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Story Talk: Criticism & Rejection - Take It Like a Writer!

Criticism and rejection are part of being a writer, but many writers take a counterproductive approach when dealing with them. There's a better way.

Criticism and rejection are part of being a writer, but many writers take a counterproductive approach when dealing with them. There's a better way.

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I had an uncomfortable experience recently with a writer friend of mine who had just experienced a failed pitch to a significant producer. He had spent weeks honing the pitch, hiring pitch-stars to coach him, practicing in front of his mirror, his cat, me. Then, the morning of the big meeting and the dog-and-phony show began. Twelve minutes after he started, he was standing at the elevators waiting to go to P1, get in his car, and cry.


The next day we spoke.

“Twelve minutes!” He moaned to me.
“Hmmm.” I said, like a good therapist.
“They hated me.” It was a statement.
“No, they hated your pitch.” I corrected.
“You weren’t there.” He shot me a look, “It was instant dislike.”
I didn’t get a chance to reply.
He went limp, “Who am I kidding. I’m no writer. I suck.”

He doesn’t suck, he far from sucks, in fact he can write rings around me and everyone I know. He is a writer. But, at just this moment he was a pitch. A failed pitch.

Do you see the disconnect ? There is a huge, illogical and self-destructive problem here, one that lots of writers experience. It is the problem of relating vs. identifying. Huh?

Consider the common definitions of criticism:

1. The expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. (Synonyms: condemnation, denunciation, attack, fault-finding, disapproval, knock, slam, etc.).

2. The analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work. (Synonyms: evaluation, assessment, appraisal, analysis, commentary, explanation, etc.).

Can you see the profound difference between these two definitions? Depending on which you accept as truer, you will either identify with criticism or relate to it. When you identify with something, then it isyou. You fail, therefore you are a failure. You do something bad, therefore you are a bad person. You win an award, therefore they like you, right now, they like you (think Sally Field, 1985 Oscars). Failing is not something you do, it is something you are; badness is not something you do, it is something you are; winning is no something you do... you get the point.

Relating to something, however, means you have the ability to separate your beingness from your doingness. When you relate to something, then you know that good people do bad things, and are still good people. Winners fail, and they are still winners. You can be liked and hated at the same time; neither defines you as a human being.

And so it is with criticism and rejection. The writer that identifies with criticism is at sufferance to all those limiting and constricting synonyms in the first definition. They define that writer as a person, not just describe something he/she might have done. If you hold this definition of criticism then how could you not conclude, as my friend did, “I’m no writer. I suck.” You are doomed. And you are telling yourself a great lie and making a potentially fatal mistake in your career AND YOUR LIFE. The sad tale here is that people don’t do this identification-thing unless it is an established pattern already. They identify with lots of limiting and constrictive things that validate how bad or sucky they are at life, not just at writing, and they have been doing this all their lives.

This is not going to be a psychotherapy session. I’m not going to tell you how to heal your inner child, or how to forgive your mother. I’m just going to suggest that there is a healthier and more professional approach to take that will make you happier and sane, when it comes to dealing with an unavoidable part of being a professional writer—rejection and criticism.

Relate to criticism, don’t identify with it. Allow it to be information, not a statement about who you are as a person. Assess it, don’t own it. Evaluate it, don’t assume it’s true. And reject it, if it makes not sense. Rejection is something that happens to your work, not to you (unless some jerk is making it personal, then you have a whole other problem on your hands). Criticism is data, not a spotlight into your inner being.

We’re told to develop a thick skin, usually by those who have been beaten up by the gatekeepers in whatever creative endeavor they are engaged. You don’t need a thick skin. The skin you have is thick enough. What you “need” to do is to use your power of discernment and use your common sense. Take yourself out of the equation; your work must stand on its own. If it falls short, then it falls short. You need to be there to catch it when it falls, so that you can pick it up and help it stand up again against the next gatekeeper. But, you can only be present in this way if you relate to criticism, rather than identify with it.

In other words, take it like a writer! Remember, criticism and rejection are feedback, nothing more, and feedback never hurt anyone who wasn’t already looking to get punched!

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