• Kamy Wicoff
  • What About the Criticism You Really Should Listen To?
This blog was featured on 09/26/2017
What About the Criticism You Really Should Listen To?
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
September 2013
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
September 2013

A few weeks ago, I posted about my struggle not to obsess over one piece of critical feedback about my novel, an obsession that almost prevented me from being able to process all the good things I was hearing. The person who criticized it, I reasoned, must be the only person telling the truth.  Anyone who said they liked it was obviously hiding something.

Your comments were so thoughtful and encouraging, and truly helped me find my footing again. Thank you. At the end of the post, however, I promised a part two in my meditation on getting critical feedback. So here it is.

As I wrote before, I was fascinated (and comforted) to discover that human beings are actually wired to put more emphasis on the negative and the threatening, a legacy of our time as prey, and an ancient form of self-defense. This wiring often does result in the kind of distortion I described, preventing us from having a balanced, accurate view of the feedback we are getting from the world around us. But it can have another self-sabotaging effect. What about our ability, as important as training ourselves to hear and absorb praise, to hear and absorb criticism that we really should listen to?

It is hugely to the credit of this wonderful community that, in response to my last post, nobody said, "You know Kamy, did you ever consider that the woman who had a problem with your book just might have a point?" That would have been a totally sucky thing to say. But the truth is that my reaction to the criticism was so strong, causing me to recoil into my shell like a box turtle on a gravel road (see helpful illustration above), that I couldn't slow down and consider this question very reasonably. Instead I got defensive, told my friends what happened, and sat back and smiled with appreciation as they assured me that my critic was, in a word, an idiot.

I'd like to say that in this particular case, that's true. (Ha!) But it isn't. The critic in question is someone whose judgement I respect. I may not agree, in the end, with her assessment, but it was well worth listening to and considering carefully. And the fact is that none of us will ever get to where we need to go as writers if we do not learn to manage our visceral response to criticism, not just by dismissing it as coming from "the haters," but by taking a deep breath, suppressing our "flight" reflex, and using the criticism -- the good criticism anyway, and of course part of our work is to learn to know the difference -- to listen, assess, and learn, recognizing its power as invaluable ammunition in the good fight of getting better. No pain, no gain. It's as simple as that.

You could make an argument, of course, that it's a uniquely awful kind of pain. A strained calf muscle is one thing. Exposing your writing to others' opinions is like standing on a table naked and listening while people critique your backfat. Except it's worse, because you probably know whether you have backfat or not before you get up on that table. When it comes to our own writing it is much easier to be blindsided. We often don't see what others are able to see, and being shown flaws that we (at first) have no idea how to fix, and did not even know were there in the first place, is devastating, and can be humiliating, too. As hard as it is, however, if we don't find a way to take criticism and use it to improve our work, it's fairly safe to say we will never be any good.

This isn't to say that a lot of criticism isn't suspect, off-base, or just plain wrong. (It's worth remembering that the same can be said of a lot of praise.) What I'm really talking about, of course, is the art of discernment -- striking that difficult balance between trust and faith in your own judgment with a willingness to truly consider and benefit from the opinions of others. Clearly it's an art I haven't fully mastered yet.

But I'm going to keep working on it. 

* This post was originally published in September 2013.

Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • Carol Brodtrick

    Sometimes I think writers are the most courageous group of people ever made. Who else puts cherished work out there for anyone to love, hate, pick apart or ridicule? And who else accepts that, in order to become a better writer, one has to sift through both adulation and rejection and look for the critiques that matter. 

    I have several friends I trust as "readers" of my manuscripts. When I'm looking for affirmation, I give my work to one in particular. (She loves everything I give her, and her praise makes me feel so good.) Then I get real and ask the others for a critique. Sometimes their honesty hurts, but it always makes me think. 

    Thank you, Kamy, for this post.It reaffirms the value of opinion, but, more important, it stresses the fact that the writer is still in charge, and must decide which points will make a manuscript better. 

  • Ann H Barlow

    It took me some time to get the message, but now I see criticism as a plus. I still get annoyed at the people who I feel are just tearing people's work apart for the sake of it, whoever the author may be.

    However, lots of wonderful people have given me some very good advice and I am very thankful that they took the time to point out various weaknesses to me.

  • Mark Hughes

    Writing, as I see it, is verbal, face-to-face communication, taken to at least a few powers of ten. We all know how easy it is to be misunderstood in our short and sweet (or not so) conversations, and those issues that may cloud our attempts to console, chide, instruct, or request multiply exponentially in the monologue that is a short story, much less a novel. Just as we need feedback to realize our spoken sentence has been misinterpreted, so too we need it with the written word.

    The big problem, it seems to me, is distinguishing between our mistakes in communication (our blindness regarding them) and the problems people have with what we're saying - meaning their issues. Perhaps experience in life and writing give us the chance to develop some expertise in this all-important skill, though I must admit I'm still blind-sided (apt metaphor?) when someone I'm speaking with lets me know that my message was received in a way completely different than I intended. And I don't mean only when talking to my wife...

    Lastly, I have a friend who's never been able to make it through To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm very glad I know this person as it gives me perspective on the plain fact that even stories that time has proven to be great, those approaching the "Pachelbel Canon in D" level of appreciation, can be unpalatable to some.

  • Christina Miller


    "And the fact is that none of us will never get to where we need to go as writers............"


     I see what appears to be a double negative within a very important sentence, but I'm open to being wrong.



  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    B. Lynn -- you should reach out to Brooke at shewritespress.com, we have GREAT editors there, all of whom Brooke or I have personally vetted, and you can work with one of them without publishing with the press.  These are the kinds of editors who could have told me, gently, that the sentence you quoted so generously was, well, too long. :)

  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    You nailed it when you said, "And the fact is that none of us will never get to where we need to go as writers if we do not learn to manage our visceral response to criticism, not just by dismissing it as coming from "the haters," but by taking a deep breath, suppressing our "flight" reflex, and using the criticism -- the good criticism anyway, and of course part of our work is to learn to know the difference -- to listen, assess, and learn, recognizing its power as invaluable ammunition in the good fight of getting better. No pain, no gain. It's as simple as that."

    I'm thinking about finding a professional YA author/editor to take a look at the novel I'm almost ready to put out in the world, Talent. If you can recommend someone who gives balanced, insightful criticism suitable for a YA novel, please do. Thanks!

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Thanks so much for these responses, everyone.  I love hearing how bravely and gracefully so many of you have learned to take a deep breath, sort out what critical feedback can truly help with your writing, and get to work.  And man, that Hemingway quote. I'm not sure I am facing eternity alone every day, but it's true, it's a lonely endeavor and there isn't a way around it.  By the way, I'm going to start asking people to share these posts on Twitter and Facebook if they like them -- it's a great way to reach more potential She Writers to join our community!  There's a button at the bottom that makes it easy, so please, keep it in mind. :)

  • Sheryl Sorrentino

    Great post--and a message we writers should all take to heart. Through reviews of my latest book (mostly favorable, thus far), I have learned that my pacing is a little slow; my ending a bit abrupt; and my main character not always likeable. This last thing was deliberate, but during the course of my many edits, I had managed to silence that little critical voice inside warning me about the first two points.

    Next time around, I will be more mindful. Reader reviews really can help us get better at what we do, especially the ones that are balanced and constructive. Using those reviews as "teachable moments" is by far more important, I think, than "counting stars."

  • Kirsten Weiss

    Funny timing! Yesterday I accidentally (I try to avoid reviews) read a review of my book on Amazon that complained my heroine wasn't as strong or focused as in the first book in the series. My first reaction was something along the lines of: "wrong, you terrible person!" But I happen to be editing my next book in the series and with that criticism in mind, realized I was in danger of making my heroine not as strong or focused as she used to be and made the appropriate revisions. There's definitely such a thing as "bad" criticism - some people just won't like your work because it's not to their taste, or they're plain wrong. But sometimes... Yeah. They're right.

  • Olga Godim

    Great post, Kamy. It resonates. I have a funny story about criticism too. When I first started writing, I didn't even know what it was: a short story, a novel, or just a sketch. I wrote... something and asked my son (he was 18 then) to read it. He did, poor guy, and then very politely he said to me: "Mom, I don't think you know what you're doing."

    I was upset. I told him that he didn't understand my writing, I told him how good my hero was, I explained a lot, and he didn't argue. Later that day, when my first protective urges about my story wore off, I started thinking clearly. And I realized that he was right, and I didn't know what I was doing. That was when I decided to learn how to write. I got a bunch of textbooks on writing and signed up for classes. It was a good, constructive criticism, and I'm grateful to him for his honesty. 

    Some criticism helps. It's still painful to absorb, but if it's offered without malice, we can learn a lot from it.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Like quote from Hemingway, Susan! It definately is a challenge to know when to take criticism to heart and make changes and when to stick to your original vision. I received some helpful criticism from an agent recently, can see how her suggestions would make my book more marketable, but after much thought and input from a writer's group I'm part of, I've decided not to make the changes.

  • Catherine Hiller

    I think it's important to realize that your book is your priority: not your feelings! Any criticism from anyone (a 12-year-old, another writer, or a person who never usually reads novels) might just make your book better.  Even if criticism stings, maybe especially if it does (signalling that you've had those doubts yourself), let a day or two go by and then consider whether you can use it to improve your book.  Before publication, criticism which can lead to change is far more valuable than praise.

  • Ellen Steinbaum

    As you note, there is probably something innate that makes us carry those harsh words in our hearts long after the praise is forgotten. I think you make a really important point about discernment. Hard as it is, we need to be able to take what's useful from criticism and but also to trust our instincts about our work and learn how to reject what doesn't feel right. This might sound silly but one small thing I did a couple of years ago was to create a folder in my mail program labeled "nice things" so I don't lose track of what can balance out the not-as-nice. 

  • Susan McDonlad

    On the other hand, a writer who is insensitive and thick-skinned is probably not much of a writer. Furthermore, I would like to point out that writing is not a sewing bee, a social activity to be shared every step of the way with a cadre of critics. This hunger for "feedback" is a modern day sickness kindled by an instant gratification society. Here's a reality check: In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Hemingway said writing, at its best, is a lonely life. He added that organizations for writers may relieve the writer's loneliness but they don't improve his writing. "He grows in public statue as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day." 


  • Susan Ring

    I believe when you put yourself out there, you'd better be ready for any and all kind of reactions. It's like putting on your "thick skin" for awhile while you read reviews.  I'm not sure we can master the art of taking in ALL of the opinions of others, it's a lot to digest both positive and negative because it's personal.  When its personal, we take it personal - we're human. Rock on Kamy!! Do what makes you, YOU. 

  • Carol Hedges

    You are right...it does hurt but if it is from someone who's opinion we trust (a fellow writer, an editor) then it has to be worth taking a deep breath and thinking about it. Obviously, one can hope that the ''critic'' knows how to temper their words so that they tell the truth, but not too brutally. Surely is is better to be told ''you, your bum does look too big in this'' than think your work is better than it is.

    I have found the best way to deal with a critique of my writing is to let the anger and 'who they hell do they think they are'' stuff out, wait a day or two, then revisit the comment with an open mind. If any of what is said makes me feel ''ouch'' I need to deal with it. If any of it makes me think: 'doesn't know what they're talking about', I ignore it. If it is a review, I shrug and walk. If an acquaintance or writing buddy, I thank them for taking the time. It is very hard to bust someone's bubble....sometimes, though, it has to be done.

  • JoAnn Haberer

    So true. I hate reading the one and two star reviews, especially if they've come in after a free giveaway. I mean, isn't there a rule somewhere (maybe at least from Emily Post) that if you get a gift horse you not only don't look in its mouth (I looked in a horse's mouth once and it wasn't pretty) but you refrain from bashing the horse over the head with a one-star "it sucks" review. But, having said that, I agree that in many cases (most, actually) there is a kernel of truth in those "mean girl" reviews. My second book does end too abruptly. I don't like long, drawn-out good-byes so this book ends like a peck on the cheek and a "see ya"! But it readers didn't like it. Not at all. From now on, I take my time. I leisurely put on my coat, bid farewell to all in attendance, comment to the hostess on how great the evening was, and then make plans to get together again 'real soon.' I may not like proper good-byes but readers demand them. And I wouldn't have realized it if I hadn't been whacked on the head by a few 'mean girls.'

  • Vanessa Kachadurian

    Constructive criticism is good, it is an opportunity for us to learn and get better at what we do.  It is a learning process and we must continue to embrace change and learning to be successful.  Good article.