Storyteller. Grace Dweller.

I’m Jennifer — wife of an Iowa farmer, mom to two girls, new book author. I believe in you, because I believe in Jesus. You matter to Him, and you matter to me. more »

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Wednesday 7th May 2014

#TellHisStory: What You Need to Know About Your Critics

I don’t remember what the news was that day, exactly, but I know I was writing about Bill Clinton, and it was my first day of work for The Des Moines Register.

My story landed on the front page. It was tucked in the lower righthand corner — “below the fold,” as they say — but still: Front page, baby.

I sat down at my desk in the newsroom, and held that paper to my chest like newsprint and I were one. My inner Woodward and my inner Bernstein elbowed each other over my awesomeness. I may have nearly passed out from all the happy.

And then my desk phone rang.

It was a journalism professor who was, at once, the most beloved and most feared professor in our little corner of the world. She was larger-than-life and she was iconic and she was a fierce defender of the English language.

And now she was on the phone.

I wasn’t sure whether to be thrilled or terrified.

“Msssss Dukes …” she said, drawing out my name, then exhaling all her breath into a dramatic pause. I wound the spiral cord of my phone around my forefinger. “Look at your second paragraph, would you? Read it out loud now. Go on now. Second. Paragraph. Can you tell me what is wrong with your second paragraph?”

(In case you’re wondering, “terrified” is the appropriate reaction here.)

My eyes tripped over the words. I felt heat rising in my ears. My stomach threatened to drop through the floor.

Then, with laser clarity,  I saw on newsprint what I hadn’t seen before on my computer screen. I saw what I had missed, and what my erudite editor had missed, and what the copy editors and the managing editor had missed.

“Do you s-eeeee, Mssss. Dukes, that you chose the word ‘rein’ when you clearly meant ‘reign’????”

Yeah. I saw it. I saw what I did. “Oh… um…” I stammered, groping for explanation — or at least someone else to blame for this blatant error.

But before I could say another word, she had hung up the phone.

I blushed approximately a million shades of red that morning in the newsroom, and her sharp needle of criticism popped my happy balloon.

But do me a favor. Don’t feel sorry for the young news reporter. And don’t get angry at that fiery defender of grammar who dialed me.

Norman Vincent Peale once said that the trouble with most people, is that we’d rather be ruined by praise, than saved by criticism.

All these years later, I’m sure of it: my professor was trying to save me.

What You Need to Know About Your Critics

Look. There will always be critics. Some are well-meaning; and some are, well, mean. 

But don’t let either of them stop you. Don’t stop making your art. Don’t stop writing your story. Don’t muzzle your voice, or consign your paint brushes, or bury your dreams in the cemetery of good intentions.

The only effective way to avoid criticism is to stop what you’re doing. To never write another blog post. Never float another idea to the committee. Never risk your approval rating by suggesting your rad idea to the boss. You know, just sort of co-exist with the status quo. Punch in for the day. Do your time, and shuffle through life flatly, so that no one notices when you walk through the turnstiles or when you leave. Because blending in is the best way to disappear.

creativity, painting

But there’s a better way. Try this:

Make your crazy ripple.

Lose your fear of getting it wrong.

Let your creative impulses sweep over you like a tidal wave, and marvel at how beautiful it is underwater.

Trust the gift that God has given you, and then give it your all.

You might get it wrong. But you might just get it right.

And yeah… There will be critics. That’s okay. Some of your critics will dial you up, not because they want to pop your balloon, but because they want to make you better. Let that criticism change you for good.

And when mean people bash you with irrational, bewildering reproach? Do something completely mature like I do: Stick your fingers in yours ears, pinch your eyes shut, and shout at the top of your little lungs: “lalalalalalalalala!”

Did you know that the enemy wins when your critics run you off the rails? Did you know that the enemy gets happy when critics make you kill your good ideas? Your inner critic is the great eraser of creativity, rubbing out your best stuff by holding the threat of bad reviews over your pretty head. So do this: Pull the erasers off of your critics.

Just do what you do, OK? Let your inner Woodward, or Bernstein, or Monet, or Beethoven fly. And know that you’ll make a mistake. It’s guaranteed.

Because life is full of freckles and scars and crooked smiles and out-of-place hairs and mixed metaphors. And that’s how we know we are truly human, and truly alive.

Sure. You might get the publishing deal, or the corner office, or the opportunity to share your song on that dreamy wood-planked stage downtown. You might get the front-page story, on your very first day on the job.

And even then? The phone might ring.

And before you answer it, you might stare at the phone for an extra second. Because you aren’t sure if you should be thrilled or terrified.

But because you know that your critics don’t own you anymore, you pick up the phone anyway.


#TellHisStory Link-Up

So, what’s your Story? A #TellHisStory is any story that connects your story into the story of God.

You’re invited to tell that story right here, in community with us.

Share your narratives, your poems, your Instagrams tagged with #TellHisStory, … your beautiful hearts. You are the chroniclers, the people who help others make sense of the world with your words and your art.

Story is how we know that, no matter what happens, we can get back up again.

Visit someone (or two) in the link-up to encourage with a comment. Then, Tweet about your posts, and the posts you visit, with the #TellHisStory hashtag. Come back on Friday to visit our Featured #TellHisStory, in the sidebar.

A final note: This is a safe place to tell your stories. You don’t have to be a professional writer to join us. Story is built into every single one of us. Your story matters, because it’s part of God’s story down through history, not because you punctuated everything correctly. Deal?


For more details on the #TellHisStory linkup, click here. Share the love of story by visiting someone else in the community!

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  • wow this post spoke to me on so many levels. I too am a journalist and know exactly how you felt – front page baby! – then the critics – internal ones too. Just yesterday a fellow blogger caught a misused word in my lead sentence of yesterday’s post. I am grateful and she said she wasn’t sure whether to write me or not. We made a pack to always let the other know if they caught a mistake so our writing would be better and not distract from the message BUT those voices – in and out will at time sap our joy, don’t they? thanks for hosting the link up too.

    • That’s great that you have a partnership with a friend, to look out for each other. I believe in striving for excellence, but balancing it with grace toward one another — and toward ourselves. Keep up the great work, Jean.

  • Thanks for hosting! And, just let me say, THANKS, I needed this!

    • My pleasure to host, Debbie. Thanks for stopping by.

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  • My heart was sinking with that phone call, Jennifer. ha. Beautifully told. Your story reminds me of our choir director who always tells us, “If you’re going to mess up, mess up big!”–to still give it all we’ve got, even if it’s wrong, and if it is wrong, at least he’ll hear it and will help us get it right.

  • Thank you for this great reminder. I often get hung up on criticism, regardless of whether it was constructive or destructive. Thanks for the exhortation to keep offering, to keep going, to keep growing!:)

    • Keep on keepin’ on, sister.

  • Really good advice here, Jennifer – and much-needed right now. Which reminds me…did I ever tell you about my “Open Panty” typo? Yeah, “panty” instead of “pantry.” In an obituary. With an irate funeral director on the other line. Good times.

    • Lynn D. Morrissey

      Oh forgive me, Michelle, but this made me flash an open-mouthed-teeth-baring smile! There has to be something funny in times of grief, or we would all die of despair–truly.
      Sometime, remind me to tell you what I said to a room full of older men during one of my USO presentations at a Rotary Club. Talk about mistake! But once I realized what I’d said, I could only ignore it and move on. Sometimes, there is nothing else you can do. I’d reveal the faux-pax here, but Jennifer might kick me off her blog. I don’t know how on earth I did it, but it was not a PG comment. (I can only feign ignorance, and naivete, but of which are true!)
      Love you,

      • Lynn D. Morrissey

        Ok…..so edit me: That should read, “both of which are true!” =]

    • Jillie

      Ah Michelle, I love, love, love your sense of humour!!! You rock, Girl! Good times.

    • Lisha Epperson

      Omg Michelle! That’s funny.

    • Lynn Mosher

      LOL I had to catch myself from falling off the couch! That is too funny! That is one of the greatest typos…EVER! Thanks for the great giggle of the day! 😀

    • LOLOL! Oh my gosh you poor thing!!!!!

    • Oh my word, Michelle. HILARIOUS!

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  • Jody Ohlsen Collins

    “The only effective way to avoid criticism is to stop what you’re doing.” Ohhhhhh, so wise. This is so well timed. The phrase about blending in was powerful, too. I love your voice and your encouragement. You are a gift.

    • Thanks, Jody. Always appreciate your sweet words in the comment box.

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  • So wise and true. And very timely for me 🙂

    • So glad the timing was right for you, Alecia. Praying that whatever project you’re working on now … that only the healthy critique comes your way.

  • Such wise and encouraging thoughts, Jennifer. Thank you. I’m longing for the day when those dreadful inner critics won’t own me anymore. I’ll have to try your method: “Stick your fingers in yours ears, pinch your eyes shut, and shout at the top of your little lungs: “lalalalalalalalala!” 🙂

    • Go for it Trudy! Muzzle the inner critic!

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  • soulstops

    Thank you from a woman with freckles, scars and who uses mixed metaphors when she gets carried away 🙂

  • Perfect timing today. Thanks!

    • So glad to hear that the timing was right for you, Susan.

  • Roxann

    Jen (If I may),

    Your words ring true. I’m happy you wrote this as this has been a struggle of mine for quite some time.

    “And when mean people bash you with irrational, bewildering reproach? Do
    something completely mature like I do: Stick your fingers in yours ears,
    pinch your eyes shut, and shout at the top of your little lungs: ‘lalalalalalalalala!'”

    I struggled to muffle the laughter when I read that paragraph. Unfortunately, I was unable to and the office was subject to a somewhat vulgar outburst *blush*. That is some serious advice lol.

    Thanks again 🙂

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  • Guest

    you ROCK. Seriously.

  • Carol J. Garvin

    Those are the moments when I wish desperately for a quick tongue and a better sense of humour… to be able to laugh and say something like, “Oh, THAT? Yeah, I meant the former but the ‘g’ somehow managed to slip through the cracks. I’m honoured that you read my article so carefully.” Cheeky, I know. The better retort was probably silence. I love this: “Lose your fear of getting it wrong. Let your creative impulses sweep over you like a tidal wave, and marvel at how beautiful it is underwater.” If we don’t just dive in, we may never learn to swim. 🙂

    • Good point. Gotta dive to swim in the deep end.

  • Thank you for this, Jennifer. I’m with you! Yes, I don’t want to be “ruined by praise” or “bury my dreams in the cemetery of good intention.” Here’s to making my next creative mistake and the believing that the one after that may turn out more than just right.

  • Alyssa Santos

    I have let the enemy win. I have to say, it’s hard to forget when someone tells you your writing sounds like bad rap music. But, thank goodness we have Jesus and his word to correct our trajectory and keep us doing everything unto his glory, whether we have approval or criticism from others. 🙂

    • Someone said your writing sounds like bad rap music? Or is that a hypothetical? That’s just … not right.

      Thanks for popping in, Alyssa. (Do you have a rapper name, though?) 🙂

      • Alyssa Santos

        Hot Mamma May.
        I make rhymes that make you pay.
        I could do this all day.

        Actually, he meant it. Eventually even the mean criticism can make us better at what we do, if we let it. Or it helps us develop a better a ense of humor:)

  • Sarah

    I love everything about this story. And now I’m sure that you’re human. Oh, and I want to have coffee with you and hear all of your stories.

    • So. Very. Human.

      Thanks, Sarah.

  • Oh, golly. I have to stop and decide whether reign or rein every single time.

    • Me, too.

      You, by the way, know the art of constructive, helpful critique.

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  • Lynn D. Morrissey

    Jennifer, truly this is such a wonderful and encouraging post!!! It is humbling to be corrected, but whether or not it is done lovingly or harshly, we can learn from it. That said, if you are the one critiquing, there is a kind and gracious way to do that, that encourages someone to keep trying, as you are doing here. My husband loves to edit my writing (well, I force him to, because he is so good). And sometimes, it really smarts. But I know he is right, and ultimately, I appreciate his wisdom. And other times? I do kind of what you are doing w/ all that la-la-la-ing, and I say, “Ok, Michael, I hear you, but I’m the author, and this is the way it’s going to be. So there.” Sometimes, critics won’t just correct errors, but criticize your voice and intent, and sometimes you just have to stand up and be yourself. I once had an editor blast the first proposal of my book with both barrels. It wasn’t a critique, but a holocaust. I’ve never read anything like it. She had an ax to grind. I’m so glad I had the wisdom to know the difference and kept trying, A well-published poet and good friend of mine said this: “Just remember, once in print, you’re fair game.” I think that sometimes we forget that. When we put our words out there, we should expect reactions. Hoperfully, though, there will be a lot of appreciation in the mix. I just want to hear God’s “well done.” I know you do too, and I’m sure that is what you hear!!! I love everything you write!

    • You are so sweet, Lynn. Thanks for the encouragement. … I love a good, constructive critique. When picking a publisher for Love Idol, my top priority was an editorial team that would make me work hard. I wanted hard edits. I wanted tough feedback. And I got it.

      • Lynn D. Morrissey

        Thanks, Jennifer. And I agree: tough, fine-tuned edits are a good thing. A good editor should make you look good!

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  • I loved this post Jennifer! Perfect timing for me as I am walking a crazy journey that keeps the shy me and the {now} multitude of imaginary critics screaming for me to please stop. Thank you 🙂

    • Press on, Abigail. … So glad the timing of this post was just-right for you. Praying that the imaginary critics would be muzzled, and that if there are real critics, that they only be the kind who make you better … not cause you to shrink away. All the best to you!

  • “Make your crazy ripple.” Oh yeah. That’ll preach. I did the same thing, just the other day. I used the wrong reign/rein. And there it was. Out there in broad daylight, reminding me I’m human. Ripple on…

    • What is it with those two words? I always have to look it up, even after being called out on it.

      I like the way you ripple, friend.

  • “But because you know that your critics don’t own you anymore, you pick up the phone anyway.”

    Best. Line. Ever.

    • Thanks, Cheri. Those days in journalism taught me a lot. I’m not immunized against the pain of criticism, but those years in the newsroom helped me figure out ways to stand up under it.

  • Michelle Anderson

    Thanks for giving me something to think about. I confess I prefer to blend in, fly under the radar, ninja, stealth fighter. I just hate criticism. The annual evaluation is a terrifying experience because they tend to tell you everything you do wrong. But life in the shadows is also a lonely place to be.

    • Michelle Anderson

      And I had a momentary loss of vocabulary. I couldn’t remember what rein means. D’oh!

    • Oh. Yeah. Annual evaluations. Eek. When I was teaching journalism at Dordt, Student
      Evaluation Day gave me hives. I mean, most of the students gave legit feedback. But there were a few who had done very poorly in class, and who you just knew were going to give negative feedback.

  • pastordt

    I LOVE THIS. Thanks, Jennifer. You’re the real deal, you know?

    • Means a lot coming from you, friend.

      You know, I’m pretty tender-hearted, and criticism makes me cringe. But those years in journalism really helped me learn how to stand strong, under the heat. So much of the criticism was incredibly constructive, albeit blunt. Additionally, I had some incredibly profanity-laden calls from public officials — even calling my home after-hours. I won’t name names, but wow … I got an ear-full back in the day.

  • Jillie

    All I can say, Jennifer, is that I’m so glad you didn’t hang up the ‘cleats’ when the ‘coach’ let you have it!

    • Thanks, Jillie. I’m not immune to the pain of criticism, but my days in journalism certainly helped me in learning to deal with it.

  • Tania Runyan

    Thank you so much for this, Jennifer. I was hurt yesterday by some sharp criticism I received on a blog post, and I almost asked the host to remove the article altogether because it was just too much for me to handle emotionally. As a result of this experience, though, I made the decision to no longer read comments–at least for the time being! (Hm. . .are you reading this comment? Ha!)

    • Oh man. I am sorry to hear that, Tania. Yes, I am reading the comments. And yes, I’ve had some doozies here. I don’t know the details of the criticism you faced, but I can tell you that one of the hardest types of comments/criticisms that I receive are those in which I’ve been clearly misunderstood. Which can so easily happen. Press on, Tania. It’s been exciting to see your “How to Read a Poem” book EVERYWHERE. Congratulations. I feel like I’ve got a star in my comment box!

      • Tania Runyan

        Hm. . .”star” *may* be relative, but I’ll take it! Thank you for your grace-filled words. Yes, I think it was a matter of misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and the assumption that I may have wanted to participate in theological debate when that is on the bottom of my list of things I like to do!

  • Lisha Epperson

    When we say yes to whatever He calls us to…the critic gets silenced. All we have to do is keep saying yes. To God. To the adventure. Always love being here…definitely one of my favorite linkups. Happy Thursday Jennifer!

    • Speaking of linkups … YOU!!! I read the news on Deidra’s blog yesterday. That’s fantastic.

      • Lisha Epperson

        this made me smile..Thanks Jennifer! Your blessing means a lot!

  • June

    That word always reminds me of my love/hate relationship with the English language – “The reigning King reined in his horse as they galloped through the rain!” I pity people that try to learn English as adults! Kathy Traccoli made me feel a bit better about it all when she intentionally used the word reign in her song “Reign On My Parade” – asking God to reign over her life!

    Jennifer, this is one of those posts that made me stand up and cheer you on! I know God will use this to bless and encourage others – ripple on!

    • Thanks June. I need to memorize that rain/reign/rein ditty!

  • Love, love, love this post! Thank you so much for writing & sharing it. My heart continues to grow as the Lord guides me to boldness with humility. What a walk it is & I am so thankful. Blessed to connect with you here. You are a blessing to many.

    • Thanks, Jolene. It’s been wonderful getting to know you online.

  • Lynn Mosher

    Oh, Jennifer, such a great post. My skin has grown much deeper in the last few years. I don’t have to try to please my critics. I only have One critic and I aim only to please Him! Awesome as always! 😀

  • This is timely for me Jennifer, really great encouragement! I just started “writing a novel” with no experience at all, and my inner voice is telling me how stupid I am for doing it. And, I do listen most of the time. 🙁

  • Lose your fear of getting it wrong. Oh how I needed to hear these words today. thank you!

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  • Laurie Collett

    Great post, Jennifer! Our former pastor used to call these critics “voices of defeat,” like Nehemiah faced when he rebuilt the wall. Praise God that He knows just how to encourage us! Thanks for hosting & God bless!

  • Megan Willome

    I hate those kinds of misplaced word errors because they’re so hard to catch. I just caught one in one of my articles: “go” was “got.” So, no one caught it.

  • Nancy Ruegg

    I’m sitting up a little straighter, shoulders back a little farther, breathing a little bit deeper as a result of your encouraging words. My critics not only don’t own me, they do not have permission to weigh me down. With God’s help I want to let go of defensiveness–even if it’s only taking place in my heart. Instead, may I embrace the help within the criticism and discard the rest! Thank you, Jennifer!

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"When you catch a tiny glimpse of the future be sure not to smother it with your own agenda. Let it breathe. Let it grow at a healthy pace. Admit it's both delightful and terrifying. As you take your next right step today trust that God won't let you mis… ift.tt/2ophzwB pic.twitter.com/uTYr8c7vdm