“People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.”
-W. Somerset Maugham, 1915
What do you do when someone criticizes your work? Do you use their feedback as a chance to get better, or call them “a hater” and disregard their opinion? Ironically, the word “hater” happens to be the word I hate the most these days, for reasons we’ll be exploring in this article. Although it seems like a harmless piece of slang, the term “hater” has taken on a meaning that exposes some pretty disconcerting issues about the way we as a society respond to criticism.
But First, A Story
I was browsing LinkedIn one day when an article came across my newsfeed. I don’t want to disclose the name of the author but essentially, he had written a really strange, fawning tribute to a major tech figure and addressed it to this tech figure’s newborn daughter. Creepy premise, yes? Me and a bunch of other people thought so too, and commented accordingly. Soon enough, he pulled the article without responding to any of the comments. Admittedly, I felt bad for him— but I knew that it was a great opportunity for him to learn what works on the page, and what doesn’t. I know, because I’ve been there.
However, I was surprised by what I saw next. A couple days later, I saw another article from this guy float across my feed. Instead of choosing to move forward from the disastrous article he’d written before, he chose to revisit it in a way I never would have attempted. He blamed the readers for misinterpreting his “vision” and spent pretty much the entire article congratulating himself for not letting the vitriol of the “haters” get to him. I thought this was pretty ridiculous, but when I visited the comments section, I saw nothing but heartfelt congratulations from people who couldn’t possibly have read the garbage he posted two days before. This episode immediately confirmed something I had long suspected: somewhere along the way, our society decided to stop entertaining the notion that people may have a valid reason to criticise our performance.
They’re Not Always “Haters”
“Hater” originated as a term used to describe a person who dislikes you for the crime of being successful. I don’t want to sit here and pretend that some people aren’t “haters” in the traditional sense; even a casual glimpse at YouTube comments will prove that they can and do exist. However, “hater” has somehow also come to imply “a person who criticizes you, no matter how valid their criticism is.” It isn’t just millennials who are using this term as an excuse to disregard a point of criticism (although they get hammered the most for it, among other things). It is truly a cross-generational cancer that skirts the boundaries of race, ethnicity, geographic area, religion, time period, and political creed. Like all things that become hugely popular, calling someone a “hater” fills a need. It’s a lot easier than having to do some introspection, and is a lot safer than acknowledging that their criticism might actually be right.
Social media has made this much, much worse, in a way that seems at first to be a positive. Praise is addicting, and on social media people can get it on demand if they know where to look. In fact, a social media user can completely shield themselves from any sort of criticism if they try, and some platforms lend themselves quite well to this purpose. The “echo chamber” is a common term for this phenomenon, and I’m planning on exploring it in deeper detail in future articles.
Be Objective, Be Candid, and Demand Excellence
In retrospect, the best thing about graduate school (other than the opportunity to teach writing classes) was the creative writing peer review process. A lot of people who majored in English probably just winced at that statement, but hear me out. Basically, the peer review process involves a group of people reading your work, and pointing out everything they like, and everything they don’t like. This process hardens you against hurt feelings, forces you to be objective about your work, and prevents you from committing the nightmarish crime of taking your work too seriously. Of course, feedback like this only works if it’s coming from a constructive place, using something that Kim Scott calls Radical Candor. It’s an awesome weapon that you can use right now to start making feedback useful and impactful once again.
I feel like a lot of writers would benefit from the type of peer review I did in graduate school, but you don’t need to fill out university applications to take advantage of it. How about forming a no-holds-barred writing group where radical candor is the expected norm for all participants? It will be uncomfortable at first, but I promise you that you will become a stronger writer and human being because of it.
Know Thy Weaknesses (So You Can Fix Them)
Bad articles happen to every writer sooner or later (this one might very well be mine). And here’s the thing: I happen to like bad works of art. I gleefully spent 30 dollars on a copy of Birdemic: Shock and Terror, which has been called the worst film ever made. I feel like things can sometimes be so bad that they reveal certain truths about the absurdity that is the human experience. But like the great philosopher Huey Lewis once said, “sometimes bad is bad”.
If you are a writer that cannot accept criticism, you need to seek another career, period. There are too many eyes on the page, too many opportunities to mess up, and too many differing opinions, all of which hold some form of merit, like it or not. But you don’t have to be a writer to learn a lesson here. You owe it to yourself to be the best you can be, and refusing to accept criticism won’t get you there. They’re not always haters— sometimes they’re right, and wisdom comes from the ability to objectively analyze the criticism you receive, valid or otherwise.