The Art of Accepting Constructive Criticism

“You must learn to write poorly before you learn to write well”

Rick Kreinbring

“Writing without an audience is a diary”

Tucker Max

The only way to become a better writer is to write. Since I started writing my book in May 2020 I consistently write between 500-2000 words per day. My single day (24 hour) record is 5500 words in three 4-hour blocks. Overall my book is 50,000 words but the total amount of words written was about 500,000. Why did I write 10x more words than necessary?

High quality writing is not writing a lot of words, it is using the minimum number of correct words to communicate a specific message. That means increasing the number of concise sentences and removing vague, confusing, or extraneous sentences. The writer should keep only what is absolutely necessary. Everything else should be eliminated. Only 10% of what I wrote made it into my book.

How did I figure out what to keep and what to delete?

I wrote 500,000 words, but only had room for 50,000 in my manuscript. That meant I could only keep 10% of what I wrote. In order to choose the best 50,000 words I relied on editors for high quality feedback. I needed their independent perspective I was too close to my own writing process to understand what it looked like from an outside perspective.

I purposely chose three kinds of editors. One group were my physician colleagues who saw medicine from the same inside perspective as me. The second group were non-physicians who had some knowledge of healthcare, psychology, and economics. The third group were people without any knowledge of medicine. The physicians would check the internal validity of my writing, the non-physicians would check if my medical writing was relatable to non-medical people, and the outsiders would check to if I was explaining medicine in a way anyone could understand.

Writing is coding human thoughts into language. By writing, I automatically limited my own perspective. I could no longer accurately perceive how my writing would be decoded by readers. Editing is refining language so it can be decoded and read by a variety of people. Editors have a unique perspective the writer can never have: they have the ability to see writing from a 3rd person perspective.

The graphic below describes the differences in perspective from a reader and writer

Perspective of the Writer and Reader

In order to give and accept criticism both parties must come from a place of good will and commit to making the writer’s internal world the same as the reader’s external world. This is easier said than done. The writer must acknowledge the editor is trying to help him or her. The editors must know how to give high quality feedback.

The writing-editing feedback process resembles an improv comedy skit more than a scripted play. The writer and editor are reacting to each other in real time to shape an idea rather than reading and rereading the same lines. Figuring out how to enable each other in order to make the writers internal word match the reader’s external world takes time, understanding, and patience.

Below are characteristics of good writers and good editors:

Good writers…

  1. Assume their internal perspective does not match their readers’ external perspective
  2. Assume editors are trying to help them
  3. Are committed to their audience’s needs rather than their own feelings

Good editors…

  1. Have a specific perspective the writer lacks
  2. Give feedback that is tangible, achievable, and measurable
  3. Tell the truth even if it hurts the writer’s feelings

Editor feedback should be embraced rather than avoided. Rejecting editor feedback does a disservice to both yourself and your reader. By rejecting feedback you are saying: “my ego is more important than my message.” Writing without a corresponding audience is a diary.

Good writers succeed because they find ways to compensate for their limitations, poor writers fail because they don’t recognize their limitations. If no one can read what you wrote then your writing cannot communicate anything. Likewise, the more high quality feedback you incorporate into your writing the more likely your reader will understand you.

And isn’t that that what writers want? To be understood by their reader?

Published by Nabil

Nabil Othman, MD is an anesthesiology resident physician at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA. As a Michigan native he advocates calling carbonated, sugary beverages "pop". When he is not an indentured servant in the hospital he enjoys CrossFit, telling everyone he meets about CrossFit, and attempting dangerous hikes in Hawaii with his college roommates.

One thought on “The Art of Accepting Constructive Criticism

  1. Lol I love the quote that writing without an audience is a diary. And that’s exactly what it is. I’m fortunate enough to have had a harsh editor remove any qualms I may have had about feedback and just take it as part of the job. Anyway, thanks for this post!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: