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Surviving Criticism, One Step At A Time
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
September 2013
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
September 2013

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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  • Renee Canter Johnson

    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.

  • marci alboher

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

  • Patricia Gligor Promoting


    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. :)

  • Elisabeth Zguta Publishing

    @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.

  • nicole meier

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

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    @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. :)

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    @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. 

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    @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.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    @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.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    @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.  

  • Lloyd Lofthouse

    Great post. Thanks. Out of curiosity, I visited your Amazon page to read the reviews and I think that "Charismatic Creature" is a cyber bully. I say that because I have been a victim of cyber bullies and am researching the topic.  And her review has many elements in it that I have seen other cyber bullies/sociopaths use.  Ignore that review and focus on the 20 5-star reviews that know what they are talking about. I think that many of the 5-star reviews were written by more credible people.

    Don't forget that your book was a LA Times Bestseller and was featured on CBS Sunday Morning, NPR’s “On Point" in addition to other media.  There are not that many authors with those credentials.

  • Joanne Orion Miller

    Exceptional piece on crits--I sent it to all my writer friends. Every one of us has experienced those feelings of rejection and "not being good enough". I wish there was an easier way to be an artist, but this is part of the firewalk, isn't it?

  • Donna Kaulkin

    . . . and what do you say to those who insist your novel is a memoir? The feedback on my novel has all been good, sometimes shimmering, but I feel myself go defensive when readers regale me with:  "I'm so sorry that happened to you." "You must tell me more about your old boyfriends, and I'll tell you about mine." "Aha! So that's why you're divorced!" No, to all of the above. Everything that happens in "Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown" happens to Brenda and her "co-stars." True, much of what I wrote was based on what I've heard, who and what I know, but it is light-years away from memoir or autobiography. 

    For readings, I've concocted a talk called, "I'm Not Brenda," wherein I wittily describe how my life differs from that of my protagonist. My audience laughs and nods, leading me to believe I've gotten through. But then, at the book signing, invariably I am called Brenda and asked about "my “triumph,”  my “loss,” my “romances.” I give up and smile, relieved and pleased that they are so involved in my story.

    And what about readers who ask why this character had to die, why those characters broke up, readers who want everyone to walk off blissfully into the sunset? Well—that is another story.

  • Leanne Dyck

    So it's not just me... Thank you for writing this article. I'm so glad I had an opportunity to read. I found myself nodding and mumbling, "Oh, that's way..." I'm going to send this link to friends.

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Kamy, This is a great article that hits home for me. I believe we concentrate on the negative because we are constantly bombarded with negativity, whether it comes from the media or from people in general. I too focus on a negative comment even though the majority of my feedbacks have been positive. It goes back to that saying, "One bad apple can spoil the whole barrel." I guess you can say the same about a bad review. "One bad review can outweigh all the good reviews." Some people will always remember the bad. And even though many will say, "Put it behind you," it is easier said than done. Best wishes to you in your writings. Congratulations on your novel.

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    This is marvelous! And a lesson to all us insecure writers--especially women, who tend to be especially insecure (lots of negativity growing up?). I read through both links; what an enlightenment!

    Keep a kudos file! I've got to start mine right now. Stiffen the back and rise above the negative. I'll hear any kind of constructive criticism, but generalized negativity is such a downer!

    I learned years ago to stay away from friends who are always complaining and want support but offer none in return. I call them emotional leeches.

  • Judith S. Posner

    I have experienced this principle of the "power of the negative" over many years teaching. The tendency to focus on bored or negative students even if most people in the class look positive and engaged is positively perverse.  There might be 100 rapt faces in a lecture all and I would find my eyes wandering to one unengaged or worse heckler student in the back in some unconscious vein hope of winning her approval. I am retired now, but I can only imagine what it would be like to lecture today with half of the students involved in texting and various social media.

  • Christine Morton

    Glad there is science behind this phenomena.  But it doesn't make it easier, emotionally.  I crave constructive criticism that demonstrates someone has engaged my argument/text in a deep way.  I can't seem to accept the "A+" noncritical acceptance or enthusiasm.  It does make me doubt their judgment or motives.  My strategy through this was to bring in so many other folks on what was "my" project, that I had to let go of that craziness and accept the reality that if 10-12 persons were willing to be part of this forthcoming book, then I should do my part and get out of the way.  The review part scares me though--both the liking and the hating.  Part 2 will come just in time, I think, as my book will be published in the next few months.  Thanks for sharing your vulnerability and path through to the other side.

  • Gerry Wilson

    This is so true, Kamy; thanks for the reminder. I look forward to the next post. 

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for sharing this, Kamy. All of those messages that perseverance can tip the scales in our favor take more time to sink in...but they are sooooo hopeful.   Looking forward to reading your next blog about the subject.

  • Olga Godim

    This post definitely resonates, Kamy. I thought it was just me, a pessimist at heart, but it seems the other writers (presumably many artistic people) feel much more attuned to critique than to praise. As if we can't believe we could be good. 

    I think it's imbedded in the artistic personality to always doubt ourselves. We need the outside endorsement - writers need their readers, actors need their public - to feel justified in doing what we do, often without any monetary recompense. 

    Is our society twisted, that success is measured in dollars, or is it us?

  • Ann Jewett

    I loved this. Just yesterday I wrote a blog piece titled 'Perseverance, Thick Skin and Debbie Macomber'. It's about her incredible writing journey which was finally launched by nothing other than pure perseverance in the face of astounding rejection.  I'll likely never submit my memoir for publication, but if I ever do muster the courage to do it some day, I'll have to have Debbie's bio blown up and framed so that I can read it each and every time rejection comes my way.

  • Tania Pryputniewicz

    Kamy I sure can first experience with that kind of criticism-accolade split was the first time I taught a class as a grad student. My peer teacher had to literally point out, page by page, that there were 24 positive reviews to two with criticism. I just couldn't see the  good. I'll also go out on a limb here and expose my love for reiki, which, has gone subterranean a bit with childrearing, though sometimes I try to run it at night before falling asleep, so the same chakras repeatedly get love and the same others don't...maybe I should start by running it on that half of the brain that processes criticism first and then go from there.

  • Nancy E. Devine

    Thank you for this--I am struggling with the stronger power of good over bad right at this moment in my life, with writing, with parenting, with critiques. I did indeed read the linked articles, and cling to the final conclusion of the need to overwhelm bad with 5 times as much good. Five to one. Sounds like the number of servings of vegetables versus servings of carbs and fats. I can live with that. I love vegetables. But does my daughter resent me from all my attempts at positive reinforcement? Will I forge ahead with writing projects with identified flaws? Maybe it's more than just vegetables I need to overwhelm bad. I probably need 5 times the amount of good, regular sex, too.