Handling criticism

I struggle with taking feedback, especially feedback of a critical nature (which is the only kind you ever really get in academia).  I always take it personally.  As an über-perfectionist, I hate receiving any indication that my work deviates from 100% excellence, even though I know logically that (a) no one is perfect, and (b) definitely not me.

As a result, I’ve tried to develop a series of coping techniques for responding to criticism productively and professionally.

STEP 1:  Remind yourself that feedback is good.

Repeat after me: Feedback helps me get better.  Feedback improves my work.  Feedback helps me get better.  Feedback improves me work. 

Not all pieces of feedback are good, of course – some are useless and aggravating and completely unhelpful.  But “feedback” as a concept is good.

STEP 2:  Read it (or listen to it) all at once.

Rip off the Band-Aid, so to speak.  It’s probably not as bad as you’re imagining (and if it is, at least you’ll have something concrete to get angry about).

STEP 3:  Resist the urge to get defensive.

Yesterday, one of my co-authors on the Paper From Hell sent me some feedback (as I’d requested).  Along with some general comments, she included a list of some two dozen typos.  My first instinct was to write back apologizing for my sloppiness, explaining that I hadn’t wanted to spend the time doing a final fine-tooth-comb proofread while we were still at the “ask for general comments” stage and that some of the typos existed because I’d done so much rewriting over the years.

Fortunately, I was able to remind myself that such a response was unnecessary.  I didn’t have anything to prove here.  Everybody makes typos.  That’s why copy editors exist.  Plus, she was doing exactly what I’d asked: providing me with information with which to improve the paper.

I experienced this from the other side recently while participating in WordPress’s Writing 101 mini-course.  Bloggers would write on the course discussion board, asking for feedback on their latest post.  But if I left a comment that contained any constructive criticism (think along the lines of “this is a great message but I think it might be easier to read with paragraph breaks”), they’d respond with an apology or a “well, writing is just my hobby.”  It was… awkward.  And uncomfortable.  It made me feel bad that I’d said anything.

Sometimes, when particularly self-conscious about and/or enraged by criticism I’ve received, I open a text file and type out all of my angry/worried/but-I’m-so-perfect responses.  When I’ve completed that first anxiety-inducing read-through and gotten all my emotions out, I delete the file.

STEP 4:  Take each point of criticism one at a time.

After I’ve read through, felt terrible, and calmed down again, I go back to the feedback I’ve received and start addressing it one part at a time.  Broken down into bits, things are rarely as awful as they seemed on first approach.  I ask myself:

Is this a valid criticism?

Is it worth addressing in full or in part?

Just because someone makes a suggestion doesn’t mean that suggestion is automatically right, or that it should be done in exactly the way they suggested – even if the person making the suggestion is someone whose opinion you value.  Their relative experience/knowledge/authority will carry some weight (maybe a lot of weight, if they’re your boss), but it’s still your final decision on how to address their feedback.

If it’s worth addressing, what steps do I need to take to address it?

Do I need more information?

Make a plan!  Take action!  Fix your typos, follow up on something you hadn’t thought of, or develop concrete steps to prevent similar issues in the future.

STEP 5:  Decide how to reply.

Not all criticism requires a response, and sometimes all that’s needed is a short “thanks for the feedback.”  In the case of the list of typos from my paper’s co-author, no long explanation was necessary.  After all, I corrected all of the typos, as she will see when I send around the next draft.

For more substantial feedback, it’s often important to let the criticizer know that you respect his or her opinion.  If you think their ideas have merit, give them a short summary of what you’re doing to fix the issue.  If you’ve decided not to adopt their suggestion, explain why.


That’s my current strategy – it’s a work in progress.  Usually my biggest hold-up is trying to avoid Step 2, on the entirely incorrect theory that avoiding something will make it go away.  Readers, I’m sure none of you are particularly fond of criticism.  What’s your approach to making it a productive experience?

12 thoughts on “Handling criticism

  1. Very good advice. I admit that I’m not very adept at taking criticism gracefully, though I think my time in grad school has helped to thicken my skin.

    My biggest stumbling block is step 3; it’s hard not to feel as though critiques of your work are critiques of you as person, and it’s difficult not feel protective of something to which you’ve devoted a great deal of time and effort.


  2. In my line of work, I’m constantly reminded of the fact that I make mistakes all the teim, so I think I’ve gotten pretty good at handling criticism over the years, but no matter how good you get at it, there will probably always be a small part of you that just wants to be told you’re perfect.


  3. Hello, Grad. Good advice regarding handling criticism. My first response also is to justify my reasons for (whatever). You’re right on. Hang on, give it some time, and evaluate its merits. Your “providing me information with which to improve the paper” sets your writing apart from the “providing me information to improve the paper with” writers. Me, I generally go with what is expected from my readers. I’m a coward! Just joking. However your sensitivity to grammatical correctness leads me to ask you a question.

    Background information, I wrote a thesis in which I wrote the following:
    “In some locale west of the Garden of Eden, God formed man from the dust of the ground and
    breathed into him the breath of life and man became a living soul. This was God’s masterpiece
    whom he called Adam.”
    I struggled with whether to use “who” or “whom” and settled for “whom” believing it is objective case as in “he called whom.” The problem is that my grammar check insists that I am wrong. What do you think?


    • Grammar checkers are notorious for interpreting things incorrectly! The who/whom question trips me up too, but I believe your choice of “whom” is correct in this case. You would say “he called HIM,” so “he called WHOM” is the right way to think about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Love your idea to write it all out and delete the file 🙂
    As for criticism: in a creative writing class I took once the instructor gave us another way to think about all this – view it as a gift someone is giving. A gift of their knowledge, experience, thought, feeling and so on. This helped me, hope it helps you too.
    Besides, doesn’t your word processor highlight/correct typos? That too can be a useful tool 🙂
    (which all of sudden suggests to me a different way to think about it, as tools…).

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a wonderful, positive way to look at it. Thanks for sharing!

      My research papers are typed in LaTeX, which unfortunately doesn’t offer an easy way to check for typos. There’s theoretically a spell-checking component somewhere, but it catches so many non-errors that it’s usually a waste of time to run.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is amazing advice. For me I struggle with this sometimes too because as an undergraduate English literature and Journalism major it can be very disheartening to get a draft for an essay back and see so much critisicm. Luckily it is all through email responses, otherwise if they went through it with me I may not be so calm and composed. Well done for the great advice, and it is very useful to remember.


    • Thanks! I agree, it’s *much* easier to process feedback when it’s received in writing. (Fortunately that’s how I get most of my feedback as a graduate student, too.) It can also be easier to avoid thinking about, though; hence Step 2.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is something I’ve gotten a lot better at as I’ve gotten older. Grad school helped a lot on this front– econ is pretty brutal, and watching professors tear each other’s work down in order to make that work bullet-proof was really illuminating. It is much easier not to take criticism personally because I know it will make my work better and more likely to get published.


  7. Pingback: One year: blogging and finding myself | crazy grad mama

Comments are closed.