Fear and Criticism: Walking the Fine Line

Photo by University of Salford.

Inspired by Anna Meade’s recent blog post.

Putting your fiction out there for criticism can be a nerve-wracking prospect. Most writers I know have, at one time or another, believed that their work was no good. Some have frequently considered quitting. A few have never started at all (they’re the “aspiring” writers). A few writers, even some published ones, never leave the safe little cradle of universal praise they’ve built for themselves. Letting fear get the best of you is one of the classic writer pitfalls.

A good friend of mine gave me a great piece of advice back in college. At the time, I was consumed with anxiety over an upcoming astronomy test, and I was terrified I would fail. He rolled his eyes and said “okay, so you fail — and then what? The Earth spins into the sun?” His response, thought not traditionally comforting, shocked me back into a proportional response.

So. You release a fledgling piece of fiction out into the world. A piece that means something to you, something you’ve slaved and worked over. Someone hates it. Someone mocks it. Or, the most likely and painful scenario, no one notices. Your little piece of fiction toddles onto the information superhighway and is immediately run over by a twenty-ton Twitter semi.

What then? The Earth spins into the sun?

Look, setbacks are going to happen. Not everyone is going to like your work. Someone out there might think you’re the worst thing to happen to fiction since reality TV. Are you going to let any of that stop you?

Don’t. Facing the fear of rejection (or indifference) is one of the most important things you’ll ever do as a writer.

The biggest trick will be learning which criticism to take to heart. Not all criticism is useful. Neither is all praise, for that matter. Some of it is just noise, better left forgotten, even when your inner critic is dying to absorb it into your very soul. To grow as a writer, you have to have confidence in your work, but be open-minded to its potential flaws. You have to be mercilessly critical, but not to the point where you compromise the reasons you started writing in the first place. It’s a tricky business, and there’s no clear formula.

The first time I submitted a piece of fiction for publication, I was roundly rejected. That was kinda tough. The second time got easier. I kept practicing, I kept submitting. Eventually, people started noticing me, then paying me. It’s the same thing with flash fiction and Web competitions. The first time, you think no one will care, or you’ll get singled out for mockery. You just have to keep going. Your only alternative is giving up, and let’s face it, giving up is really boring. Persevering in the face of adversity is way more fun.

A great place to begin is to find people you can trust to be tough — readers who know what you’re going for and are willing to tell you when you’re not getting there. But sooner or later, to keep growing, you’re going to have to release your work into a cold and uncaring world.

But don’t worry. The earth won’t spin into the sun. Not today.

  • Honored to inspire such a fine post, Daniel! I think you put it perfectly. With the exception of the fact that if people don’t like my writing, the Earth WILL spin into the sun. Moo hoo HA HA!

    • Well, we all knew you were a special snowflake, Anna. 😀

  • I think that’s one of the things that’s made me move past my fanfic community…they were not being tough enough! Still love ’em, but I like to hear more than one voice.

    • Totally understand — that’s why I’m trying to find new eyes for my own work now. Thanks for the comment, Elise!

  • You’re absolutely right! When I let people read my WIPs or MS, I get way more excited about the negative feedback than I do the glowing reviews. Because, the things that are wrong I can fix, which will just strengthen my writing!!!

    • Me too, actually. I think it’s a great sign that you’re on your way as a writer. I’m always saying to beta readers, “hurt me bad!”

  • J. A. Bennett

    “giving up is really boring. Persevering in the face of adversity is way more fun.” LOVE it!

    • Thank you!

    • Double-agreed. It is awfully boring to give up!

      If not, it would be a much more integral part of storytelling… you know that part of the mystery novel, right after the Gruesome Murder, the second Distracting Incident followed by the Big Twist, Where Our Brash Protagonist Gives Up In Defeat to Watch Diagnosis Murder Reruns & Eat Cheetos?

      Yeah, didn’t think so. xD

      • J. A. Bennett

        lol! If you where writing a comedy maybe 😉

      • I loved this response.

  • So true, Daniel. And you remind me of a very similar reaction my older sister shared with me when I was a new parent worrying about whether my child would reach each milestone as he should. She said, don’t worry, he’ll be walking and talking by the time he’s 18 at least. And then you’ll probably wish he wouldn’t. 🙂

    We have to let our babies of all types out into the world.
    –Susan

    • That’s a great analogy, Susan! Thanks for the comment.

  • Wonderful post! Really, you make such a fantastic point. The fear of failure can be a paralyzing thing–it makes any type of progress, even just adding more words to the page more difficult, and it certainly can create pause when it comes to sending your work out into the open. But you have to get past it.

    I’ve found that getting critiques is not only a great way to improve your writing exponentially (with the right critique partners, that is), but it can also–somewhat strangely–help you get over the fear of failure. So you get a bad critique–so what? Now you have something to improve and something to look out for in the future. Now you’re a better writer and you have a better WIP to show for it.

    Not so bad after all. 🙂

    • Agreed. There’s no way to skip this vital step and still improve as a writer. It has to be faced. But you have to be ready for honest criticism, I think. It can be tough even when you’re totally prepared.

      • It can definitely be tough. Sometimes I’ve found it helps to read over a critique, then take some time away from it before you do any editing. Something about knowing what the critique said, but allowing your emotions to settle helps me do a much more thorough and detached edit.

  • I love this post. You have to put yourself out there and leave the safe bubble to make any real progress as a writer. Nothing to fear but fear itself, right?

  • Great post and I completely agree. Well said! All the great ideas trapped between your two ears (or in your computer) will change nothing unless you put it out there. Words are powerful if we give them the power.

    • Exactly. The best book in the world, if kept in a drawer, might as well be a paperweight.

  • This is very true 🙂 I’m trying to learn all I can about critiquing right now, in order to improve my writing. I think a good critique partner/group can do the world of good for a writer. I do get a pang of fear when I think about people reading my work right now, but I think it’s humbling to have that flicker of doubt; it makes you strive for improvement, instead of floating along in a bubble of ignorance!
    Great post, as always 🙂

    • Finding the right people can make all the difference. I’ve only recently discovered that, and it’s been tremendous. And yeah, we all need to push forward and improve.

  • Angie Richmond

    I swear that some days I think that my writing is horrible. Other days I think it’s brilliant. Most days I think it’s mediocre. I’ve learned that giving up isn’t going to get me anywhere. Trying, well, that just may.

    Great post, as usual!<—–Please take that comment to heart 🙂

    • Thank you, Angie! I think that’s a challenge we all face.