What to do when someone says your writing sucks?

Writing sucks

No matter in which field you work, you’re always going to invite feedback, whether you ask for it or it is gratuitous. So what do you do if someone tells it on your face that you writing sucks? Writers, or rather artists, are an emotional lot. They can be easily hurt. They can be easily disheartened.

Not every criticism is the same. There is a criticism that says that yes, you do write well, but what you have written right now doesn’t truly represent your potential. Maybe you’re factually wrong. Maybe what you have tried to explain doesn’t make sense. Maybe you’re writing something outlandish. That’s another matter. But what if someone says you cannot write altogether, that you’re wasting your time (and of those who were reading your stuff) by needlessly doing something you are incapable of doing? Such feedback can be ruthless. It can be severely crushing if such a feedback comes from a person you’re really close to, like your spouse, your best friend or one of your parents.

Have I been at such a receiving end? In personal life, fortunately, I haven’t. In professional life, in the past 10 years, maybe a couple of times. Even in this case, fortunately, such a feedback was thrown at me when I had been writing content for my clients for a few years. What if I had received such a severe feedback on my very first assignment?

It will be pretty useless to think about this issue solely from my point of view because I have been writing – not something like getting regularly published in mainstream magazines and newspapers – for a pretty long time now. My writing was appreciated in my school days when I would immediately start using the new words I had learnt in the class. I got published in my college magazine. I was regularly sending letters to the editor with an almost 80% published rate. Whenever I have sent an article to a newspaper or a magazine, it has been published. Writing is something I have been doing all my life. I’m not great at it and my literary writing has never been published, but for the past 10 years clients from all over the world have paid me for writing for their websites, newsletters and other marketing collateral. So if they are paying me for it, if they are coming back to me sometimes even after three years, then I must be delivering something to them. So in my case, if someone suddenly comes and says that my writing sucks I will either take it as a difference of opinion or simply brush it off as an aberration and then get on with my life (this is not to say that I overestimate my abilities and never invest time in learning – I do).

Let us assume

  • You have never been published
  • You have never been paid for your writing
  • Someone tells you your writing sucks so bad that it’s even embarrassing

You will be hurt, of course. You may feel devastated. Your previous written works that once seemed like great stuff, may seem mediocre and immature. You may decide never to write again.

In such a situation the best thing to do is be true to yourself. You also need to know the intention of the person criticizing you. Does he or she really mean what he or she is saying? What sort of relationship do you have with that person? Do you value his or her opinion so much that it is going to shatter your beliefs in yourself?

Remember that a person who loves you and cares for you wouldn’t use such language, no matter how straight-talk-loving person he or she is. Even if he or she thinks that you should be spending your time and effort doing something you can actually accomplish, he or she will find a gentler way of communicating that to you. So if the feedback is inordinately harsh (being a writer you can easily know that), don’t take it at its face value.

If the feedback isn’t harsh but the message is more or less the same, even then don’t get disheartened. We all have different preferences. Once I started writing poems. I used to receive lots of praises and once I even made a lady with whom I was having a clandestine affair cry with the lines I had written for her. When my wife read some of my poems (we weren’t married yet) she said they were quite mediocre and were drenched in teenage romanticism. I knew she meant well and I too – intellectually as well as experience wise – had grown up since my poetry days and hence could see that those were really childish poems so I didn’t feel very bad. There was a sense of nostalgia attached to them, but that’s all. I knew that she believed in my writing abilities because many times she has said that I could be among the best writers if I want to be.

Sit someday quietly, and think about why you want to be a writer. “I love to write” is a stupid answer for a serious writer. Is it just a hobby? Does the fame and fortune of successful writers allure you? Do you think it’s “intellectual” to be a writer? Do you idealize people who are great writers? Do you want to write to impress people? Such superficial reasons will leave you exposed to hurt and discouragement.

Like any other field of work writing is hard work. It’s not like you sit under a tree, or on your desk, and then you write line after line. It does happen, but if you write 365 days, it just happens 10-20 days that you can write line after line for multiple hours. Otherwise, it is a constant struggle against not just distractions but also against other plebeian pressing needs. Come may what you write everyday. Even when not even a single word wants to come out of you, you write. You have been writing like this for many months, for many years.

When John Grisham was working on A Time to Kill he used to work for 15-16 hours a day. Despite that, he decided that he would write 500 words everyday. No matter what, he stuck to the schedule. This is how writers normally write.

I’m not saying that you should be following similar pattern but if you write everyday and if you have been doing this for quite some time, you know what you’re doing. When you feel that you were born to write. When 5 years old or 20 years old or even 40 years old strewn up papers turn up on which you had jotted down sentences of the various novels and stories that you started but never finished, you know that you are destined to write.

Under such circumstances if someone says that your writing sucks, frankly, it doesn’t matter. Even if the part that he or she has read sucks (we all go through bad patches, perfectly natural) it doesn’t mean you as a writer suck. Give a shrug, thank that person for the frank feedback and start writing again, more sure of yourself.