Friday, March 24, 2017

How to Respond to Criticism

I know it's Spring Cleaning time around here, but I have something I need to get off my mind. Hey, I guess it fits the theme, after all!

Listen authors, we gotta talk. Bad reviews and other forms of criticism can hurt. Whether you haven't even finished your first manuscript or you have published eight thousand books, you're going to receive criticism.

Like, a lot.


Whether it's that guy in your MFA class, a member of your critique group, an agent offering precious feedback, an editor declining to publish your work, or a reviewer commenting on a published work, you're going to get a lot of it.

Some of it really is nonsensical and may have more to do with the reader's problems than the writing. Some of it is going to click right away. But most of it? You're going to think it's all shades of idiotic and undeserved, but sometime later (maybe years?) you're going to realize your critic had a point.

Though it may feel like it, criticism about your writing is not a personal attack. Someone saying they don't like (parts of) your book is not bullying. The info here does not pertain to actual personal attacks where the person has some kind of power over you. If you think you might want to contact the police or a lawyer, do that. Don't tweet about it, just do it. Personal attacks and actual bullying are a different issue. But in the heat of critique, it is very often difficult to realize the difference, and many authors have misconstrued the two.

It has become apparent that maybe some authors could use some tips on how to respond to criticism. From someone who has been a reader, reviewer, hopeful author, mentor, editor, published author, and publicist, I'll offer my (admittedly not perfect) advice.

1) Don't respond.

Not to argue, not to "correct." You're going to disagree with their opinions. Just do so inside your own head, okay? If it's someone you've asked to critique your work, you're permitted two words: "Thank you."

I know you want to defend yourself and your work. But you don't have to. You put your work out there and someone responded to it genuinely and honestly. That's it.

But if a reviewer got every single one of your main characters' names completely wrong, describes your light and fluffy romance as a creature horror, or grossly misrepresents your book in some other way?


Don't respond.

That's it. I know you're angry and/or hurt. We're compelled to defend ourselves. Your emotions are real. But for everyone's sake (especially your own), you gotta back off.

So what can you do?




Scream at the sky, drink a glass of wine, pet your puppy, go to yoga class, dance around your apartment to old-school Avril Lavigne, strap yourself to a chair until the rage passes, carry heavy stones up a hill then back down again, cry your eyes dry, call your BFF/sister/therapist/partner and rant about it - whatever you need to do to process your emotions privately. But then let it go.

I should be able to stop here, but recent events have shown that some of this needs to be spelled out more explicitly. So.

2) Don't write about it in any public or semi-public space.

If you wouldn't post it on facebook, twitter, and the front page of the New York Times, don't create a written record of it. Let me rephrase: If your publicist would so much as give you that little half-frown she does when you're being slightly ridiculous if you put this on twitter, don't email or message or post in a "private" facebook group. Emails can be forwarded, "private" facebook groups are the privacy equivalent of fish netting for clothing, and anything written can be screenshot.

This includes subtweets, posts where you don't name the critic and/or only summarize what they said instead of quoting them. One, you're just bringing more attention to the critique you don't want anyone to see. Two, in my nine years in the book community, I have literally never seen any response to criticism turn the tide of public opinion back in the author's favor.


This isn't just so you "don't get caught" but it's because you're going to say things either you don't really mean or don't understand the full ramifications of. Writing it and making it public - that's permanent. You can't take it back, ever.

If you really can't control your compulsion to write about it, go the old-fashioned route with pen and paper. Then light that shit on fire and let your bitterness float away with the smoke.

3) Don't contact the critic.

As the kids on twitter say: don't @ me. No tweets, no emails, no goodreads comments, no facebook messages, no tumblr reblogs, no instagram comments, no sending $0.01 donations via PayPal, no writing billboards, no passing things through a friend.

"But what if...?"


Nah, just don't.

And (Lady Godiva help me, I can't believe I have to say this) do not -- under any circumstances -- seek out & share personal information about them, contact their place of work, go anywhere near them in person, talk about their children in any way, tell everyone who will listen how much they hurt you, or any number of things I would never think I would have to warn you away from.


4) Read your positive reviews/feedback

Negative feedback can leave you feeling defeated, in addition to angry. Chances are, you've received positive feedback. Go ahead and re-read that. Say to yourself, "See, THIS PERSON appreciates my genius." Then maybe make friends with them if you're not already. Bask in the glow.

Don't isolate yourself to the point where all you hear is praise, as that will stunt your growth as a writer, but revel in your fans when you need to.


5) Don't read reviews

Some people offer this as blanket advice, but I don't. I think reviews can be a great source of both encouragement and education. And if the work is not yet published, you're going to HAVE TO listen to criticism of it. No one writes a perfect book on their own.

But some people just can't handle reading negative comments of their published work. And at that point, it's not like you can change the book anyway. Most of the time, you think you can handle it, but then you find them gnawing on your mental health and energy. If you find that happening to yourself, if your muscles are straining to respond or lash out, don't read any of your reviews.


Ask your publicist to send you the good ones, but don't lay one digital finger on your Goodreads or Amazon listing.

Some critique may find you, but you don't have to seek it out.

6) Listen & Consider

It may seem like this is the opposite of the last point, but it doesn't have to be. Here's the thing: a lot of that criticism that stings or feels like a knife to your gut? It may be valid.


Whether it's that you lean too heavily on the word "smirk" or your book could be harmful to a marginalized group, wait until you're calm and really consider the potential validity of the criticism. Maybe discuss it privately with someone whose opinion you value (but make sure it's also a person who is not afraid to tell you when you're wrong).

Take it in, process it, and use it to improve your writing.

If something in your writing has deemed to be hurtful, apologize. (Note: "I'm sorry you were offended" is not an apology.))

7) Revise or Start Something New

Now it's time to move on. If the work is not yet published, and you can use the criticism to improve your work, do that.

If the book is published. Write something else. Something better and (if applicable) something not harmful.



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