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Do You Get Defensive When You Get Feedback?

Maybe what's really getting in between you and a great story is a bruised ego.

Image of a red marking pen.

Critiques can be hard to take!

When I was in high school, I had an art teacher who liked to espouse the importance of "constructive critiques." I quickly learned to hate the term, because as far as I could tell, what it really meant was "rake the poor artist over the coals."

Though in retrospect I have no idea whether I was really being raked over the coals by someone who was emphasizing the critique over the constructive or whether I was just hypersensitive and it felt that way, I do know two things.

First, it's never easy to have your creative work critiqued. Few things are as personal as our writing, especially our fiction. We pour our desires and dreams, fears and vulnerabilities into our characters and plot points. It's hard to share those things with others; it's even harder to have people react with anything less than mountains of praise.

Second, for better or worse, critiques from trustworthy crit buddies who genuinely want to help us improve are crucial to both our growth and our success as writers. In other words, having problems pointed out is tough, but that's the only way we're going to build a great story. This is even more true if you hope to publish, because both agents and editors will ask you to make (often tough) revisions to polish your story into a salable state. (And don't forget about the reviews after your book is published! You'll need a thick skin for those!)

We'll talk about how to deal with the actual critiques in another post, but let's get the problem right out there in the open first.

1. Take a good hard look at yourself—are you getting defensive and undermining yourself?

A lot (make that a lot) of people ask for honest and even brutal criticism, but respond defensively when they get matter how it's given. How do you know if you're doing this? Give yourself a point for each of the following:

  • You respond to the crit buddy's comments with "But...." and explain why s/he's wrong.
  • You say (or think) "That's going to be too much work" and try to make a case for why the changes don't need to be made.
  • You decide your critique partner just doesn't understand your brilliance and declare him or her an irredeemable idiot. (Yes, you get a point for this even if you eventually decide maybe the person isn't an idiot.)
  • You get angry at the critique partner. Check this one twice if you fire back an angry email, text, or phone call. Check it three times if you've lost critique partners this way.
  • If you've ever sent a nasty response to a literary agent for any reason following a query, just go ahead and give yourself 20 points.
  • You don't take other people's advice...ever. (Also give yourself a point if you only take advice that tells you how to make something that's already brilliant better, eschewing advice that targets things that aren't working.)
  • You make a big deal about how bad you feel about the advice until your crit partner backpedals or tells you s/he was wrong....about any and all negatives.
  • Your crit partner/s used to give you advice that was hard to take, but now it's all vague, halfhearted, and generically positive.

The more of these you answer yes to, the more defensive you are. Give yourself a break if you only do one or two of these once in a while—we all feel defensive sometimes. But the more of these you're doing on a regular basis, the more defensive you are, and the more you're probably undermining yourself, your growth, and your ability to reach your writing goals.

2. Decide—honestly—what you really need: praise or growth.

Some writers genuinely need praise and attention from other writers more than they want to grow as an author. That's okay. If what you really need is praise, then focus on communities where the feedback is mostly positive. You probably won't grow into someone who's regularly selling your work, but that may not be what's most important to you.

Sure, publication is the brass ring, but the more people who read your work, the more you're opening yourself up to potential negativity. Because no matter how good you are, there are always going to be people who hate your work...and are happy to tell you so. So if what you really need is praise, focus on enjoying the writing and getting praise!

If you decide that growth is really what you want most, move on to the next point!

3. Admit to yourself how hard it is to take criticism. (I know, it sounds like we're in AA here.)

Often, we try to sweep unpleasant feelings under the carpet to avoid dealing with them. But experiencing them can help us deal with and get past them. So go ahead and admit to yourself— and your crit buddies, if you need to—that sometimes it's hard to take even constructive criticism. I bet they'll tell you they feel the same way!

© 2012 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. More information is available on the book's website.

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