Dealing with criticism

As a veteran (victim? survivor?) of more than 50 years of communicating via the written word, I testify that there is no thing you can write that won’t tick someone off and that will generate a vitriolic response claiming you are the evil spawn of a gerbil and a cottonmouth moccasin.
Deal with it — you are going to get feedback that will incline you to load a shotgun and go critic hunting.
The prime requisite for a writer is not talent or experience; it is a skin thick enough to deflect Teflon bullets. Not only do you need to deal effectively with critics, but also with the rejection of the finest prose ever written by editors who are afflicted with terminal idiocy.
It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it.
In 21 years with the Missouri Department of Conservation, I got plenty of irate letters. Once I wrote a lighthearted piece about how my long-suffering wife had to put up with a hunt-and-fish husband who was gone during almost every family emergency. I thought it was a tribute to Marty’s infinite patience with a ne’er-do-well like me.
But a reader chewed me up and spit me out for being a chauvinist pig who deserved a thick winter coat of tar and feathers. So much for a sense of humor.
Another time I wrote about the difficulty of carrying the makings for Manhattans and other accoutrements of the Good Life on a backpacking trip. It was, I thought, funny stuff.
Somehow a reader missed the joke and flayed me for being so dumb as to carry canned goods and cocktail shakers in my backpack.
Then there was the guy who disagreed with me when I wrote that I wouldn’t tell people where my quail hunting honey hole was, but I’d instead tell them how to find their own.
“You work for the state!” he snarled in print. “You work for me! You have a duty to tell me where you hunt.”
After I cooled off and tore up the response that ended with “… and the horse you rode in on!” I explained as calmly as I could that I was not going to expose a small area to exploitation, that I felt my first duty was to the resource, and that I was sure he’d appreciate a honey hole more if he had to work for it — and that I was sorry he was upset. He called my boss, demanding that I be fired, but the boss diplomatically (and fortunately for me) told both him and his horse to lope into the sunset.
There are two types of criticism: justified and unjustified. If you screwed up, admit it and defuse the critic’s anger with an apology: “You’re right and I’m sorry that I was wrong. Thanks for pointing out the error and let’s both hope I don’t do it again.”
Nine times out of 10 that will take care of it. The tenth guy wants a pen pal and will keep after you until you simply ignore him. This happened with a fellow outdoor writer who also happens to be a religious fanatic and who kept gnawing on me for what he perceived as my endorsement of abortion. He was reading into what I wrote to see what he wanted to hear, not what was there.
He wouldn’t go away, so I stopped feeding his outrage by not replying and he finally left me alone. No doubt I made an enemy for life, but that’s another aspect of the writing life — if you actually are saying things, expressing opinions, you will make enemies. You can only strive to be accurate and comprehensive in those opinions and be prepared to live with them.
Realize that usually only the offended folks write. Those who are happy, don’t. So don’t let one nasty letter become the rotten apple that taints the barrel. Just look past the vitriol to see if there’s justification for the critic’s ire.
If the critic is simply a whack job, resist the impulse to write back that if you ever catch him alone, you’re going to chop him in chunks and feed him through a wood chipper.
If he’s so far off base that reason is not an option, then humor usually works: “Sorry you have such an irritating burr under your saddle. Maybe next time I’ll write about burrs and tell you how to get rid of them.”
Most critics deserve a measured and respectful reply. Give them one and then move on. You have better things to do than write for free to folks who don’t want to listen. ◊
Joel M. Vance is a past president of OWAA. A member since 1968, he is a book author and full-time freelancer. Contact Vance at

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