Stephen King once said (and I’m totally paraphrasing) ‘As soon as you start doing something creative, there will always be someone around to tell you you suck.” I would suspect there isn’t an author out there who hasn’t faced a flaming review of this sort. It can be like a kick in the nuts, or (for female readers) a hard punch in the gut. The question is how to deal with it.
As I see it, there are five ways to take in a negative, scathing review; I’ve listed them below. Each comprises a point on a spectrum with numbers one and five being opposite extreme.
- The ‘THIS MEANS WAR!!!’ Approach:
“Not only is the reviewer wrong, but I will hunt him/her DOWN!!!”
- The Complete Disregard Approach:
“The reviewer is a jerk and doesn’t know what he/she is talking about.”
- The Read-Between-the-Lines Approach:
“While the reviewer has a terrible bedside manner, there are some interesting points in the review I ought to consider.”
- ‘The Come to Jesus’ Approach:
“The reviewer has provided me with a good, slap-in-the-face wake-up call and I need to scrap everything I’ve ever written and start again.”
- The Abandon All Hope (‘Where’s my Carton of Ice Cream?’) Approach:
“The reviewer is correct on all points and I should never write AGAIN!”
The ‘THIS MEANS WAR!!!’ Approach
New authors especially seem to have a tendency to fall into this sort of emotional abyss of anger and rage. Taking in criticism is tough, but all this approach serves you is a distraction. If you aren’t at the point where you can handle tough criticism, it’s something you’ll need to improve upon quickly. Otherwise, the writer’s life may not be for you. Once you put something out there, it’s fair game to a point and criticism is an unavoidable component of writing and publishing.
The Complete Disregard Approach
This approach implies that the author is reacting to the tone of the review without even considering if there are any valid points being made. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; if the author can’t get past the negative comments, it might be best to avoid them altogether. However, at some point real growth calls for a writer to be able to cross this hurdle without completely discouraging his or her muse. One of the most difficult skills in writing actually has nothing to do with writing and has everything to do with developing a thick skin. This entails more than just not letting things get to you. One can numb his or her feelings by avoiding tough criticism, but that means there’s still the possibility that the author is missing out on some helpful—albeit rude—insight. Developing a thick skin requires a writer to take a step back and look at the scathing critique with an objective eye.
The Read-Between-the-Lines Approach
This is what authors ought to shoot for. If the negative review has been posted on a public forum, there isn’t a whole lot to be done. You could defend yourself, but often that can backfire by giving the review additional weight. You could flame the reviewer back, but that can also make you look bad. Really, the best thing to do is take a breath and give it a good, hard, objective look to see if there are any constructive points worth taking from it. If there’s nothing to take from it, so be it, but it’s best if an author can try to give it an impartial eye before automatically dismissing it.
‘The Come to Jesus’ Approach
There are appropriate times for this approach…to a degree. Scrapping everything is rarely what’s called for, but it might be. If a reviewer notices a trend in the way you write, your story structure, character development or what not that’s not as effective as it could be and then offers a way to tweak or change what you’re doing for the better, it can evoke an Ah-ha! moment in the author. These moments can be great, like finding a new tool in your toolbox. However, there is a problem if the author is having too many of these Ah-ha! moments: it either means they’re trying to tackle a writing project that’s too advanced for them, or they are too dependent on what every single reviewers think. Sometimes reviewers know what’s best, but sometimes they don’t.
The Abandon All Hope (‘Where’s my Carton of Ice Cream?’) Approach
Take a breath. Now, take another. Getting a bad review is not the end of the world. Really. Movie actor, Ethan Hawke, wrote a book at one point—I remember reading about it. It didn’t do very well. In fact, it bombed. An interviewer asked him if the poor reviews were enough to make him want to put away his pen and give up. I never read his book, but I loved his response; he simply said (and I’m paraphrasing again), “If I did that, I wouldn’t be a writer now would I?” Everyone gets bad reviews sometimes. Now, take a third breath and keep writing.
So, if I’m to give the bad review a chance, what should I look for?
…or what you’re really wanting to know is, How can I tell if a bad review contains useable feedback as opposed to being nothing more than a load of walrus dung?
You could try checking out something the mean reviewer has written. You may find that their work is so pitiful it strips them of all credibility, or that they trend on specific writing preferences which may factor into the negative review they have given you. For example, I once received a fairly scathing review from a romance author. When I checked out her novel and collection of short stories, it occurred to me that she was stuck on one specific type of plot structure, never deviating from that formula. Reading her reviews of other works supported my suspicion. In her mind, a story must be written one way—once upon a time…something happens…and they lived happily ever after. Of course, not all stories are written this way (the world of literature would be incredibly boring if that were the case). By knowing her disposition, I was able to apply context to the review. Now, it doesn’t always work this way; keep in mind that just because someone isn’t a terrific writer doesn’t’ mean they can’t provide valid points about your work.
The best weapon in identifying the credibility of a negative review is recognizing constructive feedback from unconstructive feedback. Is the criticism specific enough to be able to assess and measure—in other words, does it steer you toward an action? Or does the reviewer use words like “suck” without a scrap of elaboration or evidence to support the idle claim? Reaching the point where you can recognize the trigger words that most often associate with constructive criticism without expending a lot of effort can make life much easier when dealing with flaming reviews.
Things to Remember
Just because someone is rude doesn’t mean they aren’t right or have good points to consider. By the same token, just because they’ve written something themselves or have a strong opinion, doesn’t mean they know a lick about anything. Be careful either way. The trick is to take personal feelings out of it and develop a stalwart desire to improve above all else.
If you’re unsure about a review, find a writer/editor/reviewer you trust with your work and get a second, third and fourth opinion. Do what you can to get past it—nothing deflates an author’s tires more than needless self-doubt. Getting past it isn’t the same as shoving humility by the wayside, but it does mean to have faith in your abilities to continue to grow as a writer. That should always be the goal.