How to Respond If Your Writing Got Ripped to Shreds

How to Respond If Your Writing Got Ripped to Shreds

So your writing gets ripped to shreds. Discouraged, pissed off, humiliated, vulnerable, what's your reaction? A) Tell the editor she's wrong and punch her in the face. B) Rewrite it. In this blog post, we’ll talk about why criticism is actually a good thing and how to respond when your client doesn’t like your writing.

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.

What is criticism?

“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:

How to react to harsh criticism

  1. Breathe. Breathing helps you calm down and feel safe. Remember that if you’ve made a mistake, it doesn’t mean you are a mistake. When people critique your work, it teaches you that however wonderful and amazing your writing seems to you, it’s just words on a page. And those words aren’t your arm or leg. You can toss them around, dress them up, and cut them without mercy. When somebody critiques your work, it’s not you they’re criticizing. It’s the words. And you can always make them sound better.
  1. Get to the root of what’s wrong. Ask questions. If you get feedback in the form of “I don’t like it,” ask the reviewer to specify what exactly isn’t working and why. 
  1. Take some time to recover. When you feel stressed out and angry, you need time to recover from this experience. Don’t rush to defend yourself against negative feedback. Simply say, “It’s important to me that I get this right. I’ll take a look at that and get back to you.” 
  1. Find the truth. Take a look at the feedback and try to find the truth in it. There’s always at least a kernel of truth in what people are telling you. If your reviewer wants to tweak a few things and ensure it’s word perfect, show them a little empathy. All they want is to get the best result, right?
  1. Share your view of things. Get back to your reviewer and acknowledge what you’ve heard, what you accept, and what you commit to doing. If there’s something you don’t agree with, you should make good arguments in a way that makes your reviewer receptive. 
  1. Never throw anything away. They might not work for this project, but your words could come in handy for future jobs. Whenever you write something, remember that it can be recycled and put to better use.

What’s the best way to respond to criticism?

Let's look at a few common situations.

Situation 1.

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:

  • AP Stylebook – a go-to English style and usage guide that dictates basic rules for grammar and punctuation, numbers, spelling, capitalization, abbreviations, acronyms, and much more. 
  • W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) – a wide range of recommendations for making content more accessible and readable.
  • Search quality evaluator guidelines – instructions for Google raters on how to rate the quality of web pages and the relevance of search results. Google raters are people who Google hires to tell if websites are good or bad.
  • William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style – a well-known style manual that offers practical advice on improving writing skills. It's the grandfather of all books on writing (including my own) and is still relevant today.

Situation 2.

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."

Situation 3.

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.

Situation 4.

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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