Writing Career Advice From a Neuroscientist Part 4: Don't Take Criticism Personally

This is part 4 of a 4 part series about career advice my graduate adviser gave to his graduate students and postdocs. His advice is for people pursuing an academic science career, but I'm sharing the ones that also apply to writers.

Part 1: Choose your projects carefully
Part 2: Know the literature
Part 3: Don't spread yourself too thin

Part 4: Don't take criticism personally, and respond professionally

Few things are as hard on a scientist's self esteem as the peer review process. Whether for grants or for papers, you can expect to get emails from anonymous reviewers whose job is to scrutinize your baby and dig out all its flaws. While it's tempting to shoot back a response insulting your reviewer's intellect and mentioning how you'd like to see THEM come up with a better experiment, that is very unlikely to help you in the long term – especially since these people
have the power to accept or reject your grant or paper. It's better to walk away for an hour or two, recollect, and then respond professionally and appropriately.

I think writers have it easier in this sphere. Yes, there are snarky and hurtful reviews, but often, critiques are well intentioned and are actually trying to help improve the piece. So when you get some suggestions that batter your ego, don't take it personally. Step back, take a deep breath, evaluate, and then decide on the appropriate response.

For something from the agent's perspective, here are some funny rejection stories from agent Jessica Faust, as well as a more serious post about burning bridges.

That's the end of the neuroscience/writing career advice series. Thoughts? Are the two career paths similar, or are these analogies a stretch?


  1. Taking criticism is hard! I tend to find myself thinking: "Oh no! They hated this paragraph! That must mean they hate my whole story and/or they think I'm a bad writer!" Then I have to step back and take a breather and realize that their advice usually helps the story.

  2. That is good advice. When we respond negatively via e-mail or twitter, we can never take those things back. Taking a step back and breathing is the only professional way for me to deal with things. Now, if I could just apply this concept to marriage, life would be grand.

  3. Just reading some of your back catalogue. Honestly, nothing has taught me more about taking critiques on board than submitting papers for scientific peer review (I'm a computational linguist).

    Sometimes you have to take a few minutes to cry about the rejection before you move on to taking their points on board... in my experience, anyhow!

  4. Rachel -- I also feel like research really does make you good at accepting failure in stride. I mean, in research, you're wrong like 90% of the time! It's just the way things work, and so you just shrug and start plugging away again.

  5. Thank you for this series of posts. Very insightful!