Navigate Feedback

Develop a “thick skin” and learn how to distinguish between useful and useless criticism.

Responding to your own or someone else’s writing is a complex, subjective process. Evaluating your work, your peers’ work, and published writing can be extraordinarily difficult. Unlike a math question that has a single correct answer, the criteria for excellence in writing vary according to your communication situation.

What constitutes excellence depends in large part on the writer’s audience, purpose, voice, and media. For example, you would use different standards to judge the success of an editorial on the plight of the homeless, a love letter, or a final exam essay for a course on economic theory. Plus, sometimes a document has many problems and you need to be careful that you prioritize your critique, emphasizing major problems with logic and content development, for example, rather than sentence-level issues.

Because the criteria that readers will use to evaluate your work shift according to changes in your communication situation, no ideal standards of excellence can be defined. As a result, your instructors cannot provide you with prose models or formulas that will help you write in all situations. There are no perfect essays that you can mimic.

The Subjective Nature of Reading and Interpreting

The process of evaluating manuscripts is doubly complicated by the subjective nature of reading and interpretation. As you have probably noticed when you share your work with teachers and friends, different readers often draw conflicting conclusions about a text’s purpose or quality. (Editors of professional journals and magazines often ask three critics to examine a manuscript for publication because they need a third vote to break the tie.) For example, a reader who likes the persona that you project in your prose and who agrees with your opinion on the subject may look for the best in your papers, whereas a reader who disagrees with your thesis or who finds your tone in an essay to be pedantic or condescending may be more inclined to note places where you have failed to provide sufficient evidence. If your ideas are based on theories that your readers hold as self-evident truths, then those readers are likely to think of you as remarkably commonsensical. In turn, readers who have a different theoretical base may be more inclined to dismiss you and your work as misguided.

Regardless of whether they use the input of others before writing, all serious writers share their drafts and completed products with critics. For most writers, accepting criticism is a way of life. Seasoned writers learn to appreciate tough criticism because they know a thorough evaluation means that they are being treated with professional respect.

At first, you may find it painful to receive criticisms of your manuscripts from your peers or instructor, but with practice you will learn what every writer knows: You can develop more original ideas and produce more effective documents by sharing your work with others. With practice, you will learn not to be emotionally distressed by what may seem to be unkind remarks. Remember that constructive criticism is not a personal attack even though it may seem that way when you first hear it. Instead of immediately dismissing people’s suggestions or trying to argue with them, thank your readers for being honest and conscientious enough to seriously evaluate your work. With even more practice, you will learn to respond to and benefit from tough criticism.

Of course, sometimes you will need to reject a reviewer’s comments. Though well intended, some people just miss the mark when reviewing your work, and others are so overly critical that you are too overwhelmed and defensive to consider their comments seriously. While you should always contemplate the advice of your critics, you need not agree with all of their comments.