Devastated by Criticism

calvin-criticismHow do you feel when others criticize something you’ve written? Do you just want to tear your work up and start all over again? If you do, you have something in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings. And he is not the only great writer with whom you share this hypersensitive trait.

Tolkien’s inability to accept constructive criticism is no secret; it is frequently noted in biographies.

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, and we are often suspicious of the mental health of those who do. Yet many writers actively seek out constructive criticism in order to sharpen their skills and improve their work.

That is a major reason for the existence of writers’ groups which pop up in varying expressions wherever serious writers live. While another benefit of such communities is the simple encouragement that comes from gathering with others who share your passion, it is the critical examination of each other’s manuscripts which provides the clearest concrete benefit. It’s no accident many such literary meetings are actually called critique groups.

Tolkien was a member of one of the most famous such fellowships that ever existed, the Inklings. It was in that setting where he first shared the stories of hobbits and elves who would make such a profound impact on Western literature. He said it was primarily through the encouragement of the Inklings—specifically his good friend, C.S. Lewis—that these amazing stories were ever published.

You see, Tolkien had a terrible and frequently fatal flaw . . . When his writing was criticized, he felt compelled to toss it aside and begin anew. Many other writers have been afflicted with this curse, and not all of them had a C.S. Lewis to rescue their words from the dust bin.

I have shared in the past Lewis’ description of his friend’s handicap.

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

Criticism of the Constructive Variety

As I said a moment ago, no one really craves criticism, and yet most serious writers actively solicit it. As I write this very column, it is with the intention of sharing it tomorrow with my friends in my own writing circles.

When you read it, it will likely have changed, probably in subtle, enriching ways. You can gauge the benefit of mutual critiquing by the amount and the quality of the criticism which is shared. And, should you feel violated, rebuke defensiveness and remind yourself that even the greats, like Tolkien and Lewis, gained from the comments and suggestions of their friends.

I recently learned of another individual who struggled with receiving criticism. It was John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology. Belonging to the Lutheran branch of the church universal, my readings in Reformed history have been limited. However, I’m currently reading two similarly titled books* and I discovered something that may be commonly known to Reformed clergy but was news to me.

He often tended to express his disappointment in extravagant terms. When he encountered an obstacle, his reaction was stark: he would burn his manuscript, never write again, never publish anything again. His decision to write was motivated by external factors: a request by his circle of friends and colleagues, or as the result of his emotional reaction to an event or a work that he read. . . . (John Calvin and the Printed Book)

The good news though is Calvin did not allow these obstacles to have the final say. Instead, he turned to those he trusted and sought their counsel.

Indeed, his extreme sensitivity meant that he needed to have the emotional support of close friends. As a Reformer and specifically as an author, Calvin never worked in isolation even though he was the dominant figure in his setting. While he was confident of the quality of his writings, Calvin still had no hesitation in submitting them to his colleagues before publication. (Ibid.)

Not that Calvin always welcomed suggestions. There was one particular Reformer to whom he sent some of his work whose “commend from Zurich were too numerous and detailed. Hence Calvin stopped sending his manuscripts to Bullinger prior to printing, although he maintained cordial relations with the Zurich Reformer.” I can almost read Calvin’s mind at the time: I asked for your suggestions, not a complete rewrite of the manuscript.

So, it appears those of us who feel discomfort at the sting of criticism—even when we request it—stand in good company. So don’t ever let that temporary pain discourage you from continuing to write.


* A 2005 volume is called John Calvin and the Printed Book, while a 2015 collection of essays is called Calvin and the Book.

15 thoughts on “Devastated by Criticism

  1. The way I feel about criticism varies with where I am in a writing project. As I work on refining a manuscript, I stress to my beta readers that it’s the negative comments I value most because they help me improve. I truly mean that. Each criticism that pulls back the veil on a problem is a treasure; but that doesn’t mean it’s fun reading them. It’s not, but every sport has its painful training regimens without which no athlete can excel.

    I feel called by God to write stories of human conflict and difficult friendships that grow into love while characters discover their own faith in Christ. I want them to be the very best I can make them, and critical comments help me shape and polish to reach that goal.

    My first Roman Empire novel, Forgiven, has just gone on sale at Amazon, and I’m nervously awaiting the appearance of the first review. I no longer hope for negate comments. It’s too late for them to help me fix a problem. While I might welcome a spoonful of vile-tasting medicine while I’m fighting an illness, I’m no masochist. I don’t want another dose when it can’t do me any good!

    1. Great analogy between the pain of a training regimen and actively seeking criticism of one’s writing.

      You’re right about the receipt of criticism after a work is completed. Then it’s just a “complaint…” and complaints I can, frankly, do without. Actually, though if we’re going to publish new editions (simpler with ebooks, of course)… valid criticisms could still be helpful. Not painless… but useful.

  2. My belief in myself is completely rational and unshakable. I accept gratefully any criticism that is well-founded and reasonable. The rest I thankfully reject.
    I do not need coddling. I’m not interested in hearing how good my writing is; just tell me how I can make it better, thank you.

    PS: I enjoy reading these posts.

    1. Good for you. I’m pretty confident in my own writing as well, but I find that about 80% of the comments I receive from my trusted readers are valuable to me for reconsidering how I’m communicating a particular thing.

      Glad that you’re enjoying Mere Inkling.

      Oh, I should confess that I don’t object to a little literary coddling though…

  3. Hi Rob,

    Isn’t it awesome how the Lord uses others to guide us. I love how writers and creative people influence others or should. It is often our flesh that tells us to give up. Thank the Lord His Spirit is a greater push to complete what we are asked to do.

    I have been trying to complete a Christian Sci-fi novel for a few years now. It has gone through filters of editing and we are on the home stretch. I can say that everyone who has threw in the two cents have really made it a much better story. So, your post is timely. We are on the home stretch. Scary but exciting steps coming.

    I pray the Lord continues to widen your range of influence.

    In Christ,


    1. Congratulations, Gary, on bringing your scifi novel near to fruition. The process can certainly take a long time (I’ve got a book I hope to re-edit for publication this coming year, that I began in 2001).

      Yes, the suggestions posed by people willing to offer constructive criticism is invaluable.

    1. Carl, I’d say your advice is better late than never… but in this case I suspect it’s a tad too late.

      Times change. We write for much shorter attention spans today. Not that a map wouldn’t be helpful in navigating the corpus of any prolific writer!

  4. You really present a lot to ponder.
    I like the idea that someone as well-known as Tolkien had a difficult time with criticism, even from his circle of friends. It seems to me he was influenced one way or another, whether he scrapped the work and started again or evaluated what the others said and chose to ignore it. Like most writers, I’ll bet Tolkien’s most difficult critic was himself.

    1. Yes, it’s comforting to know some of the finest writers who’ve ever lived suffered from the same challenges we endure. And they overcame them.

      As for being one’s own harshest critic, I agree that’s common for good writers. There are some, however, who are at the opposite end of the spectrum and think whatever they write is “inspired” and in need of no revision. Editing, for them, can verge on blasphemy, in terms of denying the belief that the work came directly from God.

      1. That must be why my B.A., in Editorial Journalism, came from the UWashington School of Communications!

        It is certainly good as writers to be reminded of that occasionally.

  5. Pingback: Be an Inkling « Mere Inkling

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