I CAN’T STRESS this enough: Not all feedback is valid!
As I’ve mentioned before, people can’t help themselves. They just love to dish out criticism for all sorts of reasons, whether they know what they’re talking about or not. As a writer, therefore, it is vital to know when to pay attention to the feedback you’re getting and when to let it go.
If you take every opinion to heart, you may very well end up writing to please rather than writing to tell your story. And the minute you start writing what you think people are going to like you risk losing your writer’s soul. That which makes you uniquely you. And most likely, the people who complained to begin with are probably not going to be happy whatever you write.
To survive as a writer, you need to learn how to believe in your story and how to take criticism with a pinch of salt. And no, I’m not saying you should ignore feedback and reviews, but you need to learn what makes them valid.
Next time you’re dealing with negative feedback, consider the following:
Who's the Critic?
The first thing to consider is who your critic is. Does this person have the right or authority to criticise you? Not everyone does.
You need to decide for yourself what makes someone a reliable source. Here’s how I look at it. People who have earned the right to criticise my work have either paid for it; been asked (by me) to read and critique it; or have the relevant qualifications/experience to provide an informed opinion.
In addition, there are some people who may have the potential to offer valid criticism. This would, for example, be anyone who doesn’t fit into any of the categories above, but still offer feedback with an explanation as to why they feel the way they do about my work. I would count family and friends to this group, unless they fit the relevant qualifications/experience. But even then, I probably wouldn’t trust their opinion. And here’s why:
Family and friends (in most cases) love and support you. They want you to succeed. You could write the crappiest piece of word soup known to humankind, and your mum would still tell you it was brilliant.
On the flip side, just because someone is a first category critic doesn’t necessarily make everything they say right. Let’s take the fantasy genre as an example. Many a well respected literary critic will read a fantasy book and shred it to pieces in their review. Does that mean the book sucked? Or is it possible that this critic simply doesn’t get/like fantasy?
Make sure to consider the source of any criticism that comes your way and decide whether this particular feedback is worth your time.
What's the Problem?
The second and third questions to ask yourself is what they are criticising and how they are doing it.
Take a day and read as many reviews as possible on amazon and Goodreads. Make sure to pick books that you have read so you know what they are talking about. Can you see how many irrelevant reviews there are out there?
Do they complain that it is too long or too short? Ignore them. Did they find the language too rich/to meek? Ignore them. Are they unhappy with your MC’s looks, character traits, likes, dislikes etc? Ignore them. Is your worldbuilding not the way X or Y would have done it? Ignore them. Can you see the pattern here? All of these things, and a gazillion more, are subjective. It’s ok if they feel this way or that way. It’s just their personal preference. No biggie.
Is the critic being rude or threatening? Ignore them. (Unless they evolve into scary trolls, but we’ll deal with that in another post in this series.) Are they humiliating or berating you? Telling you you suck? Ignore them. People like this are generally speaking in a bad place. They may be hurting. They may be envious. They may be ill. If you can find it in you, leave them a kind response. But remember – you don’t owe them anything.
The real question here is whether there is validity to their criticism. And whether it would be in your best interest to consider it? Valid criticism includes things like spelling and grammar mistakes, noise, misrepresentation, factual errors, using established concepts the wrong way, being (un)intentionally hurtful/disrespectful, veering off course, plot holes etc. Essentially, things that you could, or should, fix to improve your writing.
If you receive any of these valid types of criticism, it is important to pay attention and learn from them. Even if the truth hurts. At the end of the day, it’s in your best interest and will help make you a(n even) better writer.
Why Do You React This Way?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most creative people are sensitive to criticism.
Here’s what I want you to remember. Whatever you feel when you receive any kind of feedback – positive or negative – is ok. But it’s not necessarily valid. Your feelings may deceive you and trick you into rapid response mechanisms that don’t serve you. Don’t fall into that trap.
Work out why you feel the way you feel. Then decide whether this is something you should, or need to, respond to. Just a heads up, though: Responding to feedback is not supposed to be a substantial part of your workday.
Let’s start with positive feedback. If it is online, you can respond with a like or a quick thank you. Save your messages on trello or in a document so you can copy and paste. No need to reinvent the wheel every time you interact with someone. Make sure to have a number of versions of the same types of messages and rotate them. Tello makes this super simple btw.
If there are too many positive reviews to thank them individually, screenshot them and/or write a thank you note to post on twitter, Instagram, tiktok or wherever you hang with your people. Reviews are content, and people tend to be stoked if they get a mention from you.
If we’re dealing with negative reviews, refer to what I said above first of all. If the problem falls into an ignore-category then do just that. Ignore it. No matter how butt hurt you may be. Far too many creatives spend far too much time making themselves look ridiculous by fighting people over stuff that makes no difference. This happens online, in media, in our courts and in public places. Don’t be one of those people.
Negative reviews tend to make us defensive. We may feel the need to protect our work or to explain ourselves. Or even refute statements made. If this is the case, and you have established that you’re definitely not dealing with an ignore issue, then don’t respond until you know what you want to say. Give it an hour. A day. Maybe even a week.
Take whatever time you need to consider your response. As a writer, you don’t want to send or post the written equivalent of a handful of sand in someone’s face, or a plastic shovel to their head. We grew out of that at some point between the first tooth fairy and puberty. Hopefully.
You are, by no means, obliged to respond to criticism. But there are times, e.g. in cases of work, relationships, or good faith, when you may want and/or need to respond. When you do, make sure to save the critique and the response. Repurpose responses and use the critique that warranted a reply for data collection. We’ll talk more about that later in this series.
There’s a time and a place for everything. Sometimes speaking is silver and silence is gold. Sometimes it’s the other way round. The more you work on your considerations and distinctions, the easier it will be to discern when to listen and when to let it go. The rest is down to practice and good working routines.
Hope that helps! Now, before I go…
– How do you deal with criticism and bad reviews?
– What’s the best/worst feedback you’ve ever received?
Let’s talk in the comments below, or send me your response via social or email.
Thank you for stopping by! I hope you enjoyed your stay and I look forward to seeing you again.
© Evalena Styf, 2020