Constructive Criticism: An Argument for Listening to Your Critics

Haters gonna hate. This popular saying empowers people to live their lives how they want. After all, no matter what your life choices are, chances are, you’re going to offend someone. So, why not dismiss the haters and live the life you’re meant to live?

But…

constructive criticism

I’ve noticed that ‘haters gonna hate’ is also being used as a response to constructive criticism. Whether it’s a judge recommending a singer get more training to further develop their voice, or a teacher recommending more study, the response is often along the lines of, “Whatever. You don’t know anything. I’m fabulous – haters gonna hate.”

I’m all for self-confidence. I’m all for self-love. But how do you grow as a person, writer, artist, dancer, etc., if you can’t accept that you have room for improvement?

And – here’s the truth – there is ALWAYS room for improvement.

My two lifelong creative pursuits have been dance and writing. I became a good dancer because I put in years of hard work, and I trusted that my instructors knew more about dance technique than I did. I became a good writer by spilling my heart out onto the page, and listening to advice given by veteran writers and teachers.

If I had said ‘haters gonna hate’ (or the equivalent) I wouldn’t have gotten very far in either endeavor.  

Let me be clear: I am not talking about bullies or online trolls. If someone is attacking you for who you are, how you look, your race/ethnicity, etc. then that is not constructive - it’s just criticism.

But what’s the difference?

Constructive Criticism

Dance instructor 1: You could improve your pirouettes by tucking your butt under and closing your rib cage. Work on a strong core. Here’s how – (gives examples on how to improve)

Criticism (bullying)

Dance instructor 2: Your pirouettes are awful. It’s no wonder. Your butt is too big and it sticks out too much. You’ll never be a good dancer with a butt like that. Honestly, you just don’t have the build to be a dancer.

See the difference?

I can do something with the advice from the first instructor. I can strengthen my core and be conscious of tucking my butt under. With the second instructor, I’m not empowered to do anything with their criticism. I can’t change my body shape. (Misty Copeland, one of the most successful ballet dancers of our time, was told she would never be a dancer because of her shape and color. She continued to dance and proved that opinion to be utterly false. She accepted constructive criticism and ignored the rest.)

Here’s another example of constructive criticism:

I recently attended the Big Sur At Cape Cod Writing Workshop. I took the manuscript I’ve been working on, and it was basically torn apart by experts. My two mentors, Jennifer Laughran and David Elliott, pointed out the weaknesses in my story and gave me ideas on how it might be strengthened. They recommended books to give me further guidance. They asked difficult questions and expected thoughtful answers. They told me I was a good writer, but I could be better.

It sucked. It was amazing. It was just what I needed.

You can’t judge whether criticism is constructive or not based on how you feel. Constructive criticism can initially feel just as disheartening as plain-old unhelpful criticism / bullying. So how can you distinguish between the two in a moment?

Ask yourself.

  • Can I take something positive away from this?
  • Can I improve?

If the answer is yes, then you’re likely getting helpful advice. That’s when you take a few deep breaths, wipe away any tears, and get on with the work of becoming better.

And it’s important to remember that even experts in their field are subject to constructive criticism. In one of the panels at the conference, editors Yolanda Scott and Christine Krones, were asked a very difficult question by one of the attendees. Implicit in the question was a criticism about how the publishing world is set up. Yolanda and Christine’s responses were impressive. In front of an entire roomful of people, they acknowledged the validity behind the criticism. They said they didn’t really have an answer at the moment, but it was something that they would think about. These women are at the top of their professional game, and they accepted constructive criticism from (I believe) an unpublished writer. They didn’t blow it off by saying ‘haters gonna hate’ – instead, they took the comment on and admitted that they didn’t have an answer at the moment. Wow! That takes guts. And it’s also a sign of someone confident enough in their own abilities to be open to a critique from someone else.

Finally, remember that if someone is offering you constructive criticism, it is usually coming from a place of wanting to help you. It’s not that the other person enjoys making you feel sad, it’s that they want you to do better. They want you to fulfill all the potential that they see in you. Don’t you want the same for yourself?