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On Responding Graciously


In the publishing world, we spend a lot of time getting ourselves accustomed to rejection.

We steel ourselves for it. We tell ourselves not to react defensively to criticism (constructive or otherwise) from critique partners, editors, and agents. We do our best to process criticism, to absorb it, to learn from our mistakes and not take rejection of our work as rejection of ourselves as people.

Maybe that’s why it can be equally difficult to react with grace when someone actually—gasp!—likes our writing.

It is for me, at least, and I wonder if other writers have experienced similar emotions. Much of this is exacerbated by the way that I was raised: to always strive to be better, rather than resting on my laurels for even a moment. So for years, when someone complimented my writing, I’d blush and stammer and demur.

“Oh no!” I’d say, “It’s nothing. I’m really not all that talented. Thank you, but surely you must be joking.”

Then the other person would sort of frown, and I’d wonder what their problem was.

It’s taken me years to unpack this kind of exchange. I finally realized that those people saying nice things actually meant it—and, more, that they aren’t particularly interested in arguing with me about whether they really like my work or not. In short, I’ve finally figured out how to be gracious—how to take a compliment and not be rude in response.

At first, I relied on a stock phrase. “Thank you for saying that. I really enjoyed writing it, and I’m glad you liked it.” Every bone in my body objected to this odd, stilted, kind speech. If I just accepted their praise, did that mean I was full of myself—that I had a swelled head?

But I eventually realized how much more smoothly these interactions went when I responded graciously, rather than hemming and hawing my objections. People want to know that they’re being heard—that you respect their opinion of your work, that you respect your own work, too. I no longer dreaded the inevitable confrontation whenever I sensed that someone was going to say something nice about me. Instead, it started to feel good!

Funny thing is that it’s made a difference in my writing, too. Because when you mire yourself in doubt, it shows in your art—you might undermine the strongest parts of it, sabotaging yourself over and over again. Now I feel instead like I can listen to praise, process it in much the same way that I once did criticism, and use my strengths to my own best advantage.

So if you’re anything like my former self, the next time someone says something nice about your writing, try something new—just say “thank you”!
Phoebe North

Phoebe writes stories about aliens for teenagers. She loves both Star Trek and Star Wars and doesn't believe you should ever have to choose. She is the author of Starglass and Starbreak, both from Simon and Schuster.

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12 comments:

  1. I definitely empathize. I've always had a more difficult time accepting praise than criticism. I did finally have a friend take me aside, on hearing me complain that I never was sure what to say, and say, "Say 'Thank you,'" which helped. But yeah, it still feels stilted when I reply to someone saying nice things.

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  2. I want to say thank you for using Garth in this post.

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  3. You're welcome, Kate. ;)

    Joe, keep trying! It feels more natural eventually--and perhaps one of these days, you'll actually start believing your own words!

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  4. Great thoughts. I have a little son who's a singing, dancing, performing maniac. He usually looks down and shrugs when someone compliments him. I'm always following him around saying, "did you say thank you?" I'll need to take note if I'm following my own advice.

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  5. It is oddly difficult to just be gracious, but it's also so so important to acknowledge our own strengths. I feel like it goes beyond social interactions and perceptions of rudeness, because shrugging off compliments is akin to berating yourself--telling yourself that you couldn't possibly deserve the praise.

    And, basically, this: "Because when you mire yourself in doubt, it shows in your art..." Not just in your art, but in your life as a whole.

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  6. Well said! It is tough to accept compliments graciously -- without sounding stilted or fake or (worse) like you have a swelled head and were expecting to be complimented.

    I will admit I shamelessly watched how other authors accepted compliments in places like Twitter and then copied them. :D

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  7. Oh that is so tough! But you're right--it's so much better to be gracious.

    An excellent reminder.

    - Liz

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  8. I've been able to take direct compliments almost too easily, but reading positive reviews makes me sooooo verklempt!

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  9. I don't mind saying "thank you", but I kind of hate talking about my work. "Where did you get the idea for this?" or "How long did this take to write?". I dread a book launch (if ever I am so lucky I guess). Lately I've just been pointing people to my blog. I prefer to write about myself than talk.

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  10. Oh, this makes me laugh. I have this really weird habit of talking over compliments. I mean eyes averted, busying my hands, and just talking, instead of walking, right over the top of them.
    So rude.
    And the strangest thing of all is that I am completely and entirely aware of what I'm doing, almost an out of body experience, and I still do it! Someone actually stilled my hands the other day, made me look at them and accept what they were saying.
    That's funny too, getting caught out like that, thinking you're just so clever pretending you didn't hear what they were saying.
    New Years resolution, perhaps?
    Stop. Look them in the eye. Say thank you and then get those hands busying again to hide the inevitable blush!
    Can't hide everything! : )

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  11. Everything you say here is so true. My first novel published over a year ago, and I had to force myself to just say "thanks so much" when people say they liked it instead of:
    1. Asking them a million questions abou whether little things that concern me bother them
    2. Explaining how the next one will be better, as though I owe them a better story, even though they like this on

    Its ironic that I am much better at believing bad praise (though I've been fortunate enough that only 2 of about 25 reviews were negative.

    It's all nerve-wracking. I just self-published a collection of short stories on Amazon 2 days ago. I am literally a mess waiting for feedback, but I WILL just say "thank you" if people like it :) If they don't, I will NOT consider myself a failure as a writer.

    And now, I will stop using your blog as therapy.

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Item Reviewed: On Responding Graciously Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Phoebe North