No author writes in a vacuum.
Unless your writing habits are entirely limited to scribbling in a journal you keep locked in a drawer or hidden between your mattress and your box spring, there’s a high likelihood that eventually somebody else is going to read your writing.
For many first-time authors, this is a make-or-break moment, the first real test of their mettle as a writer… and quite a nerve-wracking experience to boot.
What if my story is no good? you might think—or, worse yet, What if they don’t like it?
But you, intrepid soul that you are, pluck up your courage and approach a colleague or a trusted friend, and place your first story in their hands.
And they read it. And read it again.
And then the dreaded response comes back:
“Well…” they say. “I liked it… except, there was this one part…”
The fact is, dealing with criticism of your writing can be incredibly difficult. But it’s an important and necessary part of any author’s life, as the clearest and most candid indicator of how your stories are coming across to an outside audience. No matter where it comes from, negative criticism can be painful, even heartbreaking at times, but receiving and responding to it can be an extraordinary tool for improving your craft—if you handle it correctly.
Here’s a 6-step process you can use to deal with negative criticism of your own writing, and become a stronger writer in the process.
How to Handle Criticism Constructively
Right. You’ve just received your first piece of negative criticism—let’s say it’s a bad review of one of your stories. You’re understandably upset: after all, you work hard at your craft. Your stories represent significant investments of time and effort on your part.
So to know that somebody out there either doesn’t understand or enjoy your work (or simply believes it of poor quality) hurts.
But there’s a good way and a bad way to deal with negative criticism. Let’s take a look at a proven 6-step process to help you deal with bad reviews, harsh peer feedback, and other sticky situations constructively.
1. Take a Big Step Back
In this moment, it’s critical that you don’t let your emotions rule you. Take a step back from what you’ve read—put it out of your head, and don’t return to it for about 24 hours.
This should give you ample time to cool off, allowing you to re-approach your critics with a more detached, or even analytical mindset.
When you do return, reread the review with these two questions in mind, as they will determine what action, if any, you should take…
2. Ask: “Is this fair?”
Once you’ve reached a place where you can analyze your criticism objectively, you’ve got to decide whether or not you think the points made are valid.
Simply put: Do you believe your critics?
Remember that criticism is entirely subjective, and subject to the varying tastes and fancies of those who write it. Even the best and most popular authors working today get bad reviews—and many books that are considered classics today were skewered by critics of their era.
Consider the source of the criticism. Is this a review from a respected reviewer or literary analyst, or simply feedback from a fellow writer—or a reader? Neither should be discounted out of hand, but a critic’s level of expertise in the field can help determine just how seriously you take their opinions.
Now, take what you know about the critic’s background and combine this knowledge with your own internal judgement of your critique as you move on to the second question…
3. Ask: “Is this actionable?”
This, perhaps, is the best determiner of how you should handle any negative criticism you receive.
Even if you believe a particular critique is bang-on, there’s often very little you can do to course-correct, at least in the moment.
For instance: if a critic publishes a bad review of your novel, it’s not as though you can immediately publish a second edition with their criticisms addressed. Or if your fans express outrage at a particular plot choice you made—like your decision to kill off a popular character—you can’t simply resurrect them in the next installment without a well-thought-out reason or without risking the appearance of pandering.
However, so long as you continue to write, all criticism becomes actionable given a long enough time scale.
Use fair criticism as motivation to improve. Even if you can’t correct your current mistakes, you can avoid repeating these missteps in future stories. If fans are upset at a character’s demise, pay tribute by making their death meaningful in later installments. If reviewers denounce your thin characterizations, take steps to flesh out your characters in the next story you write.
As long as you stay positive and motivated, even the harshest condemnations can become opportunities to grow as a writer.
4. Seek Out “Author-Oriented” Criticism
There’s a reason bad reviews from professional critics can sound so harsh and cut so deep. They’re not written for you, the author. They’re for the reading public—and, to a lesser extent, the critical community at large.
While there is the popular fantasy of the deranged critic purposefully torpedoing the careers of creative types out of sheer hatred, it’s important to remember that professional critics don’t write reviews to help or harm authors. It’s a job for them, and outside of your writing being the basis for their craft, you as a person don’t enter the equation for them at all.
This highlights the need to seek out criticism that is written with you in mind: “author-oriented” criticism, if you will.
On this front, there’s one area of critique that warrants special attention: any feedback (good or bad!) that you receive before your story is published deserves consideration. This goes double for criticisms from your regular peer editor or your publisher, as they’re the most likely to be both fair and actionable—not to mention that they’re also the most likely to be made in your best interest.
While the job of a reviewer or other professional critic is merely to appraise the merits of various written works on a (more-or-less) objective basis, peer-to-peer editing or notes from your publisher are there for your benefit specifically. Your publisher, of course, wants to mold your story into a book that will sell well, while your friend simply wants to see you succeed.
Though both can easily be as harsh as any professional critic, they also present your greatest chance to improve your work before it’s even published—and should never be ignored.
5. Be Your Own Harshest Critic
A lot of what makes negative criticism sting the way it does is that it’s often unexpected. Of course you think your writing is excellent—you made it, after all. And you’ve spent so much time with your stories in the writing and editing process that they become particularly special to you, so you’re more likely to gloss over flaws in the writing.
So when a bad review comes along, it can often seem like the criticisms are coming out of nowhere, and leave you gobsmacked.
A lot of this can be alleviated by doubling down on your own self-criticism. There’s an old saw that advises writers to “kill [their] darlings,” and it holds a great deal of water here.
It sounds masochistic, but being harsher and less self-indulgent in your writing—and especially your editing—can make outside criticism seem much more lenient by comparison. Not only that, but this mindset has the added benefit of improving your editing process by encouraging you to poke and prod your writing, to get under the hood to understand your own style—and, ultimately, to remove any rusty or non-functional bits you might find.
6. Don’t Take Any of it Personally
This is easily the most important piece of advice for any writer facing negative criticism, and also easily the most difficult to truly follow.
Naturally you’re going to take it personally. You worked hard on that story. It’s important to you. Your writing is your passion, and your characters are like friends to you. To hear them disparaged, of course you can’t help but take it as a deep personal insult.
Resist this. Resist with everything you’ve got in the tank.
It will be hard at first. You might even fail the first time (or three), but as you receive more and more criticism (whether favorable or less so), you will begin to realize that it all reflects only on your writing, and not you as a human being.
Though your craft might take up a good deal of your time and play a large role in your life and livelihood, your stories are not you.
Learn How to Deal with Negative Criticism
Remind yourself to think of your writings as separate entities from yourself: not only will this help you take less personal affront from negative criticism, it can help you see your stories in a more objective light. Finding fault in your own work can often feel like you’re criticizing yourself instead of just the words on the page, but with the right framing, a more objective outlook can actually lead to better stories, and a healthier attitude towards your own writing in the long run.
So before you send your next story off for review, remember to treat all criticism you receive, good and bad alike, not as a rejection but as an opportunity to reflect and improve. Don’t be afraid to embrace it—and, like American novelist and screenwriter John Irving advises, don’t be afraid to disregard it, either.
LISTEN very carefully to the first criticism of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original or worthwhile.
— John Irving
Want to learn more about how to get book reviews in the first place? Read on!