Why writers need negative criticism – Part 1

Why writers need negative criticismYes, you read that right. And no, I’m not a masochist. About a week ago, I received the most biting negative criticism that I have ever received about a piece of my writing. And I mean negative. Caustic. It burned. I’ll tell you exactly how. This is how I felt about it (more or less in chronological order):

1. Stunned: I’d never received such a crushing critique before.

2. In denial: The person who critiqued the work obviously doesn’t know anything. This isn’t happening to me. This person doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say or the aim of this piece of writing.

3. Crushed: I suck. I suck. I suck. I can’t believe I ever thought I can become a good writer. I suck. I should just go find some office job and forget about ever becoming a writer. Did I mention that I suck? Well, I do. I suck.

4. Acceptance of the criticism: OK, this person may have a point. Yes, I agree that this needs some revision. OK, it needs a major rewrite and has lots of problems.

5. Worried and paranoid: If I sucked so bad at this piece, therefore, I suck at everything related to writing. Anyone else who ever said anything good about any of my other writings must have been too polite or embarrassed to say anything. Anyone else who didn’t tear my writing to shreds before must have been too nice to say anything. They must have pitied me. I still suck.

6. Shaky acceptance of myself: This was the most difficult stage to arrive at. OK, so not everything I write is wonderful, or even good. Sometimes I write terribly, and sometimes I write very well. There’s no way that anyone writes well every single time. This shredding of my writing will make me more aware of the mistakes I make. It will make me improve my writing. There is hope. Maybe I don’t suck. At least not completely.

This was a rundown of my emotional and mental states as I dealt with the criticism. At the end, I did buckle up and fix that piece. But I’m no hero. I still feel that my previously dulled sense of self-doubt has been sharpened and stings. And now I’m trying to convince myself that a healthy dose of self-doubt is necessary for all writers. How else would they improve? But the key word here is: healthy.

In the next post in this two-part series, I’ll talk some more about negative critiques, and how writers can evaluate and deal with it.

But now, I’m interested in knowing about your experiences with negative criticism. How did it make you feel? What did you do?

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6 Comments

Filed under writing, Writing related

6 responses to “Why writers need negative criticism – Part 1

  1. This post rubbed salt in old wounds. I remember the first time I received negative criticism of my writing. It was on an essay I had submitted to a professor I valued so much. The volume of the red ink all over my paper made me sink in a bottomless pit of sadness. I shrunk in a corner on a terrace and looked at the rest of the students around the campus. Then I saw a man sweeping the floor. I felt that I wanted to be just like him; to sweep the floor and have no paper to worry about or red ink to remind me of how much I’m a loser.

    Looking back, I believe that had it not been for this kind of criticism I probably wouldn’t have learned anything about writing. I feel thankful to all the little detailed comments I used to get from my teachers. They really were the stepping stones for me!

    I know exactly how you felt, Marwa. For a long time it was specifically the avoidance of that very feeling that kept me away from writing–for years! But now if I wanna make anything out of myself I think I should definitely step out of this shell and welcome it all!

    Thanks for a lovely post!

    • Marwa Elnaggar

      I love the part about the sweeper. That’s EXACTLY how I felt. At least no one would be able to criticize my sweeping. And even if they did, I don’t identify myself with the act of sweeping/office work, so it wouldn’t destroy me. But that’s all melodrama. The truth is that it’s an invaluable learning experience. We usually want to be protected, praised, understood, and all that. But we never learn anything when we are. It’s only when someone stops us and tells us what we’re doing wrong that we can begin to have a more realistic vision of where we are and what we need to do to get where we want to be.

  2. You are so right. I love it!

  3. Yosra

    Great piece, Marwa! I loved reading the stages and your analysis of it. Many writers must go through this alone and feel they’re the only ones crushed. It’s great to know you’re not the only one!

    I haven’t received much criticism lately, but I just remembered one. It was in a Spanish course in my third year of college and I had written my heart out in an assignment essay. Obviously, I was more focused on the “thoughts” rather than the expression and of course my Spanish after all wasn’t that great.

    I was horrified, too, when I saw the corrections. One of the teacher’s comments was that one word was too “sophisticated” and I didn’t understand his problem with this. He explained to me that in that context, when my writing was quite informal and simple, it was inadequate. I shrugged his comments off and thought he was just being critical of the thoughts I expressed in the piece. But looking back at it now, I think he was right, and helpful. And it is something I still see in some of my writing till now. I came to understand it as I grew, read more and was more aware of these aspects of writing.

    As you say, it is good to distance yourself from your feelings and the other person’s from criticism so that you can get anything useful out of it.

    • Marwa Elnaggar

      Yes, you’re so right, Yosra. Sometimes we don’t accept or understand the criticism when it is given, and it takes a while to be able to process it without breaking down or denying it or involving our emotions too much. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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