It’s not easy to be a writer. A well-known author described the experience well when he said:
“Writing is easy, you just open a vein and bleed.”
This is true not just for writers. This is true anytime you create something and put it out there for others to see and comment on.
Sharing your writing, your thoughts, dreams, creations, sometimes means putting yourself in a vulnerable position. It’s like being naked and bleeding.
But what happens when someone bleeds you against your will? When a troll, or an ungenerous passer-by or a well-meaning but perhaps sharp-tongued critic (metaphorically) stabs you in the gut and then walks away?
Most people’s gut reaction is to race after the offender and stab them back (metaphorically), to insult them, to loudly protest against their unkindness or unfairness…or maybe to curl into a ball and weep.
But wait. There’s a better way:
Don’t reply (right away)
Don’t react when the pain is fresh. Do something else to take your mind off the situation, something to make you feel better.
Give yourself at least a day to sleep before you answer — if you answer at all. Some criticisms are worth replying to, others aren’t.
No matter what happens, don’t react reflexively. Otherwise, you may say (or write) something you regret — something childish, something unhelpful, something that may provoke the other party into a drawn-out, ugly word-war and leave you looking and feeling bad.
After all, everything on the internet lasts a very, very long time.
See if there is a misunderstanding
Communication is a tricky thing. Words, images, and ideas have different associations for different people.
What you thought was obviously a joke may be taken the wrong way by a reader from a different culture or background. Or perhaps something you said may have triggered an unpleasant memory in the reader/consumer that has nothing to do with you or your idea, but they feel the need to relieve their feelings by dumping it on you.
Before you argue with a critic, consider their words or view as generously and dispassionately as you can, and see if the problem is as simple as — you misunderstood them, or they misunderstood you.
Most people are not trolls; they may simply not understand what you really mean to say.
And the opposite is true as well — maybe that seemingly critical comment wasn’t meant to be as critical as it sounded to you.
If you’re not sure, clarify. If you’re still not sure, give them the benefit of the doubt. As Steven Covey once said:
Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Hang on to your principles
If you’ve given yourself some time and given the other person a fair evaluation, and you find that the conflict is NOT due to a misunderstanding but is rather a fundamental disagreement between you and them, don’t back down.
If a critic is challenging something you truly believe, don’t become so defensive that you don’t allow their ideas a fair trial.
However, if you have considered their point, and still feel that they are wrong, don’t compromise on the truth.
This doesn’t mean you are now free to bash your critic, though.
If responding to their comment is helpful to you or to them or to someone who may be reading your conversation, then respond. But do it respectfully, and only with the intention to clarify and elucidate, not attack or retaliate.
It can be extremely difficult to change people’s minds — especially on certain sensitive, controversial topics. You can try, if you think it is worth it. But be gracious.
And if a debate is no longer productive, let it go. As Augustine once said:
In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.
If the critic really IS a mean-spirited troll, don’t fight fire with fire.
It makes you look bad, and accomplishes nothing besides raising your blood pressure.
If you do the noble thing and respond graciously and kindly (or at least refrain from saying what you really want to say), you can feel proud of yourself for being the better person (and rightly so!)
And if they continue to attack and insult you, ignore them and delete the comments. You don’t have time for things that don’t add value for anyone.
Be careful how YOU critique others
Critiques should be helpful, level-headed, and gracious.
If you really dislike a piece, the best thing to do would be to let it fade into internet obscurity, not start a word-war with its author.
But if you feel the need to point out something the writer missed, or why you think he/she is wrong, doing so respectfully and intelligently will support your point much better than ranting like a madman.
Remember to address the idea, not the person. (I.e., “I disagree with your point because of facts a, b, and c. Not “You’re an idiot for saying this”)
Treat other creative folk as you would like to be treated. Err on the side of caution, gentleness, and kindness.
This requires practice and skill, of course. But it’s a skill worth cultivating if you want to go far in work and in life.
The Two Rules of Writing
I once wrote a vulnerable article about a personal experience.
A few days later, a critic sent me an email: something like “you shouldn’t write about this topic, because I don’t think you know enough about it.”
I disagreed with much of the note, (because the piece was based on personal experience, critiquing my knowledge about the topic didn’t make sense)
But after sleeping on it, I replied as kindly as I could, arguing that there should be only two rules for writing:
- write honestly, and
- write graciously.
That applies to when you are creating content, and when you are critiquing content.
I was pleasantly surprised when the critic responded in a much more gentle tone, apologizing for the first comment and clarifying her thoughts. And I was happy that I chose to reply graciously, rather than with a knee-jerk rebuttal. I was able to be better understood, and I was also better able to understand my critic as well.
Writing is a learning process, and criticism is part of that process. You can learn something from every critique, even if it is mean-spirited.
Why we create
Writing, or any kind of personal or artistic creation, can be a fearful endeavor.
But it is worth it. You have ideas that need to be shared. There are people out there who need to hear your ideas. Some people will appreciate your thoughts — others might not, and may tell you so honestly.
That’s okay. You’re not creating for them, but for others. So keep going.
Sometimes you will stumble on art or writing that does not speak to you. That’s okay too — it’s not meant to speak to you, but to someone else. Let them be, and keep going.
Learn to receive and to give criticism well, and it will serve you well in every area of life.
And whatever else, keep going.
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