As writers, feedback is our connection to our readers, whether in angry emails or supportive blog comments. Regardless of the content of the message, this we can conquer negative feedback if we are mindful process it correctly.
Writing is so personal that criticism feels like an attack on our identity as a writer. This can lead to unhealthy questioning of our skills and capabilities as writers.
However, all depends on how we think about the criticism. I chatted with a creative writing student from another class recently. Jeff was in advanced writing and wrote what he considered the American romantic masterpiece in short form. "The Death of Mildred Gossamer" had Jeff's whole heart in it, and he had written the piece in a passionate, creative frenzy. The story had intrigue, romance, and death, and Jeff felt that it was finely written.
Sitting at his desk in class, Jeff was surprised when Professor Wisen flopped a familiar packet on his desk. The red letters "Show, Don't Tell!" pierced him. He saw nothing else. For Jeff, the room grayed into a profound silence, with the red words shouting at him.
How would you react in this situation? Jeff has many choices in how he might handle this criticism. He can let the blood red words start a chain of thinking and feeling that will leave him trapped and stifled as a writer. The criticism is personally painful, and Jeff's thinking might follow this chain:
Where will Jeff head from here? Jeff's thinking is negative and undermines his writing ability, carving away at what is probably already and insecure writing identity. The real serious damage is done when Jeff embraces these thoughts as beliefs about himself.
If he believes he is a C writer, then he will become one. He is caught in the swift stream of the river of thought that leads endlessly down, with rocks, logs, and snags along the way. A single thought can have this effect. "Show, don't tell" can mean the end of Jeff's writing.
I have English students all the time who look back to that one teacher who ruined writing for them, relegating them to the heaps of poor writers. The students are afraid of writing now because they "know" that they are bad writers. Teachers have made short, sharp comments that have injured the student and instilled a negative belief about themselves.
You might think it is the teacher's fault, but the blame lies with the student who chose a thinking path that led to the belief that he cannot write. If these students had the mental skills to mindfully analyze negative feedback, they would continue to progress as all writers do, when they care about their words and ideas.
Reconsidering the reaction
This mindful approach is not easily acquired, principally because it's never taught. Mindfulness is an Eastern approach that Westerners in large part are unfamiliar with. To be mindful means to be aware of the present moment in all respects, including thoughts which are occupying space in your brain. It means to notice in that moment your feelings, thoughts, and actions.
We might imagine a different mental monologue in Jeff's mind, one that examines and probes consciously rather than following an unconscious and negative chain. Imagine that Jeff pulls the thought from his brain and holds it in his hands, "show, don't tell," with its red ink and harsh letters. He looks at it from different angles, from the front, back, side, upside down, and angled endlessly. Jeff touches it, pokes it, smells it. His mental monologue:
"This is an opinion of my work, and it is only one opinion. The message makes me feel hurt and silly."
Jeff separates the object which is the red statement "show, don't tell" from himself so that it is not part of him or his identity. He handles the thought as if it is an object to be scrutinized. He accepts his feelings, but rather than letting the feelings and thoughts take control, he ponders them. He understands why he feels the way he does and decides that it is okay.
The result is that Jeff will advance in his writing because he is mindful of the thought, resisting chains of negative, unconscious, and unproductive beliefs.
A few simple steps can help you accomplish the same when dealing with feedback from readers. They employ mindful techniques from various sources:
- You do not need to deny your initial negative feelings. Allow yourself to react unrestricted, but without dwelling on the emotions.
- As you examine the thought, accept your feelings rather than suppress them. This step is supremely important. Denying your feelings or suppressing them will lead to explosions down the road.
- Pull the criticism out of your mind (close your eyes and imagine it) to examine it objectively from different angles. you might use journalist questions if you have trouble using different angles: who, where, when, what, why, and how.
- Try to see the thought from as many perspectives as possible including positive ones. This does not mean that you have to put a rosy finish on all feedback, but you can emphasize the thoughts that lead to productivity rather than shut down.
- Bearing all of these angles in mind, make a decision for positive action that aligns with your values. Action is the most important step in this whole process because rather than leaving you know stagnant and passive, you will be empowered to act in a nourishing way.
- Test your thinking and action by seeing how well it works in practice. Does it help to motivate you and make you productive? Does it make you focus on the negative thereby making it difficult to write?
- Return to the incident occasionally to observe how you are handling the criticism, fine tuning your thinking if necessary.
- Remember that you do not have to perform this extended procedure with every piece of feedback. You only need to fully employed this process when you feel a particularly strong reaction to a piece of criticism. If you have trouble distinguishing between important and trivial criticisms, a brief quiet moment or meditation will help you in discovery. You will find that the most important pieces of feedback repeatedly pop up in your mind
In the end, remember that many silly comments should just be disregarded. Also, bear in mind that many positive comments should be disregarded as well if they are not grounded in specific feedback and examples.
Test this and see if it works for you. It's easy to test and you'll see the results immediately. I hope it works for you as it does for me.
You might also enjoy these articles on writing:
- The writing life: Passion for the pain of bloodletting on the page
- Top writing myths that motivate and sabotage
- Five quick tips to write with power
- How to create the ultimate writer's app toolkit
Now, I'd like to hear what you think. What strategies do you use to deal with feedback? Do you simply ignore it? Do you access over it? Are there other effective techniques?