The first impulse is to get angry and to defend your work. Check yourself before you blow up, though. Responding to negativity with negativity just creates more problems. If you shoot your mouth off to the Publisher’s Weekly reviewer, don’t expect them to ever review you again. If you engage in a battle on Amazon or on a message board, you’re going to look like a diva who can’t handle criticism. And getting into a battle with a comment trail troll is the biggest waste of time because they will hate you no matter what you do, simply because they want to hate something. You’ll never win any of these battles. You can defend your work all you want, but if they didn’t like it (or you), nothing you can say will change their mind and you’ll only look like an argumentative jackass.
So how can you deal with criticism? Here are some ideas.
Vent in private
If you have to go off on someone, do it in private. Vent to your partner, the dog, or the bare walls. Tell them all the nasty things you can’t say to the person who’s criticizing you. Get it off your chest and then let it go.
Look for the kernel of truth
Sometimes there is some truth in criticism, no matter how unkindly worded it may be. Try to find the bit of actionable truth in the critique. Are your characters weak? Your plot derivative? Your article short on facts? If there’s something useful in there, think about it and see if it’s something you can use going forward.
It may seem silly to actually thank someone who is criticizing you, but not all criticism comes from meanness. Some of it comes from people who genuinely desire to help you produce better work. Try thanking them for taking the time to read your work and offer advice. You might even want to ask for more.
Remind yourself that you’re dealing with individual taste
This is perhaps the most important lesson to learn. Taste is subjective and not everyone will like everything. If someone says they hate your book, it may simply be that they didn’t care for the genre, point of view, subject matter or any of a hundred other reasons that are taste based. You don’t like everything you read, so why should you expect all of your readers to love your work?
Fix it, if you can
If the criticism stems from something like a typo or a misreported fact and your piece is online, fix it. If your work is in print you’ll have to wait for another printing to address any errors, but notify the publishers so that things can be corrected. In the meantime, you can post corrections on your website. Thank the person for pointing out your mistakes.
If it’s too late to fix it, let it go
If you can’t do anything about it right now, let it go. You can ask that mistakes be corrected in a reprint or post corrections on your site, but beyond that you have to let it go. Just try to do better the next time.
Realize that some people are just mean
Some people get their jollies from making others feel bad. You probably learned this in elementary school and it’s still true today. Writers make easy targets for those who want to pick on someone. And the more successful you are, the bigger that target becomes. The advice is the same as what your mother told you in elementary school. Ignore the bullies. Engaging them just gives them more power.
Ignore personal attacks
Simply choose to ignore personal attacks, attacks that make no sense, and attacks that have no relevance to your work. It’s one thing to criticize your work, but comments like, “You must be fat and ugly,” “You’re a dumbass,” or, “You must sit around all day just thinking of ways to suck,” have nothing to do with the work. They are the product of someone who just wants to stir things up, or who has other issues. There’s nothing constructive or productive you can take from them so let them go.
Don’t let it stop you
If every writer who received negative feedback quit writing, we’d have no books. If you see a continuous pattern of people who don’t like your work and who are saying the same things it may be time to rethink your style, genre, or overall approach, but you can use the criticism to improve. You don’t quit just because of criticism. You get better.
Don’t take it personally
If someone is legitimately criticizing your work, don’t turn it into a personal attack. Your writing is not you. If someone says your sentence structure is weak, that doesn’t mean that you are weak. If someone says your character acted like an idiot, that doesn’t mean you are an idiot. Work is work and you are you. Separate the two and respond accordingly.
Discussing it is not defending your work. It is not saying, “Hey, I made the choice to kill off the main character because it felt right and that was my choice to make, not yours.” Discussing criticism means asking for clarification or inviting the reviewer to expound on their critique, particularly in the case where the review or comment was brief. Then you can talk about ways to address those concerns. A true discussion can be good for both of you. You can learn from readers, and they can learn how to make their critiques more useful.
While you can try to be big about taking criticism, sometimes you just need people to tell you you’re great and loved. Talk it over with your friends or partner. Have someone who likes your work reassure you. Reread some positive reviews/comments to reassure yourself that it’s not all bad.
Put it in perspective
If you have 600 positive reviews and thirty negatives, the negatives are only five percent of the total. No matter how angry or offensive they are, they aren’t the majority, or even close. Use numbers to give you some perspective.
Criticism happens to everyone. Look at the bright side — if someone is criticizing you it means that you’ve actually put your work out there and made people think about it. If you’ve got a bunch of trolls and haters ragging on you, that may very well be a (twisted) sign of success. They don’t usually bother haranguing unsuccessful authors. That’s a lot more than many would-be writers ever achieve.
(Image courtesy of Mollye Knox)