Receiving harsh criticism as a writer can be a challenging thing to deal with, especially if you’re not used to strangers online deriding your creative work. Having been blogging for eight years now, and writing professionally for over four, I’ve received my fair share of criticism; most of it has been civil, friendly, and helpful, whereas other comments about my work have been full of invective.
As a writer deciding to publish work online, whether on your own website or for another publication, you are opening up your writing to all possible kinds of criticism – this is why making initial decisions to put your work out there can be marked by hesitancy and doubts.
But after writing for a while now and being exposed to a wide range of criticisms of my work, I’ve learnt that even harsh criticism can be viewed in a healthy way and I’m strangely thankful for even the harshest critics out there, as dealing with such criticism can teach important lessons about maintaining integrity as a writer and the ability to improve, rather than wallow in self-denigration.
One of the best ways I’ve found to deal with harsh criticism is exposure, plain and simple. This means not being afraid to publish work, even if I know it’s not my best work or if I’m worried about how it will be perceived. I’ve also published hundreds of articles, sometimes on sensitive or controversial subjects, and sometimes written with a clear opinion, so it’s no surprise that some of these will elicit strong, vituperative responses.
I think at the beginning, perhaps when I was less confident as a writer, harsh criticism would be more of a blow to my self-esteem. I’d immediately accept the criticism as sacrosanct and go away thinking what I had written was valueless and proof of my ineptitude as a writer. But the more I was exposed to harsh criticism, the less of an effect it had on me. I’ve kind of become desensitised to it. That’s not to say this kind of criticism now has zero initial effect on me, only that its general effect has significantly lessened. I believe this continual process of exposure and desensitisation is healthy, in the same way that getting used to rejection is. Initial rejections really sting, and they no doubt still hurt later on, but it’s important to learn to separate incidents of rejection (and criticism) from self-worth; it’s the only way to have the confidence to try again.
Responding, Not Reacting
Whenever I’ve read a harsh comment about my writing, my initial, knee-jerk reaction is often the same: I’ll feel embarrassed, defensive, and self-critical. The real problem occurs when I reply to the comment in the midst of this initial reaction. I’ve never found it helpful to reply with the same tone as the commenter or to automatically write in an argumentative way in an effort to prove the commenter wrong and redeem my reputation. If you do this, all it tends to do is fuel a disrespectful exchange and makes you look hot-headed.
The distinction between reacting and responding is vital here. A reaction is all about communicating from an automatic and unthinking place of emotion and defence. Even if the reactive comment is justified and right, this doesn’t mean it will lead to a productive conversation. A response, on the other hand, is a reply that is considered; it takes into account the desired outcome of the interaction. For example, we would intuitively say that we desire any interaction, including online ones, to be amicable and positive. It’s easy to see how reactions often don’t meet this aim, as reactive comments have a tendency (especially online) to fuel put-downs and argumentativeness, rather than collaborative dialogue. Now, a response – while carefully thought out – can still nonetheless bit unjustified and wrong, but this is perhaps less important than the fact that a more wholesome exchange will result.
While I may still have knee-jerk reactions to harsh criticisms, I’ve learnt that the best thing to do is to sit with the reaction and just wait for it to pass, because it will. Then, I’ll decide whether it’s worth responding or not since sometimes comments are just insulting; in those cases, it doesn’t always seem likely that the commenter will engage. Or I’ll just have no desire to engage with them. But if I do respond, I make sure to respond in a calm, respectful, and conciliatory way, showing clearly that I’m engaging with the criticism and genuinely interested in an exchange. More often than not, I’ve found harsh critics will change their tone, appreciating that I’ve paid attention to what they said and decided to take the criticism seriously. This whole process has been very instructive. Trying to be cool-headed and unreactive in the face of harsh criticism has led to much better interactions online and made me less attached to my opinions.
Using Harsh Criticism Constructively (If Possible)
Sometimes, nothing can really be gained from harsh criticism, especially if it’s insulting in nature. However, I have found that even the harshest criticism may contain some truth in it. The criticism may be an exaggeration of an otherwise valid point or it may be a justified criticism couched in a cantankerous tone. Both instances can make criticism harder to take on board. But it would be a shame, I think, to completely ignore such criticism just because it wasn’t expressed in the most respectful way.
By trying to find something of value in harsh criticism, I can use the comment to further reflect on my writing. Was I adequately informed and justified in what I was saying? Was I maybe being a bit too biased? Was I coming across as trite, pretentious, overly opinionated, or dismissive? These are all valid criticisms that I want to consider because if I don’t, there may be habitual mistakes I make in my writing that I’ll fail to address. To me, the joy of writing comes not just from the expressive and creative act of writing itself but also from the ability to improve and challenge what I think and the way in which I get those thoughts across in writing. Writing can be impactful and just how beneficial this impact can be (on myself or readers) depends on the level of diligence I’m applying.
How a Lack of Face-to-Face Interaction Drives Harsh Criticism
Something that I find helpful to keep in mind when coming across harsh criticism is that this person is not making this comment to me face-to-face. In saying this, I don’t mean that the blow is lessened because it’s easier to read the comment on a screen than have someone directly make the comment to me in person (although that may be true). What I mean is that I realise it’s less likely someone would be this harsh in person than in real life. This doesn’t take away the harshness of the comment, but it does put it into perspective.
I realise that the criticism – or the most distasteful part of it – is more to do with the nature of online communication than my writing itself. When you criticise work online, you cannot make the comment directly to the author, see their reaction, and have a natural back-and-forth about it, all of which makes it easier to be harsh. There are fewer social costs because, in the online interaction, it’s almost as if you’re not talking to a real person at all. With the ability to be anonymous and ignore any replies to your criticism, you can say whatever you like about the author’s work or the author as a person and not feel you’re damaging your reputation in the process.
Online criticism can, of course, be empathetic, keeping in mind that there are real people behind the words being typed out. I remind myself of this when seeing overly critical, unfair, or disparaging comments, realising that this is partly a misstep of the person making the comment, as well as an inherent tendency in online disagreements in general.
The Underlying Reason for Harsh Criticism
Harsh criticism is a lot of the time more to do with the person’s state of mind when they made the comment than the writing or the writer they are criticising. To feel the need to scold someone rather than simply disagree reveals a temperament or a particular emotional state, perhaps triggered by a piece of writing, or as something already in the background of that person’s life, colouring how they communicate with others. When I reflect on the actual words and tone made in a harshly critical comment, it can appear disproportionate, as an overreaction. It does help to try to realise that harsh critics are just people. They’re not necessarily experts and certainly not free from their own biases.
Harsh criticism is not dispassionate and its emotional character needs to be remembered. This kind of criticism often comes from a place of anger, bitterness, and insecurity. I do find it hard to imagine that people who are calm, empathetic, and secure would feel such a strong need to make harsh comments about people’s work.
I suppose what is ‘harsh’ to one person isn’t to another, so that’s definitely up for debate. But it’s usually obvious when criticism is aiming to be constructive and when it isn’t. My point is that whether or not the criticism is harsh, as a writer, it can still be dealt with productively. I might prefer if all criticism was fair and level-headed, including my own criticism of other people’s writing. Civil online discourse would be more fruitful, although realistically, it’s hard to overcome the barrier of a screen and anonymity, both of which make it easier to express internet rage, just as being enclosed in the safety of a car makes it easier to express road rage.
Accepting the inevitability of harsh criticism is simply part and parcel of being a writer. Where real growth lies, however, is in the ability to see the harshest critics as teachers you can learn from, rather than enemies to be opposed.