As a business and nonfiction copy editor, I provide unvarnished (but still polite) writing advice for my clients. But another part of my job is less direct: I talk with people about their relationship with writing so that I can customize my approach to their professional or personal needs. Unsurprisingly, many people have negative feelings about writing because they have received unwanted writing advice from a colleague, competitor, or even a friend. While there’s no doubt that free guidance can be very helpful, it can also be counterproductive if it’s delivered tactlessly or with less-than-supportive intentions.
Because there’s no way to avoid other people’s opinions, all you can do is muster a bit of tact and appreciation (even if it’s not entirely authentic). Here are six tips to consider next time you receive unwanted writing advice:
1. Say “Thank you!”
Even if you don’t agree with the comment, saying thank you lets the person know that you heard the feedback and appreciated the fact that he or she read your content. (As an added bonus, people who believe they’ve been heard are less likely to repeat themselves.)
2. Acknowledge that the advice may be valuable.
Even the most poorly delivered feedback can have tremendous value, so be careful not to toss the grammatical baby out with the bathwater.
3. Ask for more details.
When someone offers a vague opinion, such as “I don’t like the tone of this sentence” or “This paragraph is confusing,” request more details. Once you understand the reasoning behind the comment, you may agree with it—and if not, at least you have demonstrated your willingness to listen.
4. Remember that almost every sentence can be written in multiple ways.
Merriam-Webster reports that the English language includes approximately one million words (and that’s not even counting words that have multiple variations.)* With that many words to choose from, almost every sentence can be written in a nearly infinite number of ways, so you can’t expect to please everyone every time. Instead, focus on conveying your message as clearly as possible while maintaining your business or personal identity and brand standards.
5. Reexamine the advice for hidden value.
As mentioned above, all feedback can be helpful. But sometimes that helpfulness is masked by a mean-spirited delivery. Rather than letting defensive emotions get the best of you, shelve the feedback for a couple of hours, or even a couple of days, until you can reexamine it with a clear head.
6. Accept the fact that some criticism has nothing to do with you or your content.
All writing, whether it’s a novel, a poem, or an instruction manual, requires equal parts talent, knowledge, and work ethic. But, human nature dictates that someone will always be jealous when you exhibit those sought-after qualities. So, if the criticism is truly baseless, join your ten-year-old niece as she belts out Frozen’s “Let It Go” for the ten-thousandth time. Then, keep on writing!
*“How Many Words Are There in English?” Merriam-Webster Online, accessed January 08, 2015, http://www.merriam-webster.com/help/faq/total_words.htm.