Not all feedback is valid. I can’t stress this enough, so I’ll say it again: 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 to tell your story. 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 let’s face it, the people who complained to begin may never be happy with what you write. No matter what 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 how to recognise what makes them valid and worth listening to, and what doesn’t.
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 me for (i.e. customers and clients); been asked (by me) to read and critique or review it; or they have the relevant qualifications and/or experience to provide an informed opinion.
In addition, there are a few others who may have the potential to offer valid criticism. This would, for example, be someone who doesn’t fit into any of the categories above, but still offers 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, 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 they would still tell you it’s brilliant.
On the flip side, the fact that someone is a bona fide critic with all the right credentials 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 that the book sucked? Doe it make the author an illiterate, unimaginative cretin? Or is it possible that this particular critic simply doesn’t like or understand fantasy?
Make sure to consider the source of any criticism that comes your way before you take it to heart.
What's the Problem?
The second and third questions to ask yourself is what they are criticising and how they are doing it.
Here’s a tip: Take a day, or a week, and read as many reviews as you can possibly squeeze into your daily agenda. Trawl through amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble or wherever you normally buy your books from. Focus on books that you have read so that you know what they are talking about and can evaluate their review. You will soon discover just how many irrelevant reviews there are out there?
Do they complain that the story 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. Are you beginning to see the pattern here? All of these things, and a gazillion more, are highly subjective. It’s ok if a reader feels this way or that. They are sharing their feelings and opinions, and it’s got nothing to do with you. 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 extremely 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 the fact that you feel a certain way does not necessarily make the feeling itself valid. Your feelings may deceive you and trick you into rapid response mechanisms that don’t serve you or your brand. Don’t fall into that trap.
Start by working out why you feel the way you fee, then you can decide whether this is something you should, or need to, respond/react to. Just remember: 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 (but don’t have to) respond with a like or a quick thank you. Save your response messages on trello, notepad or some other kind of app or document you can copy and paste from. There’s 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. Trello makes this super simple btw.
If there are too many positive reviews to thank them all individually, you can screenshot them and/or write a thank you note to post on twitter, Instagram, tiktok or wherever you hang with your people. Reviews are excellent content, and people who leave positive reviews tend to be stoked if they get a mention from you.
If we’re dealing with negative reviews, start by evaluating them the way I mentioned earlier. If their 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 fighting people over shit that makes no difference. It happens all the time, online, in media, in our courts and in public spaces. 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. We may even want refute statements made. If this is the case, and you have established that you’re definitely not dealing with an issue you should ignore, 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. You should have grown out of that kind of behaviour at some point between the first tooth fairy and puberty.
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 you received and the response you gave. Repurpose your responses and use the critique for data collection. We’ll talk more about why this is good practice 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 this, the easier it will become to figure out when you need to listen and when it’s time to let go. It’s all down to practice and establishing 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 and what did you do about it?
Let’s talk in the comments below, or send me your response via socials or email.
Thank you for stopping by! I hope you enjoyed your stay and look forward to seeing you again.
Evalena Styf is a knowsy roll model and prolific content creator who lives in a queen size bed in the outskirts of London, UK, with a doggo, two cats and a personal assistant.
After 25+ years of anonymous blogging on a number of free platforms, she decided to go pro in 2017. Since then, she’s been working on getting all of her texts edited and put on display in the imaginary pirate ship she’s named after one of her most prominent character traits: The Resilience.
Evalena primarily writes non-fictional texts about personal and professional development, living the dream, and how to keep on living and loving when everything around you seems to be falling apart.