As a writer I’m on a continual seesaw of both praise and criticism. For example, I recently received some criticism on my upcoming June release, Hearts Made Whole. But then the very next day I learned that Romantic Times had given the book 4 1/2 stars (the highest rating) along with a Top Pick for the month (which is a huge honor).
The experience reminded me that life is a continual seesaw of ups and downs with the praise and criticism we receive. On the one side we long for affirmation for the things we’re doing (whether in our jobs, writing, or other pursuits), but on the other end we want constructive criticism. How can we find a balance with these two conflicting emotions?
We all need validation. At least I’m constantly craving it in my writing. But since writing is very subjective, I often have a difficult time sorting through feedback. I see two traps we can fall into with how we view positive remarks.
1. Cling to the praise too tightly. When we get feedback, we usually evaluate the negative comments before we decide what we should change. For example, in writing if only one person tells us our opening is flat, we may not rush to change it. But if a number of people all complain about it, we give their feedback more weight.
If we give careful consideration to negative comments, shouldn’t we weigh the positives too? Aren’t they equally subjective? Perhaps a friend has praised our book ideas or our first chapter. But have we sought out the validation of a number of people wiser than us?
2. Toss aside the praise too easily. This happens to be my problem. When someone compliments me, I think, “They’re just being nice” or “Sure, but what do they really think?” or “I bet they say that to everyone.”
In some ways, this is a defense mechanism, a way of protecting ourselves from being hurt. We long for the affirmation and deep inside need it, but if we keep the praise at arm’s length, then when we get a negative comment, we think we won’t be so devastated. We tell ourselves, “See, I wasn’t really that good after all.”
Although we crave validation, we need the constructive criticism just as much, if not more. But again, I see two traps we can fall into with the negative feedback.
1. Allow the criticism to pull us down too far. I’ve seen plenty of writers get a rejection or two from agents or editors and then stop querying. One agent who rejected my best-selling debut book, The Preacher’s Bride, took the time to write me a personal note about what he didn’t like. While I gave his ideas some thought, I didn’t let it stop me.
The same thing happens when we get feedback from a critique group or editor. It’s easy to fall into the “I’m a terrible writer and when will I ever be able to write anything besides crap” trap. Partly, we need to develop thicker skins and partly we need to let the feedback light a fire inside us—the determination to learn more about the craft and the drive to keep writing and improving.
2. Brush aside the criticism too quickly. The danger some writers face is thinking we can write whatever we want, however we want. After all, we’re artists, and we can’t possibly control the muse without compromising creativity, right?
Wrong. If the muse is seeking to make readers fall in love with it, then it has to bend the knee to the reader. We can blame the publishing houses for being too picky, but ultimately they’re bound by the same master—the reader. Ultimately, if we’re serious about publication, then we have to be open to change, especially changes that will appeal to our readers.
Summary: I’ve come to realize that when I have an overload of either praise or criticism, I grow too self-absorbed and my writing suffers. I swing either too high or too low.
The trick is learning to find a balance. We have graciously accept both praise and criticism but not get over-loaded with either one. If we start to lean too far one way with an overdose of pride or discouragement, then we have to remind ourselves that fluctuations always happen, but we can’t let them define who we are.