worthiness comes from some place completely different than where the world derives theirs. Thanks for the sweet reminder!

  4. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 5, 2020 at 7:26 am #

    If you don’t adore what I have written,
    it won’t make me cry,
    ’cause with old work I am not smitten
    and I have gone on by.
    There’s something that is just ahead,
    something fresh to pen,
    an idea waiting ’round the bend
    which is far better than
    what you are holding in your hands,
    the paper child of finished years;
    there await exotic lit’rary lands
    a-brim with laughter and with tears.
    Love it or line the parrot’s cage;
    I’m already on a brand-new page.

  5. Avatar
    Bernadette Botz March 5, 2020 at 7:45 am #

    This was a wonderful reminder to my soul. My motherinlaw gave me a one star review on Amazon. She thought the book was about her, not about our need for Christ. She reduced me to dust in our last conversation, and I had to ask myself “why?” Why was I so bothered by her response? She acknowledged the writing was pretty good, but the content enraged her. But see… because she is an unbeliever, this MUST be expected. I need to stop being surprised by this sort of response.
    I do agree with you. Much the worse, the non-responders.
    I am getting used to awkwardness.

    Thank you. Your team has been a strong source of comfort, support, encouragement and admonishment.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 5, 2020 at 4:20 pm #

      When it’s an in-law, that’s tough because they are supposed to be on your team. I’m praying for her, and for you to continue to display the patience toward her that she obviously needs. Have courage!

  6. Avatar
    Carolyn Hill March 5, 2020 at 8:06 am #

    Great points! Thank you.

  7. Avatar
    Maco Stewart March 5, 2020 at 8:28 am #

    Great post, Tamela, thanks so much.

    As you’ve taught us many times, a thick skin and perseverance are key. Steve’s feedback when he rejected my proposal was invaluable and gave me months of worthy effort, addressing his observation, so although this post was about nonconstructive criticism, sometimes we may get useful feedback that is golden. If we can find a fellow writer who can also see the flaws in our stories, that is also an amazing blessing.

    We should look for such a writing partner, and better, BE one.

  8. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield March 5, 2020 at 9:38 am #

    Becoming an editor was the most helpful thing I’ve done regarding receiving constructive and critical criticism of my own writing. I can honestly assure alpha and beta readers and potential agents and publishers that I WANT constructive criticism, and I’m not “married” to my words. I just want the book to be as good as it can be. Being a writer first also helped me be a better editor. I try to critique kindly instead of just criticize, and remind my clients that I am only offering my expert opinion–I may question their decision, but my feelings will not be hurt if they decide not to take my advice. It is their choice.

  9. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson March 5, 2020 at 10:58 am #

    Super article and filled with truth. Even though my novels aren’t published yet, I can relate to most of your points. I’ve learned not to be surprised over anyone’s reaction to my manuscripts. The accolades are wonderful, and constructive criticism is valuable, but the one who slams me is the one I pray for most. After I bandage my wounded heart, I forgive and move on.

  10. Avatar
    Sharon K Connell March 5, 2020 at 11:18 am #

    Great advice, Tamela. I’ve seen authors rant and rave because of a bad review, or something negative someone said about their writing. It didn’t do them any good to do so. When I get a negative criticism, I think about it first. If in writing, it may have come across as non-constructive criticism, but when you can’t hear the voice or see the person’s face, that’s hard to judge. So, I take whatever is said under consideration (always in prayer about my writing) and see if the criticism is valid or not. If it is, I use it. If not, I dismiss it regardless of whether it hurt my feelings or not. Then I move on. Having a thick skin is part of being a writer.

    At this point in my writing career, I don’t think I’m jealous of anyone who is enjoying success as an author. I’m happy for them. It promotes books and writing. That’s something we all need. And I would never point out any one person to esteem more than others I know, thereby making them feel they aren’t doing their best at presenting a professional attitude.

    As far as disinterested parties, like you said we all have our preferences. My husband is a good example. He supports me in every way, except to read my books once they’re published. He’s read excerpts from them when I need his professional opinion about a scene or a character and says he enjoys them, but he’s not a fiction reader. His idea of reading is to dive into a technical book about the military. I have no problem with him over that, or with anyone else who isn’t interested in Christian Romance Suspense, which is what I write. There are a lot of genre’s I never read.

    And you are so right. Focus on your readers. Those who are waiting for that next story by……………………………….. (insert your name here). 🙂

  11. Avatar
    Jan Elder March 5, 2020 at 11:29 am #

    Hi Tamela. Great post! A friend of mine got a 1 star review on Amazon because the reader said she didn’t realize it was a Christian book and she was offended that God was present in some way all the way through it. But here’s the thing. Rather than being angry, my friend’s reaction was to praise the Lord that a non-Christian had read the ENTIRE book, and she hoped that it had planted a seed. Just wanted to share about the many ways that God works.

  12. Avatar
    Debra DuPree Williams March 5, 2020 at 12:26 pm #

    Tamela,
    Thank you for this. My first book comes out this summer, thus a timely message for me. I will be praying about these things as that day nears.

    Blessings!

  13. Avatar
    James Flerlage March 5, 2020 at 12:31 pm #

    Tamara… thank you for the candid post. I would add that with any artistic talent, it’s in the author’s best interest to keep personal expectations and secular aspirations in check, and to approach each project with humility. Make it more about using your gift, and less about what you hope to gain.

  14. Avatar
    Teresa Haugh March 5, 2020 at 2:11 pm #

    Great post. And it’s not just about books. Some people will always be critical of another’s success, promotion, financial blessing, relationships, or good news. There is so much power in the scripture that says “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” If we do that, we’ll stay on the right track.

  15. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan March 5, 2020 at 3:03 pm #

    Great post. I actually adore criticism. Even from the one (LOL yes, the one) who couldn’t make it past the first paragraph and said I really had a horrible character. I shrugged and moved on. Others were critical but most, kind. Some… not so much. I got a review (ARC) from a non-Christian who didn’t mention the gospel. I shared with another ARC reader, ‘suspenseful, more twists than Chubby Checker.’ Funny.

    But in all honesty, the critical reviews of the ARC (because it’s been picked up, just not on the shelf yet – hope to see in 5 months, How to Steal a Romance), and the one bad review was wiped out by the very awesome contract.

    But I digress. I’ve had readers who look at SPaG, and readers who look at content and readers who beta the whole thing which is awesome. The copyeditor cried through the end… totally my goal. hahaha

    Criticism makes us stronger, more tolerant, ready to grow, and happy to share with those who do not believe, and God is in control of the rest!

    P.S. website is under construction so… Figured it was time!

  16. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D March 5, 2020 at 4:05 pm #

    Tamela, when someone criticizes me, I tell them, “Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you feel we have the warmth of relationship that you can be so candid.” BTW, if I ever say that to someone, we don’t really have that warm of a relationship and now we most certainly have a much cooler one!

    The point is that I want to be gracious to the individual because you never know when your words are going to come back and bite you in the ….whatever. This all said, I do have friends who can tell me pretty much anything if they think I’m messing up. I appreciate their honesty because I know that they are not being hurtful; they are trying to help me grow.

    Some people, on the other hand, are simply mean. The important thing is to be able to tell the difference between those who are truthful and kind and those who are just rotten folks. The world has many of both types.

  17. Avatar
    skvosburgh@comporium.net March 6, 2020 at 8:14 am #

    Criticism is handle-able if the criticizer takes the time to actually review my work. What is difficult to handle is when one pays hundreds of dollars to attend a writer’s conference and meet with an editor, author, or agent and that person doesn’t make the effort or show the slightest interest in what you have spent the past year working on. They are quick to offer suggestions without a glance at the writing. And what is completely unacceptable is when that “mentor” spends the 15 minutes telling about their book and their characters.

  18. Avatar
    Norma Brumbaugh March 7, 2020 at 10:43 am #

    Well said. True. Thoughtful. Kind. Thank you.

  19. Avatar
    sara March 12, 2020 at 2:07 pm #

    I deal with lots of criticism on a daily basis. I’ve learned not to dwell on them but rather to apply Matthew 5:44.

  20. Avatar
    chevel53131@hotmail.com March 13, 2020 at 6:17 pm #

    If it’s criticism I firmly disagree with, I burn within, but do not retort. Instead, I wait til I cool down, then think over the criticism. Sometimes I still disagree, but more often, I realize there is value to be learned from the criticism.

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