November 09, 2020 4 min read
Guest post by author Abigail Geiger. Twitter: @AR_Geiger.
Red pens are the stuff of nightmares.
As a writer and a professional, I still get hit with that punch to the gut every time a script returns to my inbox looking battle-scarred.
Unfortunately, this happens to me on a weekly basis. So crying into my ruined manuscript, throwing pens at the wall, and deciding that being a shoe salesman would be a better career choice than a writer is a regular pastime of mine.
I can tell you from experience that this approach does not work.
Receiving constructive criticism in a healthy way is as important to a writer’s career as, well, knowing how to write. Without this skill, you might as well turn in your pens. The shoe shop is calling.
As someone who has welcomed a mountain of critiques over the years, here are my ten tips for dealing with constructive criticism like a pro.
The more you dread notes, the worse they’ll hit you. Look at them as an opportunity to learn, collaborate, and make your project the best it can be. Focus on the growth, not the sting.
Don’t reply immediately. Don’t start fixing things immediately.
Walk away. Take a deep breath. Drink water. Go for a walk. Shout at a few trees. Rant to a sympathetic party. (NOT a coworker. Don’t be that person.)
This has happened before, it’ll happen again, and it’s nothing that you can’t handle. If need be, set the project aside until the next day. Come back to it with grace for yourself, a calm mind, and the attitude of a professional. You can fix anything.
I’m going to tell you a secret. No one wants to work with an adult who throws a tantrum.
This is why I recommend waiting to respond until after you’ve screamed yourself hoarse, cried under your desk, and given the bathroom mirror the lecture it truly deserves.
When you’re ready, thank them for their insight and their time and move on. Your job and your reputation are worth more than your ego.
Notes and critiques are given for a reason. Rather than staring at the notes with hatred because they’ve ruined your beautiful project, see them as a path to the solution. If they’ve suggested a line or idea you don’t like, have the confidence to acknowledge the problem and suggest a different solution—one you can both agree on.
Don’t pretend you don’t care if you do. Someone thrashed your baby and ran it through the paper shredder. It hurts your pride, but it can also challenge your identity as a writer and feed that imposter syndrome you’ve been battling for so long.
So let it hurt. Cry if you need to, be angry, rage in private, allow the emotions out. Punch a few pillows if that’s your thing.
Then breathe. And keep going.
The project is what matters. Not that line, not that scene that was cut, not even that particular character. Let the story, or the article, morph and grow. Let your boss or your editor know that, no matter what, your goal is to produce a stellar product.
You are not a doormat. If you believe they’re wrong about a note, say so. If you feel something that was said was inappropriate, ask them to phrase it differently—AFTER you’ve cooled down, and can express your concerns in a professional manner. You are collaborating. If there is no room for you to speak up respectfully or disagree, you may want to rethink the value of the relationship.
Separate your feelings about the project from your feelings about your editor. Separate the comments on the piece from your identity as a writer. Separate your disappointment from your hopes about your career. This is one moment. One piece. One bump in the road. You have more ahead of you as a writer.
Keep going. This is the most important thing I can give you, and the one I fight with the most. As a writer who receives an abundance of feedback on multiple projects on a weekly basis, I can tell you the initial sting doesn’t just magically disappear. Sometimes, you fantasize about quitting. Or burning your manuscript in a bonfire. Or moving to Alaska to farm salmon.
But, although that first sting hangs around, your ability to bounce back and continue on will improve with practice.
Dealing with yet another round of notes is absolutely a reason to kick back with a glass of wine or a mug of hot chocolate and congratulate yourself for another hurdle tackled. You didn’t quit, you didn’t throw a career-ending tantrum, and low and behold, your project is better for it. Crisis averted. Congratulations, you’re a pro.
This is a tough lesson for any writer—or any creative—to learn. We invest so much of our hearts into our projects that it can feel impossible to distance ourselves when the red pen comes out. In the end, the most successful writers will be the few that prioritize their growth over their pride, and are willing to pursue their passion through the rocky days.
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