How to Handle Content Writing Criticism
Storytelling Communications

The Tactical Typist: A Primer on Content Writing Criticism


The freelance market is growing. According to Forbes, industries must adapt to encourage it—the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts it will encompass 20 percent of the workforce in the next five years. This is no surprise, as new technologies such as broadband Internet access, mobile devices, and easy-to-use word processing software have made it easier than ever to become a freelance writer. Craft some low-paying articles, hook up with content writing sites, apply for contract work with a few agencies, and you’re good to go, right?

Well, sort of. But with more and more people jumping on the freelance-writing train, it’s getting harder to stand out—and you’re under greater pressure to deliver high-quality content ASAP. The result? Even if you’re one of the best, your work will receive soul-shredding feedback, criticism, and heavy edits that make you want to shut off the computer, toss it out a window, and go find a minimum-wage job with benefits. Part of the problem is this: you’re not as good as you think you are.

Did that sting? It’s not easy to hear, and in many cases it’s not true. As creative types, we’re often far harder on ourselves than anyone else. But it’s likely you’ll hear something like that at least once, along with a host of other put-downs about your writing. So how do you handle it?

1. Stay Composed

Remaining calm is your most important tool in responding to criticism. It’s also the easiest thing to forget in the heat of the moment, especially if a client calls you directly to complain or writes a scathing email about the piece you were sure was perfect. If an email boils your blood, step away and give yourself some room to breathe. If you’re on the phone or face-to-face, tell the client you’ll get back to them within a reasonable time period. No matter what, don’t engage.

Here’s why: You need to remember that you’re running a business, not writing as a favor to friends. Businesses have expectations that exist outside the continuum of social niceties, and not every client has the same attitude about freelance content writing. Some are overjoyed with anything you produce, while others aren’t certain your talent justifies its cost. Even if discussions with a client are smooth sailing up front, things can quickly change when you start submitting work.

So before you do anything, take some time to cool off. I’d love to tell you it’s possible to get rejected or criticized enough that the feelings of “I just can’t hack it” go away, but that’s not true. Instead, it’s about learning how to deal with your disappointment or anger and then continuing to write.

2. Find the Source

Once you’ve had time to list off—to your spouse, pet, or the world at large—all the ways this client is completely insane, start looking for the source of the problem. Chances are, it falls into one of three broad categories: you, the content writing instructions, or the client.

Read your work again. If your research is sloppy or the piece hasn’t been proofread, the onus is on you. The same is true if you misread the instructions and did a B2C article that was supposed to be B2B, or wrote about gas-powered cars when you should have been writing about diesel. Your best bet is to correct the problem, apologize, and hope for the best.

It’s also possible that the instructions you received were vague or poorly worded. There have been several times in my career when a client’s guidelines seemed clear initially, but when feedback arrived, I realized that they had a different way of looking at the same subject. Here, you break even. Redo the work, calmly discuss the misunderstanding, and ask the client more questions moving forward.

And yes, sometimes the client is at fault. This happens when your work is top-notch and the instructions were clear, yet they’re still unhappy. If that’s the case, try to adapt your piece and resubmit it. If the issue is recurrent, however, your best bet is to…

3. Set Limits

Sometimes, enough is enough. Savvy freelance writers know when to say “no,” and when to say “stop.” Many writers I know offer one free revision on any work they do, which is usually enough since they prepare well and write impeccably. If you’re working for a content management firm that respects its writers, you may go through a multi-revision process; however, these revisions should be the result of conversations between equals, not unreasonable demands or put-downs. And if revisions simply aren’t working out, you may have to step away. If the work is fairly low-cost, it’s often best to eat your loss and leave on a high note. For jobs with bigger budgets, it’s better to negotiate milestone payments before work begins—otherwise you may have to tough things out in order to get paid. It’s also a good idea to prescreen clients for compatibility.

If you’re serious about freelance content writing, the one thing you’ll have to understand is this: feedback happens. Some comes in the form of constructive criticism that makes you a better writer, and some can be unnecessarily spiteful. There’s no magic formula for telling which will be which—your best bet is to stay calm, find the source of the problem, and set limits to keep yourself sane.

Remember, too, that there are many brands with tons of experience managing the freelance creative process at a large scale. If you’re a freelance writer looking to jump-start your career by writing content for top brands that are actively engaged in content marketing, join Skyword’s team of contributing writers.

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