People take writing criticism personally, but being receptive to criticism is the way you grow as a writer. It keeps you focused on what you need to work on.
Because writing is a personal creation, people are sensitive to criticism, so they won’t ask others to read their work, and they also avoid going to writing workshops or reading books about writing. But reading a Sunday MBA column in the Boston Globe about the importance of negative criticism prompted me to think about writers who waste a valuable opportunity to develop by not asking others to critique their writing for fear of embarrassment.
People have been writing since elementary school, so they assume they must be above average, but in reality, most adults are average or slightly below, even mid-level and senior managers. Some are good; few are outstanding. So be open to constructive criticism, because unless you know what your writing weaknesses are, you won’t know what needs improvement.
A boss or colleague should deliver the criticism respectfully, but even when the criticism is pointed, don’t take it personally. In daily journalism, I had an editor who was not subtle when critiquing my work, but I ignored his tone and focused on the substance of his criticism. I didn’t want to be coddled; I wanted to learn. Sometimes he was reminding me of things I knew but had forgotten. More often than not, I was gaining new insight.
Here are three tips for finding and managing criticism of your writing:
- Reach out to colleagues and ask for their candid assessment of your work, even routine email. Is it clear? Is it too wordy? Is the tone polite and respectful? Are you telling them information they don’t need? Always ask for specifics. People who don’t want to hurt your feelings will be polite, and that won’t help you.
- Develop a thick skin. Remember that it’s not about you; it’s about the writing.
- Collect the editing notes that people make about samples of your work. Study the edits and be alert for repeated mistakes.
- Become a student of good writing: Read books and articles about writing, and take notes. Without a solid understanding of writing, you don’t know what to look for when you edit your work, no matter how many times you reread it.
Criticism is important. When delivered tactfully, it can build your confidence, and as you become more experienced, criticism can raise your standards and push you to excel at a higher level.
For more resources to help you become a powerful and more confident writer, please visit my Writing Resource Library.
Ken O’Quinn is a former AP writer who leads workshops on professional business writing, corporate communications writing, and persuasive writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business (McGraw-Hill) and is a co-author of Focus on Them, about leadership.