Not everyone who criticises what we write is envious.
And not everyone who gives feedback is criticising your writing.
Why is it that this is an incredibly hard thing for some medical writers to believe?
It’s understandable on some level.
So much of our identity is tied to this mythical, magical power we have of using words to their best advantage.
And like any magical power, we invest so much pride and energy in it. It’s what makes us special when we are stacked up against the other kids. It’s what makes us ‘cool’.
But part of being a professional health writer is being able to take feedback on your work – regardless of the impact this has on your work stress levels. So how do you stop yourself from falling into the trap of viewing writing criticism and feedback as interchangeable? And how can you prevent yourself from taking critical blows when criticism comes?
Writing criticism versus feedback
Let’s define the difference between feedback and criticism in terms of this piece.
Feedback comes from a place where the person is helping you shape a better version of the task you are working on. Feedback is necessary in order to deliver the stories we need to without error and in a tight, audience friendly manner. And it can propel us forward to better ideas, to be able to see weakness in our own writing styles, and to bear much stronger writing fruit.
In short, we don’t get things right 100% of the time and need to accept feedback as part of the writing process. Feedback has the potential to improve what we do. And it comes from a place of vested interest and care.
Criticism also helps us review, analyse and critically think about our work. Criticism doesn’t have to be bad but it gets a pretty bad rap. The reason why is criticism often comes has darker motivations than simply helping the writer or the work to succeed.
We know criticism can be loaded with pre-conception, assumption and have the whole “I know better than you, so there” undertone. Where feedback is useful and solution orientated, writing criticism is a rejection and a highlighting of issues without the roadmap for future success. It’s about pulling things to pieces without providing any instructions to put things back together again.
Writing criticism can come from a far as field as not liking an idea through to a personality clash. Because criticism is often unhelpful, it leaves us feeling bad about the work and/or the person delivering the criticism if it isn’t handled correctly.
However, like any form of communication, it’s how we respond that counts. So in the case of feedback or criticism, the problem arises when the writer in question cannot distinguish between the two. Or can but chooses to take it personally anyway.
When feedback is threatening
Writing criticism is something that can knock us all on the floor, but what does it say when you find feedback threatening?
Here are a few items for the check list that you could consider to stop feedback being such a difficult thing for you to receive.
1) Work on your insecurities
If you are used to everyone admiring what you do and showering you with praise, receiving feedback can be difficult. But writing is a subjective art and you won’t get a slam dunk every single time.
The reality is some people want to genuinely help you. This is why they offer advice.
Surrounding yourself with yes-men and cheerleaders doesn’t do anything other than bolster up an already shaky self worth.
Don’t choose to make your identity come down to your ability to put words on a page. Spend some time working on your confidence and emotional fitness. Find other interests, pursuits and skills that remove your writing as the only thing you can hang your hat on.
Once you feel stronger in yourself and have proven ability in other areas, you’ll feel differently about feedback.
2) Ditch reaction for responding
Not all the feedback you receive will be helpful, but how you respond to any feedback is important.
If you get angry and hurt by feedback, you have 3 choices:
a) You can make the situation worse by closing your ears and reacting to the anger you feel.
b) You can review the feedback and come back with a case for why the feedback isn’t necessarily helpful to the piece of writing under discussion.
c) You can review the feedback and accept it may have a point and respond accordingly.
Clearly, what it is and how the feedback is delivered will influence your response. And that’s where the emphasis should lie. ALWAYS respond to feedback after carefully considering the situation.
If you are over emotional and reactive even if the criticism was personal and a pile of horse manure, it makes you look unprofessional. Take the time to step away, breathe and think.
Giving yourself time to think about a situation will help you come to a less emotionally driven and in most cases, a far more accurate conclusion.
3) Learn to choose your battles
There isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t written something they thought was brilliant only to find it attracts no attention whatsoever. And we’ve probably all written that borderline piece we ourselves were not that sure of that has gone gangbusters. Sometimes life as a writer is unpredictable. Cherish that difference!
The guy who loves wine writing and reading technical manuals is probably not going to like your summer fiction romance special. Move on and find the audience who does.
If we listened intently to every single feedback we received, most writers would be scooping ice-cream, walking dogs and learning to be accountants. Living day to day for other people’s approval is unhelpful to our self esteem and our writing.
Keep the salt shaker handy when it comes to feedback and criticism. Take what you need to help you grow. But don’t let other people dictate your writing and career.
4) A little humility goes a long way
If you run around thinking every piece of feedback or criticism comes from a place of envy and jealousy, you’re going to have more rotten days than happy ones as a writer.
Why? Well, we don’t actually know who is a better writer. We simply convince ourselves we are. There’s so much left to chance and interpretation, one person’s favourite writer could be another person’s equivalent of utterly dull. C’est la vie.
Don’t fall into the trap of being the cliché of the difficult yet brilliant artist. It’s exhausting and counter-productive to building an audience. Plus it diminishes your brilliance over time. Or it opens you up to disappointing your audience who have high expectations that don’t match what they receive.
Always remember – you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. If you want people to like and admire you, try kindness and giving to others.
The missed opportunity in writing criticism
As painful as writing criticism may be or as misguided as feedback may seem, each and every time you receive it, it’s an opportunity.
Feedback and criticism act as clues to where we can improve our work. Or it clues us in about the person who gives it. It can be a time for self reflection.
It may speak to a wider misconception in the readership that needs to be addressed. It could be a weakness in the thinking behind some of the science or research we deal with that is only visible to the uninformed.
Where feedback is present, insight is plentiful.
Whatever the case, criticism and feedback can be invaluable, if for no other reason as to stop and make us pause for a moment in thought about what we write. Even if the end result of that is to continue.
Don’t you agree?
What do you find hard to deal with when it comes to feedback and/or criticism?
Rebekah Lambert makes her living as marketing, content creation and copywriting freelancer, Unashamedly Creative. She is also the head of Disruption for women’s portal, Discordia Zine. Rebekah has just begun a mission to improve the mental health and wellness outcomes for freelancers and entrepreneurs as one half of the Hacking Happiness team. You can follow her journey via Twitter, Facebook and Google+.