How to Handle Criticism: An Honest Guide for Writers

Abi Wurdeman
March 1, 2024

If you’re having trouble starting, finishing, sharing, pitching, publishing, or advertising your novel, there’s a good chance you’re struggling—at least on some level—with a fear of criticism. 

No judgment here; I expect to wrestle with this fear for the remainder of my existence on Earth. It just comes with being human, especially a human writer.

For us authorly types, criticism comes in many forms. It could be the constructive feedback of a peer, beta reader, or editor. It could be a snarky review on Amazon or an insightful critique from a TikToker. Sometimes it’s the implied criticism of a boilerplate rejection letter.

It’s rarely fun, but receiving criticism is so integral to the writing and publishing process that it’s best to start learning how to handle it now.

You’re about to unlock some mental and emotional tricks for taking on critical feedback like a champ. You’ll learn how to respond with grace, determine if criticism is actually useful, and offer your own critiques with kind honesty. 

Most importantly, you’ll learn how to turn criticism into growth, spinning this humbling experience into a stronger craft and successful career.

Understanding Criticism

Stamped letters spell out "FEEDBACK."

As a writer, the criticism you receive will typically fall into one of two categories.

First, there’s the constructive feedback you proactively pursue when your novel is still a work in progress. This includes input from peers in writing groups, hired editors and sensitivity readers, beta readers, agents, and publishers.

Then there’s the criticism that comes after your book is published. These include critical reactions of all types, from opinionated tweets (Xes?) to published reviews. 

I like to make a distinction between the two because you won’t always respond to them the same way. Simply put, it’s easier to get hung up on critical reviews because they comment on something that’s already out there. They’re far more public, too.

Within these two arenas of criticism, feedback generally takes one of two forms:

Constructive criticism - This is actionable feedback that pinpoints specific weaknesses and provides a clear path to improvement.

Destructive criticism - This is the type of criticism that basically boils down to “this is bad” and doesn’t specify what could be better. 

Constructive criticism is a gift from someone who sees your potential. That’s the type of feedback you want to learn to embrace. Don’t worry about destructive criticism. It’ll only bring you down.

And What’s the Point of All This?

My preference would be to just read buckets of books and articles on writing until I knew everything there was to know about the craft. Then I’d self-edit until my work was flawless and share my masterpiece with the world.

“Outstanding!” they’d say. “Utter perfection! No notes!”

The problem with this plan is that it’s impossible. We improve our craft by doing it, and when a person offers us constructive criticism, they’re sharing way more than the knowledge they’ve gained from books.

See, every writer and editor has their own history of trying and failing, writing and rewriting. They, too, have learned from the feedback from a wide range of experts.

Constructive criticism is compounded insight. It allows you to write masterful stories that aren’t just informed by your expertise but a sprawling web of experience and education. More experience and education than you’d have time to create for yourself in this one little lifetime.

Plus, beta reader feedback and reader reviews offer insight into a shifting market. They clarify what your target audience loves, hates, and longs for in the books they read.

Criticism is priceless. So let’s explore all the ways we can embrace it.

Building a Growth Mindset

It’s harder to take criticism when your focus is on being the best, writing an undeniable masterpiece, or selling a million copies. With goals like these, you don’t get to feel good about your work until and unless you achieve that one specific outcome.

In the meantime, any criticism will feel like proof that you’re not succeeding. It’ll either tank your self-esteem as a writer or make you resistant to meaningful advice. Or both.

That’s why the most successful authors would encourage you to cultivate a growth mindset. 

A growth mindset is where you prioritize improvement. Instead of constantly looking for proof of excellence, you look for opportunities to become an even better writer. With this perspective, criticism becomes a good thing.

I know that feels a bit like saying, “Just don’t feel bad about it and you’ll stop feeling bad about it!” So here’s the secret: 

Nurture that growth mindset all the time. Read books on writing, listen to podcasts, subscribe to YouTube channels, and attend seminars, workshops, and conferences

Do writing exercises. Read authors you admire and learn from them. Remind yourself that they were only able to accomplish what they did because they, too, were obsessed with continuous improvement. Do a little dance every time you realize your writing is better than it used to be.

Then, when it’s time to receive criticism, you’ll be in the right mindset to see the growth opportunity and maybe even appreciate it. 

Receiving a Critique Gracefully

Two people sit in front of an open laptop and have a discussion.

Of course, cultivating a growth mindset takes time. For a while, your first reaction to critical feedback might be to get defensive. So here are a few pointers for how to maintain a little grace on the outside even when you’re feeling frustrated on the inside: 

Express gratitude - This person has taken time out of their life to examine your work and share their comments. Even if you don’t love their feedback, you can always appreciate the effort.

Be open - Now is not the time to start an argument. You don’t have to say, “What an excellent point!” Maybe try, “I hadn’t considered that perspective. Thank you for your input.” Then, after the initial feelings of irritation wear off, genuinely consider that perspective.

Ask questions - Some notes might catch you off-guard simply because they’re vague or confusing. Go ahead and ask for clarification or specific examples. 

Of course, this is all assuming you’ve asked for a critique. Online reviews are another matter. It’s great to express appreciation when a fan gushes about your book on social media. As for negative reviews, it’s usually best not to engage at all.

Analyzing Feedback

So what do you do with all this precious feedback when you receive it? We have an article that explores this topic in depth, so I’ll just stick to the basics for now.

First, give yourself time to process. You won’t be able to examine criticism clearly until you let any initial feelings of anger or disappointment pass through. And they will pass through.

Then review the criticism again. Sit with any comments you still don’t agree with. Imagine what it would be like if you implemented those suggestions anyway. Do you see any unexpected benefits? I often find that even when I don’t take the exact advice I’ve been given, there’s a nugget of insight I can use.

Also look for patterns. Does the person critiquing you mention pacing issues multiple times? It might be worth sharpening those skills. Has more than one beta reader mentioned that your ending was a little unexpected for the genre? You’ll probably want to give that feedback serious consideration even if your first reaction is to disagree.

Through this process, you’ll begin to make decisions about which suggestions work for you and which ones don’t. Then you can work those ideas into your next revision.

Turning Constructive Criticism Into Better Writing

I always recommend applying big-picture revisions first. That way you don’t spend hours perfecting the dialogue in a scene you’re going to end up cutting, anyway.

This part of the process is where criticism really works its prose-powering magic. Not only will your next draft be better thanks to the feedback you received but the act of applying it helps you practice new skills that will serve you forever.

As for making the most of criticism you didn’t ask for, that’s a different story.

Over the course of your writing career, you’ll get negative reviews that don’t require any kind of attention or reaction from you. Many of them boil down to “This book just wasn’t for me.” That’s fine! You’ll never write a novel that speaks to everybody.

But once again, keep an eye out for patterns. Maybe many of your readers had trouble relating to the protagonist. Or they’re burned out on a trope you used. 

While you probably won’t choose to go back and change this book (you definitely won’t if it’s traditionally published), this information can help you serve your target audience better in the next book.

When It’s Hard Not to React Strongly

An upset person in a suit rests their head against a wall beside a window.

There will be times when it’s really difficult to remain calm in the face of criticism. I’m pretty sure every author has known what it’s like to receive feedback that instantly sparks anger, panic, or extreme disappointment.

Here are some suggestions for handling these tough criticism situations without making the situation worse:

You Can’t Fix the Problem

Someone criticizes some aspect of your work and you realize they’re absolutely right. But your work has been published by someone else. It’s entirely out of your hands. So now you just have to live this way, with your flawed efforts out there for the world to see.

Not a great feeling. But here’s the thing: as long as you’re continuously improving your skills—which is the goal, right?—you’ll always have work out there that no longer represents your full potential.

That knowledge may not eliminate feelings of embarrassment, but it can be a reminder that this is how it’s supposed to go. Like all the brilliant and resilient authors you admire, you’re in a constant state of advancement.

It’s Just Mean

Not all folks have great critique skills. You might encounter a needlessly scathing review. Or maybe a person in your writing group thinks the harsher the note, the more motivating it is. Either way, anger is a perfectly normal reaction. Expressing it, however, is rarely effective.

Resist the temptation to respond to nasty reviews or email the TikToker who tore your book apart. 

As for critique partners, ask for a quick conversation after you’ve cooled down. Explain why a different style of delivery is more helpful for you. If they insist that the problem is you, feel free to find a critique partner who’s more on your wavelength.

The Criticism Is Personal

On rare occasions, a person might criticize you as an individual, rather than just your work. 

If you experience this, it’ll most likely be in a reader review or social media comment. Again, this is a situation where it’s best not to engage with the reviewer. Feel free to delete comments like these that appear on your blog or social media posts. They don’t know you and your humanity is not up for debate.

Maintaining Self-Confidence

Silhouette of a person standing on a rock with their arms outstretched.

Now for the big question. How do you approach criticism with open arms and still keep your self-esteem intact?

Acknowledge that this is hard - When you feel resistance to sharing your work, actively think to yourself, “I don’t want to do this because it’s hard. I’m going to do it, anyway.” Over time, this reinforces that you’re making a bold choice. That alone will shift your self-image toward the positive.

Invite more feedback - The more you can practice receiving criticism, the easier it becomes and the less loaded it feels.

Surround yourself with supportive people - Keep the friends and family members who believe in your abilities close. Be honest with them when you’re feeling a little down on yourself and let them tell you what they love about your work.

Build your writing community - Not only are writer friends a great source of encouragement but they also normalize criticism. They’ll talk about the tough feedback they’ve received, reinforcing that this is all part of the process. 

If you’re still building your writer community, I highly recommend checking out Dabble’s Story Craft Café.

Hold on to glowing reviews - The human brain clings to the negative, so you have to be proactive about remembering positive feedback, too. It might help to keep a file of all the nice things people have said about your work.

Constructive Criticism Etiquette

As a member of the author community, you’ll be called upon to offer feedback of your own to fellow writers. Let’s talk about how you can tackle that task in a way that makes it easier for them to move through the discomfort of criticism and get to work improving their novel.

Focus on actionable feedback - Keep your comments clear and specific so the listener has an idea of how they can move forward. This might mean you have to take the time to understand why your opinion is what it is. For example, if you thought a specific scene was boring, see if you can pinpoint what it was missing before you offer that criticism.

Be candid but kind - Honesty doesn’t have to be brutal to be useful. This is actually why specificity is key to constructive criticism. It allows you to focus on what needs fixing without casting judgment on the writer’s overall skill or effort. 

Don’t forget to say what works - Make sure you point out what the writer is doing well. That way they don’t accidentally edit out the strongest parts of their story while trying to revise the weakest. 

Don’t Forget to Be Impressed With Yourself

A confident person in a blue blazer shoots a finger gun at the camera.

For a job we do mostly in solitude, writing sure invites a lot of outside input. This feedback is valuable, even crucial.

But what’s just as important is what you see in yourself: in your efforts, progress, and commitment.

Only you know how many times you’ve chosen to face the blank page when you were feeling discouraged or struggling with writer’s block. Only you know the emotions you worked through and hours you invested to turn criticism into an outstanding final draft.

That means it’s up to you to be positively gobsmacked by your own relentless tenacity. You’re doing the hard stuff. You’re amazing. Don’t forget to celebrate it.

I have one final tip for making this process easier. Plan, write, and revise your story with Dabble.

With features like the ability to drag-and-drop scenes and a fully customizable plot grid, Dabble makes it super easy to make even large-scale revisions as you sharpen your storytelling skills.

Plus, you can leave yourself comments and Sticky Notes right in the manuscript. This is a great way to set up your revision plan so you can tackle each change one by one.  

If you’re not already a Dabbler, you can try the program for free for 14 days without having to enter your credit card number. Just click this link and start exploring.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.