This blog post was going to be long, but as I was finishing it up, I realized all my advice could be summed up under one point:
Nut up and take criticism in the spirit it is intended.
There is no worse writer than one who thinks his or her work is above reproach. It’s not. Ever. The best thing you can do as a writer, no matter your experience, is learn how to take people’s criticism in the spirit it is intended. Are there occasions when people tear your writing to shreds just to be jerks? Absolutely. But you know what? 99% of the time, when people tell writers what they liked and didn’t like about their work, it’s meant in a spirit of helping. Getting huffy and defensive about your work when someone is genuinely trying to help? Makes you a bad writer. Be willing to listen to people’s responses to your work, and be willing to ask for clarification on the issues.
Say, for example, you’re told that one of your characters is annoying. Ask for specific details. What did the character do that came off as annoying? What did the character do that didn’t come off as annoying? What recommendations do people have for fixing the problems they see with your character? If the character was actually meant to be annoying, defend yourself. But do it calmly. If you’re not getting yelled at, you don’t get to yell at other people. Accept the fact that just because you really, really like what you’ve written doesn’t mean other people will immediately think it’s perfect. Editing is the lifeblood of a good writer, and a willingness to listen to input is how you improve your writing.
If you can’t handle people being honest about your work, you can’t handle being a writer. Anything else you can do, any other skills you can learn to improve your writing, are absolutely useless in the face of you not being able to nut up and listen when people genuinely want to help you improve your work. You are not the be-all-end-all of modern writing. People are not out to get you when they try to help you write better. If you ask for truth and get it, and then turn around and say people don’t get you? You’re a bad writer.
There are certainly many things you can do to improve your writing beyond this, and I’m sure other people in this blogfest have covered everything from grammar to style to trusting your instincts, but for me, this is the be all end all: Nut up or get out.