How to Thrive When They Say You Suck Because criticism and being a writer goes hand in hand

by Craig Playstead August 26, 2015
how to deal with criticism

I like criticism. It makes you strong.”
– LeBron James

They’ll say you suck.

They’ll also claim you’re dumb, unqualified and have three typos in the first paragraph of the piece you worked on for months. And that’s just your family. The rest will call into question your education, looks, writing credits, haircut, sanity, research, sandwich choice and worst of all: your originality. Learning how to deal with criticism is part of the sick and twisted game that you signed up for. 

Putting your creative work out there is not only opening yourself up to criticism, it’s asking for it. And that’s okay. Like any other musician, poet, photographer or artist, you just need to learn how to discern what’s noise, and what’s good, solid feedback you can use to improve. Your audience can be a great resource. Not only will they help you survive when saying you suck, but thrive and get better. It took me a long time and a good dose of public humiliation to figure that out, but thank God I did.

A few years back I wrote a piece for a top-five online property that I thought was hilarious. It just poured out of me. So much sarcasm and underlying humor that it was destined to be read and loved by millions. And it was … kind of. Millions read it, and many emailed me and commented on it. Unfortunately, it was the opposite reaction I hoped. They hated it. And even went a step further and told me how stupid it was. More importantly, how stupid I was.

The feedback was brutal. I was a dick, uneducated, should die, and they said I was both a liberal and a conservative. There were many other things mentioned you only hear at pro football games from shirtless, un-showered 40-year-olds with giant beers. The worst thing I heard was that I was unoriginal and cliched. That killed me. I can live with sucking, but not being unoriginal. By 9:00 that morning radio shows and blogs had picked up on it. The radio shows loved it, and the blogs hated it. I handled this like any other pro: I freaked out. I wanted to crawl into a hole, suck my thumb and never publish anything again.

It took about a day and a half before I stopped and looked back at the carnage. Hundreds and hundreds of emails and comments. Each one was worse than the next.

One guy wrote a whole page of criticism based off my bio, outlining all the jobs he said I was fired from, how I’d never get another one and how everyone hated me. It was a masterpiece. That one piece of criticism turned everything for me. I was laughing out loud at how funny it was. Who has the time to write an entire page in response to a tongue-and-cheek article they read over coffee on a major internet site aimed at mainstream America? There was nothing serious in it. No politics, no religion, nothing about parenting or sports. It was then I realized just how many trolls were out there. It made most of the criticism moot. Seventy-five percent of these people probably didn’t read what I wrote, or were just angry, little misfits. But I also realized that there was some validity to the other mountains of criticism I got because I spotted a pattern.

The pattern made me realize what I wrote was clichéd, unoriginal and not something I wanted my name on. I can live with a bout of bad judgment (hello 20’s), but not being unoriginal. I was horrified. And in this day of the Internet, it would never die – everything lives forever. It got huge numbers and media requests, so my bosses didn’t care, but I did and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. Better yet, I learned that I could go on when people (even thousands of them) told me how bad I suck.

Your readers can improve your work and how you present it, but only if you’re able to calm down, take that virtual punch in the neck and not freak out. Easier said than done, I know. Surviving when the world screams how bad you suck is something you can exist with, learn from and embrace. Here’s how:

1) Look for patterns: If 20% of your comments seem to be about the same thing, then investigate it further and dig a little. I don’t care how defensive you are, if you have a hole in your execution, then you need to fix it. If you’re taking an unpopular side on a hot-button issue (good for you), then you can disregard, but a pattern usually suggests something went sideways.

2) Identify trolls: they’re out there in droves. They hate the fact that you’re creating while they haven’t showered in a week. Laugh them off and know if they’re reading your stuff, then mission accomplished. You can always tell who they are because they hate everything and blather with no direction. They won’t use specifics, won’t debate and will personally attack you. They will always be there, so let ‘em do their thing.

3) Sniff out the passive-aggressive critic: These actually may be your friends, co-workers or family. They look harmless and won’t come out directly and say you suck, but will make comments that’ll make you question yourself. It plants the seed of doubt which can grow and harm you the most. Smile, let them know they’ve been heard and thank them for checking out your stuff. And remember who they are so their comments will mean absolutely nothing next time.

4) Expand your topic: You’re good, so it only stands to reason the people who read your stuff will be smart as hell. The really good ones will help you expand your topic and leaving you thinking, “why didn’t I think of that.” I love these people, and their thoughts can lead to another piece, a great conversation, and a true fan. Give them the credit they deserve and build on their gift. This is what the Internet is all about. We’re good by ourselves, but we’re great together. Don’t be a know-it-all, be a conversation starter. A very entertaining and informative one.

Author Brene Brown claims that she carries a tiny piece of paper with her that contains the name of those she’ll accept feedback from. I like that approach from a one on one point of view. What’s I’m talking about is which way the tide is turning. Your audience should never shape your writing, but it can help sharpen it.

Criticism is tough, no matter how you spin it. There’s a great quote by athlete Gabby Reese, I read in one of James Altucher’s posts. She said, “ I deal well with criticism because I know that 30% will always love me, 30% will always hate me, and 30% don’t care.” So true, and a good reminder that you can’t control what people think. No matter how hard you try.

Never forget that creating something and putting it out there isn’t something normal people do. It’s for a special, chosen few. It’s superhero stuff. So if you’re presenting your work to the world and opening yourself up, you’ve already won.

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