On Handling Criticism

I like to think I handle criticism fairly well. I don’t, but I like to think I do.

I got spoiled this summer, working for fantastic people who constantly praised my work. I was pretty pleased with myself.

Until this week.

A publishing house for which I did a part-time internship in the spring offered to keep sending me manuscripts this summer, so I’ve spent evenings and weekends making comments and changes, doing my best to be professional. (And by “my best,” I mean I tried to sound nice, but I have a hard time sounding professional, because professional always sounds so harsh. But I tried.)

I sent it in and asked for feedback—because it’s a learning experience, right?

He replied, very politely, that I made too many comments and should remember that this author is an award winning, published writer… and though he didn’t say it, the overall impression was, “You’re an intern with little experience; who are you to criticise your betters?”

I closed my laptop and made several cups of Earl Grey. Then I spent three days in a horrible funk, binge-watching TV, reading YA novels, and avoiding my email.

See—told you I don’t handle criticism well.

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The whole time, this shadow loomed—the knowledge that at some point, I had to respond.

Finally, I wrote a long letter detailing the whole thing to a friend, and as I wrote, I realised a few things.

This man, a professional with years of experience, took the time to send feedback that I requested. He did so politely (I know it doesn’t sound like it, but remember, I told you my impression; his actual wording was courteous and ended on a “I’m sure with practise you’ll get very good at this” note). He gave me something to work with and learn from.

But most importantly, it’s his publishing house, not mine. He has the right to ask for whatever kind of edits he wants, and I have no right to criticise that. I’m doing a job for him, and I can’t force him to want the job done my way.

And the truth is, he’s right: I’m young. I have limited experience. I agreed to this internship claiming I want to learn—so I must be willing to take criticism, to make mistakes and learn how to fix them rather than pouting when they’re pointed out.

I want to make something clear here: I still don’t think my edits were wrong; the problems I pointed out are all valid concerns.

But the issue is not whether I’m right. No matter how right I may be, when I’m working for someone else, the highest priority is what they want. Besides—do I really care that much? Maybe I’m just being stubborn because I’m embarrassed and it’s easier to say, “You’re wrong” than, “I’m sorry; I’ll try to improve.”

Though criticism is never fun, it’s teaching me about flexibility and humility. Oh yeah—and about editing.

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4 thoughts on “On Handling Criticism

  1. Love this post! It’s very well written and funny to boot. I’m glad you’re learning things from the publishing house intern and that you want to be an editor! Me too! I’m starting an internship in the fall – Sept. 28 – and I’m super nervous/excited about it. Here’s hoping I’ll take criticism the same way you did, with a mature air… cups of tea and YA novels and all. Good luck!

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  2. Elizabeth – I worked as a freelance copyeditor for several summers, doing computer science textbooks. Your story reminded me of the time I got a call from the editor about my work on Chapter 1. I had felt the author was talking down to the upper-level students who would be using the book, and I had made a ton of comments. When the editor called, I could hear that he was talking through clenched teeth – he was calm and professional, but I could hear that he had just gotten an irate earful from the author, who was apparently “very jealous of his word choice.” I agreed to redo the chapter as a “light edit” instead of trying to rewrite it for him, and the book got done without further conflict. Looking back, I should have talked to the editor about my concerns before doing the edit, as I was doing more than they asked me to do. Live and learn! Hope you find many wonderful things in the editing business – I enjoy your writing, and I know a good editor can make a huge difference to a book.

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