Up to now in my writing series, I’ve been focusing on fairly basic stuff. I’ll be continuing the “Writing Good” posts, but I’m going to start addressing topics for more experienced writers as well. Today we’re going to deal with one of the biggest bugaboos, bad reviews.
This is a big subject with a lot of elements, and I don’t pretend for a moment to have everything to say on the matter. But having been writing for publication for a decade and a half, I suspect I have a lot more experience dealing with negative reader feedback than most indie authors. In this, I’ve developed a simple, straightforward approach to dealing with unpleasant responses to my work, and here it is:
But Learn from Them.
Is that clear enough? Either way, we’ll now get into the details of it.
I’m a little more than two months into my indie author career, and the organic (as opposed to solicited reviews) are starting to come in. Naturally not all of them have been positive, and some have been downright negative. I’ve not yet gotten any abusive or trollish reviews, but I’m sure those are coming.
The first thing we need to acknowledge is that writing is hard, and putting your writing out there for the world to pick over is even harder. Getting bad reviews and negative feedback can be highly destructive to your ego and desire to write.
If you’ve gotten that point, there are few things you need to do to reclaim your mojo.
First, acknowledge that you’re publishing because you want an audience. Otherwise, you’d be Emily Dickinson, hiding all your work away until one of your sisters finds it and publishes it all. You’re putting your stuff out there because you want people to read it. Own that decision. Those reviews didn’t magically float down on your head.
Second, acknowledge that you have limited control over your audience’s reactions to your work. You can—and should—do your best to make it as professionally polished as you can, but some people are just not going to like the things you want to write. That’s on them, not you.
Third, and finally, lay claim to your status as an artist and don’t let go. The world is largely divided between creators and critics, and in the long run, it’s not the critics who count. Maybe you’ll be a complete failure, but at least you gave it your best shot. You’re doing more for the human race than people who sit back having opinions but never creating anything of their own.
Those three are the elements of Fuck Them. But you can’t stop there.
Being able to say Fuck Them allows you to look at negative feedback objectively. This is important because plenty of negative feedback has value. As long as it’s delivered constructively, you can pull some useful nuggets from it.
In my case, the two worst reviews The Wizard’s Daughters has gotten so far—a 2-star and a 3-star—have both complained about things I felt needed to be improved for the next book in the series: the shortness of the book and the relative lightness of the plot. So having seen that I’m not alone in being concerned about this gives me motivation and a road map for improvement going forward.
Most negative feedback does have some value, but you have to be able to check your ego at the door. Take what works and forget the rest of it. Your growth as an artist will be severely stunted if you simply shut out all negative responses to your work.
Is there feedback that has little or no value? Definitely. I put Goodreads’ silly star rating system there. Some people have given me 5-star ratings and some 1-star. But what do I do with this? All I know is that some people liked the books and some didn’t. It tells me nothing about why.
Trollish and abusive reviews are also a waste of your time. Again, Fuck Them. Some people are toxic assholes, and you should avoid them online like you would do in person.
Fuck Them also enables you to avoid doing something you really need to avoid doing, and that is engaging with your reviewers. The only time I ever respond to comments about my work is when I get the occasional thoughtful email or DM from a reader. But public reviews? Never.
The reason you should not do it—even with positive reviews—is not unlike the rule at sporting events about not going down on the field and athletes not going into the stands to respond to hecklers. Disaster often results when that happens. You’re breaching a wall your readers don’t expect you to breach. Most of them want you to stay out there in that nebulous mental zone where we keep all celebrities: Not One Of Us.
When you do it, even to respond positively, you’re disrupting that relationship, and risk creeping out readers who may feel they’re being stalked. Online book review culture is in many ways best viewed as a cocktail party you’re not invited to. Lots of people enjoy discussing books amongst themselves much as we all enjoy (however much we may deny it) talking about other people behind their backs. If those people overhear or wander into the conversation, it naturally makes everyone involved feel awkward and embarrassed. This goes double if the unexpected guest wasn’t even invited to the party.
Responding to negative reviews intensifies this reaction, because you’re lowering yourself to the level of your critics. If the review, however negative, is objectively reasonable and constructive, you come across as an angry crank. If the review is objectively trollish, you’re rolling around in the mud with pigs. Both situations are going to turn off the readers who have to watch it. Bestselling authors can get away with being angry cranks because they have legions of fans who will rationalize their behavior and keep buying their books. But you can’t, so you’re best off not even starting.
So the next time you get a negative review, Fuck Them. But then come back later and see what there might be to learn from it.