At the beginning of my writing career, I used to receive lots of curt feedback from my employer. There was only one word he used to give me this feedback. That word was “bullshit.” My employer’s criticism was nowhere near appropriate, and if I had decided to quit, it would have been reasonable. But I chose to stay.
Because I didn’t want to see the word “bullshit” in my boss’s comments on my writing, I trained myself to see flaws in my content and fix them before submitting my drafts for review. Little by little, I learned how to write better until my employer trusted me to publish my articles on the blog without his review.
As a content writer, you’ll be critiqued, especially when you’re just starting out. Criticism comes in many forms. It can be expressed using words like “bullshit,” or it can be wrapped in gentle comments. But no matter how it’s delivered, you need to learn how to find truth in negative feedback and how to respond to it without going on the defensive.
Before we talk about how to respond to criticism, let's make sure criticism absolutely means what you've always assumed it meant.
“Criticism” comes from the Greek word "krino," which means “able to judge, value, interpret.” As you can see, criticism doesn't need to be negative. In fact, it can lead to new ideas – it's enough to listen and learn.
“Why doesn't my client's view on this copy match with what I see?" Ask yourself this question to find an even more powerful idea hidden behind your and your client's perspective. If you approach critique this way, it becomes a positive force – something that can improve your original idea.
To stimulate the flow of creativity, rather than stop it, criticism needs to be constructive. If somebody doesn't like your copy, they shouldn't simply say, “This does not work.” They should first explain the problem and then propose an improvement that would make it work. If somebody doesn't understand your idea, they shouldn't simply say “That’s unclear to me." Instead, they need to first point to the specific spot that is unclear and then propose possible alternative interpretations: “Do you mean X or Y?”
Of course, not everyone who criticizes your work frames their points as positive and helpful suggestions. Many would just rip your draft to shreds. In this case, you should leave your ego at the door, and have the humility to ask where you messed up.
Here are a few tips on how to react to harsh criticism:
Let's look at a few common situations.
Your client asks for changes that will introduce errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, or consistency. Plus, these changes don't make any sense to you. Your response? Point that out. You can use a third-party authority to back you up. Here are a few resources you can reference to defend yourself:
Your client says "The piece is too generic. It lacks impact." Your reaction? Accept the client's point of view and tell them what you need to make the piece better. For example:
"I'm sorry to hear you're not happy with the piece and I can see why you might think that it's too generic. I would love to better understand the goals that you’d like this blog post to achieve so I could rework it. Could you please take a few minutes to fill out the attached brief? I’m convinced that with your help, a second draft will come much better."
Your client likes big words and flowery copy and thinks that's what readers really want. If so, you need to come up with strong arguments to explain why fluffy copy makes the message less effective, less persuasive, or less likely to convert.
For example, you can say that wordy sentences and business-speak can obscure the meaning of the content and make it difficult for your audience to understand what your product does and how they can benefit from it. If sentences make unsubstantiated claims, they don't build trust. If the copy is self-absorbed, it will turn off visitors because it doesn't appeal to the visitor’s self-interest. Abstract language is invisible, it doesn't create mental images. Cliches make you sound like everybody else and don't help you differentiate from your competitors. Passive voice is musty, boring, and dull. It deprives writing of power.
Remember, being professional means feeling confident to show what you know.
Your client doesn't care about the message, and just wants some filler content to fit the work of the designer. In this case, you need to make it clear for your client that content isn’t just content; it's about communicating how the business can solve the problems of its potential customers. When a website has filler content, it can't attract the attention of visitors, no matter how beautiful the design is. Because content isn't a design element. It's something people actually read. Design supports the content, not the other way around.
When somebody points out flaws in your copy, copywriters tend to take it personally. And this leads to defensive behavior — something that can spoil relationships between you and your clients.
The good news is, being able to get critiqued without flinching is a skill you can learn.
Next time your work gets ripped to shreds, try to respond using the tips in this article. Pay attention to how you feel when reading negative feedback and how you feel after you respond to it calmly and constructively.
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