Surviving Criticism, One Step At A Time

A few years ago, my son played in a music recital at the school where he took guitar lessons. At age seven, he was playing a Pink Floyd song with fingering so complex it made my head spin just watching his little fingers attempt it.  He played incredibly well, though there was a stretch where he got lost. Afterward grownups and fellow kids alike came over and told him how much they liked it.  I noticed, however, that he seemed down.  "What is it?" I asked.  Face glum, he shrugged me off. Later that night, however, as I was tucking him into bed, I tried again, as he is often most forthcoming when we are in-medias-cuddle.  

"You were so great today," I said. "Aren't you proud of yourself?"

He shook his head. No.

"Why not?" I asked.

He sighed. "When I messed up," he said at last, "the kid in the front row laughed at me."

"Oh sweetheart!" I said, squeezing him tight. "At least ten people today told you how well you played. But what you remember is the one rude kid who laughed at your only mistake." And then I added: "I totally do that too."  We stayed up awhile talking about how easy it is to believe the negative, and how hard it is to receive and absorb praise.  He went to bed feeling better, but it took a lot of coaxing, and cuddling, to get him there.  

Last week, this exchange with my son came powerfully to mind.  But this time, the little kid fixated on one critical comment in the midst of a gratifying amount of praise was none other   

Yes, I finally got feedback on my novel.  And almost all of it was good.  (Yay!)  Except for the one that wasn't.  (Boo.)  This response contained the classic "But as much as I wanted to love this manuscript..." line, a line I bet anyone who has ever submitted a manuscript has heard before. In the end, the yays outweighed the boos. But despite all my best efforts at mothering myself, all I could think was: everyone who has told me my novel good is wrong, and this woman, who must be smarter and more honest than the rest, is right. (It didn't help that she is one of the most well-respected fiction agents in New York.)

Why am I so insecure? I thought. Why is it so easy for me to believe criticism unquestioningly, but so hard to credit praise? 

After a little googling inspired by a friend, however, I was soon relieved to find that this tendency was not just an ignominious character flaw my son and I shared.  It is a fundamental part of how we, as humans, are wired. On this point, the research is fairly unanimous: to believe the negative is human; to believe praise, divine. (Or at least really a lot harder.)  

For an excellent summary of the science, I highly recommend the 2012 NYT article "Praise is Fleeting, But Brickbats We Recall."  The headline says it all, but the specifics are fascinating.  We tend to think people who say critical things are smarter than people who say positive things.  We use a different brain hemisphere to process negative or threatening input, and obsess about it longer. "Bad impressions and bad stereotypes," read a quoted journal article titled "Bad Is Stronger Than Good", "are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”


So what to do?  Well if you are a boss, consider only dispensing one critical comment at a time, preferably sandwiched between four good ones.  If you are a parent, consider helping your children develop the skills to process criticism more productively. And if you are a writer, aka someone who sends little naked pieces of her still-beating heart sailing on flimsy rafts down torrents of critical feedback from perfect strangers who care for her neither as an employee, a child, or, it sometimes seems, as a fellow human being, don't forget to send your manuscript to your mom.  (Provided, like my mom, she will say things like "It's such a joy to know you are creating something so lovely and such fun."  If she's the other kind of mom, steer clear.) And/or to send your baby to other people you trust, who care not just about your work, but about you and the impact their words have on you -- people who don't just yell all the reasons your raft will sink from a safe place on shore, but who will jump right on and help you make it sail.

To be part two: It isn't just about tuning out the negative and turning up the positive.  As writers, how do we learn to accept criticism in a way that doesn't defeat us, but makes us, and our writing, stronger?

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Comment by Renee Canter Johnson on September 18, 2013 at 3:32am

What a great post on the experience of publishing.  Often we are lulled into thinking everything will be perfect with a professional publisher.  But I do think going the traditional route first has given you the best insight into how to proceed with the next project.  Good luck, whichever method you choose.  I look forward to hearing more about your journey.

Comment by marci alboher on September 10, 2013 at 12:19pm

Oh..this is so so true. And such good advice!

Comment by Patricia Gligor on September 9, 2013 at 11:00am


I enjoyed your post. I had to laugh though because, yesterday, I posted my opinion of people who bash books in the Forum. Not quite the same topic, but similar. Overall, my first mystery novel, Mixed Messages, received good reviews but, when my publisher did a free promotion on Amazon, the book bashers came out of the woodwork. All we can do, I guess, is write the best books we can write and let the "chips fall" where they may. :)

Comment by Elisabeth Zguta on September 9, 2013 at 7:36am

@kwicoff I have found that to truly use negative feedback, you first have to read it and then walk away.  Let it soak in, and remind yourself that the intention is to become better.  Then go back to your work in question, and with open eyes, look at your work.  You either agree with the comment and can make your writing better next time around, and have learned something about your work, or you disregard the comment's validity.  It is hard to step back and do this, but it is the best practice.  We all have egos, we all hate to be critiqued - I am very sensitive about it myself, which is why I decided to step back and look at the big picture.  It does no good to get depressed over negative comments.  Use it as a learning experience.  Thank you for sharing your experience.

Comment by nicole meier on September 6, 2013 at 10:39am

Good story. Thanks for sharing. I can relate 100%.

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on September 5, 2013 at 9:20am

@Nancy -- I am so sorry to hear that you are struggling with this, but perhaps it helps to see how universal a feeling it is.  And I think any child is lucky to have a parent who errs on the side of positive reinforcement. :)

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on September 5, 2013 at 9:18am

@Anne, I hope you DO find the courage to submit your manuscript.  And I just visited your blog to read about Debbie Macomber.  @Gerry and @Karen, thanks so much for your comments, and for your encouragement about the next one, which I am mulling for next week.  @Olga, isn't it nice to know you aren't alone?  I find it comforting.  That is a big part of what She Writes is all about, of course. @Tania reiki is a great idea.  I am also totally obsessed with Tara Brach, whose podcasts never fail to make me feel peaceful, centered, and right with the world. 

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on September 5, 2013 at 9:11am

@Judith I am so glad you made the point about teaching.  I have a good friend who teaches screenwriting at NYU, and she has described something similar to me -- how powerfully one student's negative, bored or critical attitude can derail her as a teacher, even when the rest of the class is happy.  It is really maddening, the power of the squeaky (or cranky, or hostile) wheel!  But perhaps the better educated we are about the science behind it, the better we can manage our responses and put them in context.  And @Christine, isn't it funny how much more credibility we give to the critics?  I really felt that the woman who didn't love my manuscript (as much as she wanted to -- ha), was smarter and more believable than everybody else.

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on September 5, 2013 at 9:09am

@Donna, it sounds to me like you have the best possible problem -- a protagonist so real your readers can't imagine that she isn't, and stories so compelling your readers feel strongly enough about them to weigh in on their every detail! @Leanne and @Vivienne, thanks so much for your POSITIVE feedback on a post about negative response.  @Jo Anne, I think I will put these comments in my kudos file.  Excellent idea.

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on September 5, 2013 at 9:07am

@Lloyd, thank you so much for those kind words.  I agree with you about that Amazon reviewer.  It is years ago now (that was for my first book, which came out in 2006) but I still remember the vitriol.  @Joanne, thanks so much for sending it around!  I do think dealing with negative feedback -- and conquering our brain's natural tendency to fixate on it -- is definitely part of becoming an artist.  


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