Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Fireproof and Over a Foot Thick: Dealing With Negative Criticism

As I shake the dust of sleep from stiff limbs, I fall into my morning routine: Fire up the coffee, let the dog out to put a little yellow water on the backyard fence, flick on the computer to check my status in the world of the interweb (views on my website, Facebook likes, Twitter notifications, yadda, yadda). Alas, I find a DM in my Twitter message feed that looks like something other than the usual automated spam. Two months into my great Twitter experiment and mostly pleased thus far with the result, I am anxious to read on.

But as I start to read, my coffee mug halts forgotten a quarter inch from my lips.

Hate mail! What?
dealing with negative criticism
Don't let critics burn you like they burn me

Apparently I've offended someone. A paraphrase of their message:  This is ridiculous. This is awful. How could anyone hold this opinion? You trivialize everything we real writers do.

In short, I am dumb, a bad writer, intellectually worthless, and offensive. Worst of all, it is quite clear that the person did not even read the article in question but made the snap judgement based on the title alone. 

I feel sick. It seems like a lot of hate over a rather bland how-to article. How can so much judgement be channeled my way based on a seven-word title hardly representative of my full thesis? 

How do I react to this torrent of nastiness? I try to collect my cool and form a response coated with a thin, non-patronizing glaze of honey. 

Me: Did you read the article? I think you will see that the opinion you are criticizing is actually only one part in the puzzle. 

Response: You couldn't pay me to read your article. (verbatim)

I must admit, I am highly offended. I want to load up my biggest guns and fire back. Something terrible that will tear as big of hole in the offender as they have torn in me. 

Perhaps overly meek, I settle on: How rude! It's a mark of our shortcomings as a culture that we put so much stock in mere titles without verifying the substance of the article for ourselves. I wish you the best of luck with your writing. 

Then I do something I've never done before on Twitter, block him. I'm too much of a coward to read his response.

My mood is thoroughly soured. My pleasant morning is now stained with gloom. Plans to plow through 3,000 words on my current work-in-progress no longer sound fun. Instead, I opt for a hike in the rain.

The Thing About Redwoods

There are many lessons that can be learned from a redwood tree. They are the tallest trees on Earth. They are near the oldest as well. The stand silent, modest, un-boastful in their grandeur. They let their beautiful work, the millennia (yes, that's right) of growth stand for itself. They look down on the rest of us, unconcerned as we dither about hyper-focused on our useless problems. And their bark, which can grow more than a foot thick, is nearly fireproof.

nasty criticism is a part of our world now
The bark of a redwood is nearly fireproof
I admit that I have thin skin. Criticism eats at me like acid on a glass etching. More than once I've woken in the middle of the night, rolling and tossing as I agonized about some stupid thing somebody has said to me. As much as I work on it, as much as I try to convince myself it doesn't matter, it does.

As a writer, I'm told this could be a problem.

The social media age has ushered in a new time where anonymous "haters" have been given the ultimate platform to vomit their nastiness un-filtered for all the world to see. Even the most brilliant artists, writers, athletes, politicians, and people among us are subjected to the most hyper-critical, mean-spirited criticism in history. It's terrible. It demeans us all as a world culture. Things that would never be said to a person's face are said to their digital avatars with reckless abandon. Uncaring, un-empathetic hate. 

How do we handle this volume of criticism? Bury our heads in the sand and wait for it to pass? Respond with sugar? Saccharin? Even more vigorous hate? Writers are a group often prone to withdrawing from social confrontation. That's partly why we hide our words in paper and on the computer screen. As a result, however, we are thrust into a world where we are viewed as faceless names on a page and judged harshly for works that we poured our blood, sweat and souls into. A single missed typo, a careless bit of punctuation, a bad paragraph, can be enough for people to launch into a vicious tirade against us on social media, talking about how bad our writing is, how dumb we are, how worthless our hard work is. Imagine if you took an entire year's worth of work for a carpenter and took to social media bashing them for the one nail they didn't quite pound flat.

I suppose I have to learn from the redwood. Grow bark so thick as to render me nearly fireproof. To poke skyward until the opinions of others are so far beneath me that I no longer hear them. Why should I care anyway? Those critics will come and go in such a blink and I'll stand for centuries after they've moved on. 

Until then, I am but a tiny sapling, unable to dodge the harsh, steel-toed boots of my enemies.

If you enjoyed this post, consider signing up for my mailing list. I blog about all sorts of crazy, educational, entertaining, and occasionally funny topics from what makes an effective first paragraph in a novel to giant redwoodsmedieval sailboats, the ancient Mayans and more. If you do sign up, you will get a once-a-week update on my posts and NOTHING ELSE! No spam, no selling your email to third parties. Okay, if I ever get around to publishing one of these numerous books I've been working on for years, I might send out an email letting you know. In the meantime thanks for reading.

find us on facebook

All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions


  1. Yech, I'm sorry you had to put up with that kind of rubbish. It sounds like you dealt with it in a civilised and sensible way. Sometimes the only thing to do is break off communication.

    I confess I'm pretty thin-skinned about this kind of stuff too. I can take criticism of my work (I think), but when it gets personal it really gets to me. On a forum once I had someone basically tell me "what you're saying is boring and no one cares because you're not famous." The mods jumped on them, but I was still pretty shaken. I know I'm not famous and people don't automatically care what I have to say, but does that mean I should sit quietly and never say anything? To this, I say HA! You can't talk with offending someone, but you should go ahead and talk anyway.

    1. You're right, anytime you say something meaningful it is bound to offend someone. I guess we just have to learn to deal with it! It's silly to think that only famous people have something interesting to say. And who knows? You might be famous someday! Thanks for reading and the positive support!

  2. Hey Brian,
    sorry you had to deal with that, but as you pointed out, it is the dark side of social media. We move on, but the sting remains.

    On the positive side, I too have only been on twitter a few months, and I rate you and your blogs as one of about the top 3 most interesting new people I have met.

    1. Wow! What a great compliment! I have enjoyed reading your writings as well and look forward to more in the future!