There are a lot of articles about “coping” with negative reviews. One-star, zero-star, slams and takedowns can make even the most confident writer go through a moment of self-doubt. As a writer and reviewer, I’ve been on both sides of this equation. One time, an offended writer even came to my blog to object to my review in the comments. Which, I think we can all agree, is never a good move for a writer.
But I understand that it can be upsetting, particularly for new writers, when someone gives their work a negative review online. As an editor, I’ve even had writers who’ve even been upset by less-than-effusive (and I don’t mean negative, I mean less-than-effusive) comments made about their own work in reviews of larger collections.
It’s a big bad world out there, and not everyone is going to adore every word that comes off your pen (or keyboard). So here are my tips for quieting the “OMG I’m worthless!” voice that might pipe up when someone says something unflattering about your writing.
1. Any review is just one person’s opinion.
Find out who that person is, and see what other kinds of opinions they’ve shared. For example, the other day I noticed that someone had slammed one of my early plays with a 1-star review on Goodreads. Since the previous review had been much higher, it was a little annoying to see it fall by several stars with one fell swoop. But when I clicked on the person’s profile and checked out their website, I found out that not only was their independent review site dedicated to slamming books “so bad they couldn’t be unread,” but they also took issue with the work of writers who are widely acknowledged as leaders in their particular fields. Realizing you’re in good company definitely helps get rid of the bitter taste of a negative review.
2. People have different tastes.
Not every piece of work is going to connect with every reader. And you don’t necessarily want it to.
— Daniel José Older (@djolder) March 29, 2014
When another piece of work was reviewed with one star, and I started doing my digging, I found out that the reviewer’s single favorite line in all of literature was from…50 Shades of Grey. Not to knock EL James, her work, or her readership, but it seems to me that someone whose tastes run so intensely to that particular piece is unlikely to be looking for, or interested in, a book of social-issue themed science fiction. In this case, I doubt very much that the reviewer in question would like any of my work. No harm, no foul.
3. Bad reviews lend credibility to the good ones.
Particularly since the rise of self-published fiction, there has been controversy about how authors acquire reviews. I often provide review copies to serious reviewers, and they note this in their reviews (and I do the same when reviewing the work of others – it’s called disclosure, and lets your reader know why your reaction to a piece of work might differ from that of the general paying public). But there has been a lot of discussion of authors paying for reviews, or recruiting friends to pump them up, and I’ve even seen some readers who say they don’t believe a book is good unless it has a range of reviews at different star levels. While you might lose a few stars early on in the game, keep drumming up reviews and eventually the law of averages will start to reflect a more balanced image of how readers are reacting to your books.
4. Take it as feedback, figure out what’s really being said, and use it to make your work better.
Recently, my play Ace In The Hole had two scenes read aloud at a “scratch” night in Newcastle, England. After the performance, audience members were encouraged to write their reactions on cards and tack them up for the companies who had presented to read and learn from. When the company forwarded the comments to me, I was thrilled that, for the most part, people seemed to have engaged with the play on its own terms – but as with any group, there were a couple of people who hadn’t liked the work as much as others. Now, theater is a little different from fiction, since there’s usually an opportunity for development of work after an initial presentation to an audience, but the same rule holds true: when an audience member takes the time to review your work, no matter what they say, take it as an honest reaction. If you’re unhappy with what they’ve said, consider whether they might have a point.
In the case of Ace in the Hole, one comment that gave a little sting was that the piece might be better as a radio play. Now, one way to take that is, “This play sucks, it’s not visually interesting, cancel the production.” But if someone took the time to give the feedback, it’s probably because they think there’s something there worth developing. In this case, my interpretation of the feedback was that the action of the play was too static, not physical enough. After all, in a radio drama you only have the medium of sound, whereas on stage both the dialogue and the physical movement of the actors need to contribute to the overall dramatic action. As I redrafted and rewrote the play to its rehearsal draft, I took this as feedback and looked for natural opportunities to make the play more physical. The final draft features a lot more necessary physical action than the first one, and it’s all because someone was thoughtful enough to let me know what part of the play they found lacking.
5. Sometimes, you just have to ignore it and move on.
As part of the same session, one piece of feedback spoke about how the company’s mission was to engage young women, but the play itself seemed like it would speak more to the young men in the audience. There’s not a lot that can be done about that. Ace in the Hole is a science fiction play, set in space, featuring three female characters fighting for survival. To my mind, that feedback speaks more to the audience member’s presupposed notions about who likes science fiction in general, and military-themed science fiction in particular. Since I know plenty of women who enjoy those genres, and since the remit of the commission was to write a play with an all-female cast, set in space…this wasn’t a piece of feedback that I could let lodge in my head.
There are other ways to think about criticism – for example, my home town newspaper has one critic who I love to read because I know no matter what he thinks of a piece, I’ll think the exact opposite. That’s one reason why I’m a big fan of critics who let you know their bias when they’re writing – if you know someone swings for experimental poetic fiction, for example, you might take their thoughts on a historical bodice-ripper differently than if they exclusively review the romance genre.
While we’d all like to think that everyone who picks up our book or buys a ticket to our play is going to love it, writers shouldn’t be afraid of someone out there disliking their work.
After all, in art, as in life – if you’re not pissing somebody off, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Have you read my work? If you have a moment to give it a review – or even just a star rating on Amazon – it would be very much appreciated. Rather leave your mark over at Goodreads? Consider this your invitation!