How to Deal with Creative Criticism – Skinny Artist

How to Deal with Creative Criticism

how to deal with creative criticism
Listening to people criticize our creative work is never easy, but it’s going to happen. So how do we take a punch in the ego and then get back to work?

The creative writing teacher from hell

In college, I had a creative writing teacher who told us the first week of class that his job wasn’t to encourage us, or in his words ‘blow sunshine up our ass’, but instead he was there to make us better writers by exposing the flaws in our work.

We called him Mr. Sunshine.

Instead of immediately walking down to the registration office to get an add/drop slip as I probably should have done, I decided to stay in the class figuring that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as it seemed.

Looking back now, I learned two important things in that class. First, that teaching makes some people incredibly mean and bitter. Second, I learned how to take a punch in the ego when it came to people criticizing my writing.

Learning how to take a punch

Maybe you’ve been there too.

Maybe you took a creative writing, fine arts, or design class where weekly critiques of your work were the norm. Is so, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

If you never had the pleasure of having your work ripped to shreds in a classroom setting like this, then you may have had attended an art show or perhaps an adjudicated creative writing contest where your creative work was eviscerated in front of your very eyes.

Maybe Satan my creative writing professor was right after all. Maybe all of that pain constructive criticism was well-deserved and maybe it has made me a better writer as a result. I’m still not convinced that this little sadistic character building exercise was worth it, but I can tell you that along the way I learned that there is a right way and a wrong way to take a critical punch.

Be willing to listen to criticism

First of all, you have to be willing to show up and listen.

If all you really want is a pat on the back and a “great job”, then you’re probably better off just showing your creative work to Grandma and skip putting it out there where other people can see and comment on it.

Let’s face it, everyone is not going to like everything that you do.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that your work sucks, it just means that some people are going to like and some people won’t. So you can either keep your creative work hidden away in your basement, or you can let it out and expose it to potential criticism.

To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. ~Elbert Hubbard

In other words, if you decide to put your creative work out there, you’re going to get both positive and negative feedback along the way. You don’t have to have to agree with it, but you should be willing to listen to what they have to say and see what you can potentially learn from it.

Also when you are listening to creative feedback, make sure you get specifics and find out what exactly they liked and didn’t like about your work. Nothing irritated me more during these classroom critiques than when someone said they just didn’t like the ‘overall theme’ or that it just didn’t ‘feel right’.

Don’t take it personally

It’s not about you, it’s about your work.

As much as we tend to identify with our creative work, it’s not our child and it’s not a part of us. It’s just a product or our imagination and not a piece of our creative soul. We need to find a safe distance from our creative work in order to not feel personally attacked when they tell us that for whatever reason it just doesn’t work for them.

So instead of sitting there plotting your revenge for when it’s their turn to be critiqued, make an effort to really listen to what they’re saying and realize that it’s not really about you but this thing that you created.

Does this mean that you’ll enjoy these creative critiques? Probably not, but at least you can put on your big kid pants and listen to what they have to say.

I realize that it’s easy to get defensive when someone is criticizing something that you’ve spent a great deal of time and effort creating, but you also need to keep it in perspective.

Please don’t feed the trolls

Also, keep in mind that all of this only applies to actual constructive criticism from your fellow creative artists and not the random angry rantings of the internet trolls.

While even the most jaded classroom has established rules for creative critiques, the internet, unfortunately, has no such safeguards.

It’s one thing when someone sitting across from you in class starts talking about your creative work, it’s completely different when some anonymous angry troll shows up one day on your website or Facebook and unleashes some venomous tirade that has nothing to do with you or your actual work.

Don’t waste your time or energy trying to defend yourself from this type of troll-ian criticism because they’re not really interested in having a discussion with you anyway. They just wanted to go off on someone and you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Finally, keep in mind that no matter what you do, your work is never going to be loved by everyone.

People are going to criticize your creative work, but that’s okay because your work will eventually define your audience. Those who like it will stick around and wait for you to create something else, while those who don’t like what you doing, will wander off towards their next adventure.

Fight or Flight?

So how do you respond after getting punched in the face with criticism of your creative work?

  • Do you sulk off licking your wounds and begin to secretly plot your revenge?
  • Do you fight back defending your work proving that you are the smartest person in the room?
  • Do you listen to what they have to say and then try to learn what you can from it?
  • Do you simply ignore them and assume they don’t know what they’re talking about

Take a moment to share your thoughts (and horror stories) with us in the comment section below.

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About the Author

Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.

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(24) comments

Great topic, Drew!

It’s always helpful for me to remember that I only like about 10% of the art that’s presented to me on any given day. Whether I’m overly-critical or not, I shouldn’t expect 100% of people to like my art either. (If art endeavors were a ‘one-size-fits-all’ proposition, we’d all be screwed.)

My job is to make the best work I can. Once a piece is done and I’m obviously pleased enough to present it, it’s not my responsibility to make everyone love it or “get” it (sometimes I don’t get it either). Being open to feedback, positive or negative, can only help me understand what other people are seeing. Whether or not I choose to take that back into the studio is up to me.

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    Thanks Shana and you’re absolutely right about the 10% thing. When I think about all of the music I hear everyday on the radio or the articles I read online, I realize just how much stuff is out there that I don’t like. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it sucks, just that it’s not what I’m into. So like you said, why should we expect everyone to like everything that we do?

    Well that’s the thing. The brain part of me understands all of this and accepts it, but at the same time, the emotional part of me still gets hurt and feels like crap when someone doesn’t like something I do. No matter how much you might understand it — it still hurts, which is why I think that it’s not really about if the criticism hurts you or not (it usually does), it’s about what you do after that. I think you summed it up perfectly when you said, “whether or not I choose to take that back into the studio is up to me.” In other words, it’s okay to feel hurt, but then let it go and get on with your work. Thanks again Shana for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us!

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Oh and I want to add that creative writing teacher you had should have be called up on the carpet. I had an English teacher in school announce to the class she was supposed to teacher English grammar and literature. “I hate literature!” she stated.

Too many uninspired wastes on space in the school system! It’s outrageous and the educational system sure as hell needs a completely paradigm shift like Sir Kenneth Robinson talks about in his TED Talks.

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    Looking back now, you’re right Catherine, that teacher probably should have been knocked down on the carpet and dragged off to some empathy training seminar, but instead he most likely received tenure. Unfortunately, he’s far from alone and you have to wonder how many other creative souls he had the opportunity to crush.

    I realize that there’s a fine line between offering constructive criticism and empty praise, but there also has to be some responsibility to encourage these writers, artists, and musicians while they are still early in their creative development.

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Interesting article! The moments of criticism are the ‘only’ moments I am glad to have “my” age.. as I’ve learned to deal, to ignore, or to learn from it.

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    Thanks Debora and you’re right that it is nice once you reach that point in your life or career when you have enough confidence in yourself and your work to ignore the critics. We are all traveling our own creative path and it is up to us to have the determination (or stubbornness) to stay the course even when those around us are telling us that we are heading in the wrong direction. Sometimes you just have to put your head down, follow you intuition, and do what you do :)

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Vil-Madinah Gharib

I have only taken art in high school and I failed four consecutive years. Now a self motivated artist my art is sought from the Middle East to Tennessee. Contrary to what it should be said, my paintings are like my children because I give birth to them as I apply each color. I take my painting very personal and its just what I do. However, when it comes to constructive criticism, its ok with me. Its important to me how you view my offsprings , if I have dressed them i the colors that fit them best, is their hair combed into an elaborate style that bests suites the painting, I do listen very closely and take personal notes on what people say. I am an eccentric person and my creative process generates from within and unfortunately there is no safe distance from me and my creativity.I have been offended at the same time I understand that no one can please everyone all the time. Its truly in the eye of the beholder.

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    You’re right, it is very hard to not get emotionally attached to our creative work. I don’t care if you are a painter, a writer, a musician, or someone who crochets sweaters for cats — when we put so much of ourselves into something we tend to be connected for better or for worse. So when someone says something bad about our work, it can often feel like we’re being personally attacked.

    I’m with you. I’ll admit that I still get hurt when someone doesn’t like something that I do, but I’ve learned that no matter what they say, I can’t let them stop me from moving forward and doing what I’m here to do. The most important question, that Shana talked about in her comment above, is how are we going to react to it? Are we going to stop doing what we do, or are we going to find a way to shrug it off and get back to work?

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    I appreciated your article. When I first started showing and selling my paintings I was overly sensitive about my work. Although I received many positive comments, just one comment that I felt was negative made me feel that I wanted to go to bed and throw the covers over my head and not come out for a week.. Over time I realized that I needed to adjust my attitude and when I did, I was able to handle constructive and unconstructive criticism better. Thanks for the article. Best Wises!

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      Thanks Sandra and I know exactly what you mean. Research has shown that most of us have a strong negativity bias, which means that we tend to exaggerate and remember negative feedback much more strongly than positive feedback. As silly as it seems when you really think about it, one negative comment can ruin your entire day. Because negative feedback is just part of the game, we need to learn how to deal with it not allow it to discourage us. That doesn’t mean that it necessarily gets any easier, but at least we can survive it and move on with our work.. Thanks again Sandra for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us!

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[…] not really fair because as a writer, I never actually went to art school because as I was stuck in “writer’s school” which I’m pretty certain […]

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[…] How to Deal with Creative Criticism […]

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[…] What I soon discovered, however, was the fact that once you learned how to read and master elementary school grammar, there really wasn’t that much someone else could teach you about becoming a better writer — other than you had to sit down and write (and learn how to take a punch in the ego). […]

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Rowsie

I wrote a screenplay once, and sent it to the most qualified and level headed person I could think of to read. he wrote back, starting with “overall, it was good, but…” and wrote a very specific list of things he didn’t like or things he didn’t think would work. At first, it felt like a punch in the stomach to hear all of that stuff about my baby, my first completed screenplay.

But, once I got over the initial shock, I realised, much as I loved it, he was right about some things (See, it was helpful he’d been so specific, I knew exactly which parts he was talking about, which themes, which scenes or lines were out of place) so I chopped and changed and edited it to within an inch of its life. It became almost a completely different animal, but a more streamlined, perfected version of itself, and I realised, when finished, I was far more proud of the completed draft than the one he had critiqued in the first place.

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Minixys

I listen to them and swallow it and then I cry about it for an hour or so and then I lay out what will help me to plan my revenge of becoming the best

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    Well they do say that success is the best revenge ;)

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My responses usually depend on how the criticism is worded. Trolls, for example, only deserve to be ignored, blocked or banned. Then there’s constructive criticism, honest and polite at the same time, analytical and sometimes even offering ideas and suggestions. This is my favourite kind of feedback, and I appreciate it even more than comments telling me how amazing my work is. I don’t always agree with my critics – many issues are just a matter of personal taste -, but discussions with them broaden my horizons which I’m very thankful for.

There are also people who do make some valid points when criticizing, but express it in a really insulting way. A couple of years ago I stumbled over a website that specialized in quoting bad stories from the internet and criticizing them in an insulting way, calling the authors stupid, brainless and so on. Technically the critics were right, because those stories were indeed exceptionally bad. Yet I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the authors most of whom were only 13 or 14 and just beginners. The only people receiving mean feedback I don’t always feel sorry for are authors of legendary stories that cause downright traumas when you read them.

Now I’m glad that website doesn’t exist anymore. Moreover, as I joined the administration team of the largest German website for fanfiction and original stories where most of the criticized works were from I was happy to find out that they did have an eye on those critics. I believe that every writing community should protect its users, no matter how bad their writing is. With a little friendliness and encouragement there’s a chance for them to improve.

As for my personal experience, I remember only one critic who wasn’t able to be polite. I tried to remain calm, yet as our discussion went on, her tone towards me didn’t get any better, even after I told her I didn’t like the way how she talked to me. Since she didn’t seem to take me seriously I decided to simply ignore her. Judging by the level of her aggressiveness and another conflict she was involved in that person probably has some serious issues with her ego.

So much for my horror story. :)

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    You’re right that so much of it depends on the spirit and presentation of the criticism. I think that most of us are okay with getting some degree of feedback on our work, but there is a big difference between making a valid point and simply spewing venom at someone because the relative anonymity of the internet makes it possible. There is also an issue of authenticity and empathy that comes when the person being critiqued understands that the other person has been there and has their best interest at heart. It’s kind of the difference between having your work critiqued by a fellow author or artist in your class versus being graded by the professor. When it comes to critiquing anything in the creative arts, we have to remember that everything is subjective, and nobody has it all figured out. As Hemmingway once said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” While some, by their experience, may have travelled farther on their creative journey–none of us have reached the top of the mountain.

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Thanks so much for this article and your website. Yes when does criticism go from being constructive and helpful to crossing the line and becoming mean spirited, petty or downright vicious or vitriolic.
Working with a “book doctor” now, and I did get some benefit from what she had to say, and have a better understanding of what to do, but some of the comments were off the wall: my heroine is humorless, has no self esteem, no common sense and hasn’t learned anything from her mistakes. (oh and she sounds bipolar, delusional and like a teenager)
Reminded of Julia Cameron’s chapter in the Artist’s Way on people that belong in your creative “Hall of Monsters” What am I going to do? Become a better writer. Take what I like and leave the rest. Find someone astute and kinder to work with.
This “book doctor” is inappropriate and unprofessional. But I won’t be silenced.

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    Thanks for your kind words Jennifer and you’re right when you said that there is a fine line between constructive criticism and just being critical. Your experience with the “book doctor” reminds me of a few creative writing teachers I had who always seemed to know exactly what the problem was, but rarely had any meaningful advice to fix the issue. It always reminds me of the quote by Kenneth Tynan who said, “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.” Sure we hire editors and proofreaders to look over our work and tell us what might be wrong (in their opinion), but at the same time, they have a responsibility to provide some type of solution or suggestion about what they would do to actually fix the issue and not simply declare it broken and walk away. After all, that’s the difference between paid professional editors and random internet trolls.

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Jaylynn

Thank you for writing this article. I’m a grad student now and I just recently (today, actually) finished a critique for a summer course, and my particular work got what felt like the worst of the criticism. I’ve been in a horrible mood since, wondering “why did I choose to be a graphic designer if I’m obviously not good enough?” This article did shed some light for me though, and it helped remind me that even I have given negative feedback to my peers, and I don’t quite like most of the work in my class. I suppose what makes it difficult to accept negative criticism is when more than just one person out of the class dishes it out; that happened to me today, felt like everyone hated my work and that I was just a mediocre designer. However, these tips were good to read despite that. Thank you for posting

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    Thanks Jaylynn for taking the time to share your story with us. You’re absolutely right that getting any type of negative feedback (i.e. anything less than a gushing compliment) can instantly sap your motivation and put you in a creative funk. Even if several people say something positive, it’s always the one negative comment that sticks in our heads. This is true whether it is an in-class critique, a book review, or a blog post. For whatever reason, we always seem to dismiss the good stuff and focus on the negative. And you’re right that it’s bad enough when one person makes a comment, but it’s even worse when multiple people start dishing it out at the same time. Suddenly, it feels like you’re being attacked by an angry mob and everyone has come to the agreement that you suck as a creative artist.

    That’s no fun.

    The only thing you can really do is to somehow find a way to separate yourself from your work and understand that it’s not necessarily about you or your level or talent, it just means that for whatever reason, this particular piece didn’t work for them. I realize of course this is far easier said than done, but it always reminds me of that quote by Andy Warhol when he said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” In other words, just keep going.

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MEL

Thank you! I have a really hard time because my teachers are really negitive about my work. It feels like they’re overly negative simply because I’m queer and AFAB. It feels so unfair to spend time creating really meaningful self portraits, just to get teared to shreds when the white guy right next to me just painted a tree and gets glowing reviews. Its even worse because I make pieces that mean a lot to me but they always say it doenst have enough concept? It definitely feela unfair but I cant tell if I’m just taking it personally or not.

But regardless I def need some tips to survive getting my BFA without quitting because thats def crossed my mind quite a bit when I get such overly harsh criticism.

Its def really hard to not feel personally attacked when they attack my pieces so harshly. I feel like Im making art just to try to please them at this point and its really not what i want to be doing and not where i want to be.

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