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How to Handle Negative Criticism

If you work in a creative field, it’s a guarantee that you’ll eventually receive feedback and criticism. Not all criticism is going to be positive and sometimes feedback will make you outright question your career choice.

Most clients provide constructive criticism meant to help you improve your skills or write a piece better. Some won’t bother to comment at all, and will instead simply publish whatever you submitted.

Readers of pieces we write, too, may provide feedback, and often less tactfully than a client would.

Criticism can be a great thing. Someone else’s feedback offers us insight from a perspective other than our own, helping us to get inside the minds of our clients and our audiences so that we can better relate to them and, ultimately, write better work.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, feedback can be entirely negative and intended to tear us down.  Inherently negative feedback can make us seriously believe that we’re in the wrong line of work.

Only if you let it, though.

There is positivity in negative, unjust, and unwarranted criticism and feedback. If you’ve been subject to having your work trashed and your skills called into question, read on, because there is a needle in the haystack.

And I’m going to tell you how to find it.

Finding positivity in negative feedback is like finding a needle in a haystack.
Finding positivity in negative feedback can be like finding a needle in the haystack, but it’s there.

My experience with negative feedback

A few months ago one of my clients forwarded me an email from someone who read an article I had written. The reader listed a number of “factual inaccuracies” I allegedly included in the piece I wrote for my client. He then listed his credentials in the field I wrote about and stated that he wanted to write on a freelance basis for my client.

And that he should do so in lieu of the author of that article – me.

The reader attached a Word document with highlights on the sections he claimed I misrepresented information or provided incorrect facts. My client asked me to consider these notes and to get back to him with my thoughts and any relevant corrections.

I’ll be honest: I was pissed. Not because I received criticism, but because my integrity was called into question. I put immense value in integrity and trust, and if either are tarnished, then I feel my relationship with a client is, as well.

Receiving negative feedback had me feeling pissed off at first.
A visual representation of how I initially looked upon reading feedback I considered unwarranted and unfair.

Nevertheless, I took a deep breath and opened up the Word document to look at these “factual inaccuracies.” I kept an open mind in doing so, as difficult as it was. Maybe I really did miss the mark on this piece, and if I did, it was my responsibility to correct the inaccuracies for my client and his audience.

I opened the Word document and steeled myself for the criticism. After reading the notes, though, I realized the only issues inherent in my article were issues of semantics – word choice. The topic I wrote about was in a niche where there’s multiple terms for the same concept. That’s what this reader took issue with.

That really ticked me off. To make such a big deal out of something and accuse me of factual inaccuracies when the reality is only that you’d prefer one term over another? These claims could cost me a client – and a source of income in my burgeoning freelance career. I was pissed.

But was I justified?

No. I wasn’t.

Here’s why.

How to Handle Receiving Negative Feedback

After reading the notes on my article and determining they were merely preferential semantics issues from the reader who sent them, I took a step back to calm down. It felt like I was being personally attacked in receiving that unwarranted and unjust criticism, but I actually wasn’t.

I had no reason to have an emotional reaction to receiving criticism, as negative as it was.

More importantly, my client deserved proof that my piece was accurate and factual.

So I calmed down and reminded myself that I’m a professional and I need to act like it. I couldn’t reply to my client and say, “Hey, this guy’s a joke, send him a thesaurus and be done with it.” If the reader who sent in the initial complaint was more knowledgeable than me and would better serve my client, my client deserved to know that.

Despite reading my client’s initial email and the attached notes shortly after receipt, I didn’t reply to my client again for another six hours after informing him I’d look into the matter. I needed to detach my personal opinions from my professional self and treat the situation as a professional should.

I accomplished this by stepping as far away from the criticism and my piece as possible so I could react objectively to the situation.

Impartiality would be the cornerstone of the response I sent my client.

I loaded up all of my original sources that I acquired my research from when I first wrote the article. I turned to my own materials and notes from my time as a licensed salesman who once sold the same product the article was about.

Then I went, line by line, fact-checking everything, not only to defend my integrity, but because my client deserved to know every word I wrote that he published was accurate and true.

In the end, I agreed with only one point made in the initial criticism. The title was, admittedly, slightly ambiguous.

I gathered all of my sources and citations together and wrote up a small response for my client. My response was stripped of any emotion and dealt solely in the realm of fact. I responded to each of the points brought up in the feedback, refuting or contesting them with fact and my reasoning for choosing a particular term or concept.

Then I sent my response to my client and waited.

The positive side of negative criticism

When my client got back to me, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. He agreed with me that he, too, felt all of the issues dealt solely with semantics and word choice and trusted the accuracy of the piece.

And then he thanked me.

You see, because I withdrew my personal emotions from the situation and treated the feedback not as an attack on me, but as something that could potentially be correct, I allowed myself to remain objective and focus only on making sure my client had an article based in fact, and fact alone.

My client thanked me for remaining professional and calm and for validating the accuracy of the article.

Instead of ranting and raving that my integrity was being called into question, I instead sought out to prove my integrity, or rectify an honest mistake if any of the criticism was, in fact, correct.

I transformed a situation in which I could potentially lose a client into a situation where I proved my value and worth to a client.

Positive feedback vs. negative feedback

There’s as much to learn from negative feedback as there is positive, I’d wager. Positive feedback reaffirms what you already know: you’re a great writer, you make a valid argument, your personality shines through just brilliantly in this piece.
Positive criticism can also help you develop your ability. “You should break this paragraph down into bullet points instead.” “I think your headlines need a little bit more work to be engaging. Here’s a resource to learn from.” “Hey, I love the piece, but just try to be a little more succinct.”

Negative feedback can feel like an attack on you and your ability, but if you take a step back, there’s lessons to learn from in being told you’re trash, or your writing’s garbage, or being asked “when do you plan on getting a real job?”.

Learning from negative criticism requires you to read a little bit between the lines. In my situation where it was alleged that my article had “factual inaccuracies,” the real issue wasn’t whether or not my article misrepresented any concepts or incorrectly defined some terms. The true issue, and what I responded to, was the question of my integrity. My client deserved to know whether I was writing total garbage just for a paycheck, or whether I put the time in to accurately represent and explain a confusing subject.

I could have easily responded to my client with, “None of this is factually incorrect. This guy’s wrong,” and been done with it, but what value was I presenting to my client in dismissing the reader’s criticism without supporting my claim that the information I presented was accurate?

I took the high road and sought out to objectively confirm or deny the accuracy of the claims made against my work and, by extension, the integrity of my writing and of myself as a freelance writer.

I set out to not only rectify any potential misrepresentations or inaccuracies, but to explain my processes to my client, take responsibility for my work, and act professionally.

In response to the way I handled myself, my client saw that I took my work seriously and that I could take not only constructive criticism, but negative feedback as well. I created value by cementing that I possess a professional mindset about my work, that I can accept feedback on a professional and creative level rather than an emotional one.

Etiquette for freelance writers

Take a look at your business card or email signature. I bet it says “Freelance Writer” or “Content Strategist” or something along those lines. Right?

Freelance writer business card
Unfortunately for Patrick Bateman, my business card does not have a watermark.

If you call yourself a freelance writer (or content strategist, digital marketer, or anything along these lines), you need to understand that you’re implying that you’re a professional.

So act like one.

That means that every article you write, every blog post you submit for publication, is accurate, fact-checked, and stands as a testament to your integrity. Clients aren’t paying you for pointless word vomit; they’re paying you for your expertise and the promise that you deliver actionable, quality material.

When someone questions your ability, integrity, or the content you’ve written about, you need to take that criticism as a professional would. That doesn’t mean roll over and let a client abuse you or take advantage of your skills. But it does mean that you respond as a professional would.

How to respond to negative feedback

  1. Stay calm and professional. This is your job; treat it as one. Don’t throw a hissy fit because someone said something mean or offensive.
  2. Dial down your emotions. Become objective. Try and see your work from another’s perspective.
  3. Put your client first. Your job is to provide the best possible work for your client. If you’re wrong, own up to it and make amends.
  4. Verify, fact-check, and cite your sources. Defend your position and integrity with fact, not opinion. No one cares how you feel. All that matters is accuracy.
Dismiss your emotions before responding to negative feedback.
Before responding to negative feedback, stop and get some distance from your emotions.

The way I handled my experience with receiving negative feedback helped me to solidify my authenticity as a professional in my client’s eyes. I put my client’s best interests first and foremost, but also didn’t capitulate and accept feedback that, frankly, was incorrect.

My actions and response served as proof that, a) I am an expert in what I do, so you can be guaranteed that I’ll acknowledge the criticism and take it into account; b) I can handle an unexpected situation as you’d expect a professional would, by serving my client and not overreacting or letting my emotions get in the way; and c) you can count on me to maintain my integrity by putting the time in to fact-check any potential inaccuracies.

Instead of allowing negative criticism to ruin your day – and even your relationship with your client – use it as a learning experience and as a way to show the value you provide your client.

Even if the negative criticism brought to light actual issues, I would have apologized and rectified the discrepancies immediately. Then I would have explained to my client how I made the original mistake and what steps I’ve taken and will take in the future to ensure it never happens again.

As with most other relationships in life, trust is a major factor in the freelancing world. It’s probably worth even more than money, as trust affords you the opportunity to increase your income by being someone who’s reliable, dependable, and honest.

Never let anything erode your client’s trust in you, or you may as well kiss your client goodbye.

Maintain your honest, integrity, and professional demeanor and you’ll be able to handle any situation that freelancing throws at you. Make your clients happy and do right by them and you’ll reap the rewards of being a professional-minded freelance writer.

Freelancers, is there something you would have done differently in this situation? What advice do you have for someone dealing with criticism, whether warranted or unfounded? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments below!

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