Monday, March 14, 2011

Question from a Young Writer: Dealing with Fear of Criticism & Rejection

I love when I get questions from young writers--and you can take "young" to mean in age or in reference to writing journey. Sometimes, after much experience, we tend to forget that every day there are writers who come behind us as wet behind the ears as we were when we first started.

So, I went to a special young writer friend of mine and posed the question, "As a young writer, what are some questions you'd like answers to in regards to writing (the life, the practice, etc.)?"

What I got was a nice list of questions, and I'd like to answer one now:

What would you tell an aspiring writer whose fear of criticism and failure keeps her from jumping in and writing?

There are three important things a young writer needs to know; well, there are a lot of things a young writer needs to know, but to answer this question, I'll tackle three things.

Every writer will face criticism. It's just going to happen. As long as people have a right to their opinion, they will have opinions of your work, and sometimes, those opinions will be negative. Personally, as a writer, I tend to ignore most "criticism"--unless it is constructive. If someone is criticizing just to criticize, then it doesn't help me as a writer. However, when I receive constructive criticism, there is something there for me to learn from, to perhaps better my writing. I truly believe that writers should take part in a lifelong learning of the writing craft, and part of that learning comes from receiving constructive criticism and being able to discern what within that criticism can help your writing. Believe me, once upon a time, I cried at every rejection I received and after some workshops during my MFA years, I tucked my tail and went for some libations. But once I understood that in the end, it's about developing the best writing you can, I began to welcome constructive criticism and was eager (believe it or not) to revise works. It's a process, and with any process, it takes time to overcome some fears. But you can overcome them.

Here, I will say MOST because they are those few miracle writers who have had a pretty easy road of getting an agent and getting a deal (why aren't these people writing books on how that happened? But I digress...). Most writers will face rejection. When I was younger, I had enough rejection letters to create an accent wall in my bedroom. And can face rejection from almost anywhere--other writers, agents, editors, readers... And it hurts. And you'll be mad. And you'll be upset. And you'll want to quit writing. But if writing truly matters to you, you won't stay away for too long because characters will call you back to the page. For me, I've always lived with the understanding that as long as I knew something, that something couldn't surprise me too much, couldn't put me down for the count. If I know I will face criticism, if I know I will face rejection, it somehow lessens the sting of them for me and keeps me on the writing path I really want to stay on.

In the big scheme of things, it's good that others like what you do. That's how you get published and that's how you make sales and hopefully stay published. At the end of the day, however, criticism and failure must take a back seat to your desire to write. When you come to the table to write, you have to learn to dropkick those two pesky bandits and focus on what brought you to the table to begin with: that desire, those characters, those situations that call you to develop a whole other world. You have to write for you and that desire because if you write for acceptance, if you write to somehow lessen the criticism and eradicate the failure, you may lose your writer self, and then where will you be? When you wrangle the fear of criticism and failure and put you and your stories in the driver's seat, you'll notice that over time, the need to wrangle the damaging duo will dissipate.

To you all out there in BRP Land, What would you tell an aspiring writer whose fear of criticism and failure keeps her/him from jumping in and writing?

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically, and her debut solo novel, Death at the Double Inkwell is now available for purchase. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, promoting her debut project, writing screenplays, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

Bookmark and Share


  1. Criticism and rejection are par for the course in this business. Everyone has to deal with it, but if it's such a big worry, I would suggest they start off small. Maybe they could write a short story and try to get it published online? I found the sting of rejection wasn't as bad for my novel because I had some dealings with rejection from rejections for my short stories (which did end up getting published).

  2. Interesting post, Shon. Good tips here.

    I think one reason those who have had an easier time getting published haven't written a book about how to accomplish that, is because 99% of the time it is luck. A good friend of mine sold her first novel on the basis of a query letter and the first page of her ms. She was lucky to hit the right editor at the right time with the right story. Her approach would not work for everyone, as evidenced by the rejections the rest of us in the writer's group experienced using the same technique.

    Sure, that luck has to be backed by good writing, but those who have bypassed hordes of rejections did it primarily by luck. In my humble opinion. LOL

  3. Good suggestion, Darke!

    And Maryann, I think you're so right on the luck thing. And even those books that are out with titles like How to Write a Bestseller don't promise smooth sailing to publication...because they can't. Luck often does play a role.

  4. I would say that a writer who has fear of criticism and rejection needs to put a big sign next to her monitor that says: Learn to deal with criticism and rejection.

    It's part of being an author. An agent might reject your work. An editor might reject it. A reader might reject it. A reviewer might reject it. All that changes through the publishing journey is WHO rejects it, not the fact that it is rejected.

    Learn to turn your vision inward, hear your own voice. In a way, an author has to both write for the reader and write for himself. And here's the weirdest part of being a writer. You have to believe unstintingly in yourself, while being open to criticism. So, you have to be both arrogant and humble.

  5. I would say this: that everyone has a voice, a unique perspective that puts a particular spin on experiences that are at once individual and universal. Our words might help someone out there understand themselves better - or just feel less alone. One heartfelt fan letter can make up for a whole lot of rejection and criticism!

  6. Rejections came with the territory in the big publishing houses, and still do. However, it's often from a prospective agent now because most houses don't accept unagented manuscripts. But there's a way around that rejection—it's called self-publishing or independent publishing for hard copy and Kindle for e-books.

    The reality is that few books are now traditionally published. Technology has changed the game, and today the writer is in complete control. Rejection is a thing of the past unless that writer chooses to go the traditionsl route.

    Criticism is another matter. Somebody always wants to be a critic. If a writer gives his/her best effort to the work and has it edited by a competent professional, that criticism is often unwarranted.

    So let go of the fear and share your work with the world. You'll never please everybody, so allow those who will treasure your words to do so and know for those that don't, it's their loss.

  7. My suggestion would be to join (or create) a good writing critique group. If you have a solid group of good writers and readers, you can regularly get criticism that truly is constructive and that is given with your best interests at heart. Not only will this help make you a better writer, it will get you accustomed to receiving criticism and help you learn how to distinguish "good advice criticism" from "meanness."

  8. Great well said and great advice. Criticism and rejection is probably the hardest thing to overcome as a writer, but it doesn't have to be a catastrophic event. If we see it as a chance to be better at are craft then it helps to soften the blow.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. If a glitch is preventing you from commenting, visit our Facebook page and drop your wise words there: Blood-Red Pencil on Facebook