Dealing With Negative Criticism of Your Writing

your writing sucks
It’s a fact of writing life: Sooner or later, someone is going to say something unkind or downright cruel about your work. It’s going to be in a review on Amazon or (heaven forbid) a review in a major publication. Someone in your writer’s group is going to drop the pretense of being constructive and is going to point out all the flaws in your work. The comment trail on your blog is going to be populated by nasty trolls. Or, your loudmouth brother is going to make fun of your book at the family Christmas dinner. Brace yourself because it happens to all of us.

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.

Try gratitude

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.

Discuss it

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.

Get support

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)

13 comments

  1. I am quite sensitive and find it difficult when I get feedback like this. I am getting more used to it but it is still hard. For example I had an unsubscribe from my list recently and the feedback was “SCAM” now it was a free ebook asking for their credit card details…. It was free and the idea worked for me so not sure why someone would say that.
    I am starting to realise that it doesn’t matter what you do, if you are online there will be people who are rude and nasty.

    1. hahaha — if I got an email like this, I would assume it was a scam as well. Why would anyone give their credit card details to a complete stranger? That’s not criticism of your writing skills, that’s just plain common sense

  2. Great article Jennifer! I also agree that having a open discussion about someone’s critique of one’s work can be a very productive way to bridge the digital gap between the writer and the critic. If anything, critics will likely respect you much more for being open-minded enough to take what they had to say into consideration and ask more questions about what they didn’t like about your work and why. Cheers!

  3. That’s a great and very useful article! These points can actually help me in more topics than just my writing, so I say thank you for that. I will keep these things in mind for when I get a critique on anything I might do that somebody finds the need to be negative about.

  4. I’m a critic, and I actually agree with you. When someone gets overly defensive and angry over my simply telling what I see, I tend to pass that person off as immature, I certainly never deal with them again.

    Now when someone confronts me on it maturely, asks for advice or help, or even pulls out just the acceptance card? That brings a smile to my face. I’m more than willing to waste a few hours of my time helping them past that problem, explaining in detail what normally causes the problem and giving examples as to how they can work on it. I’ve even made quite a few friends that way.

    Basically, you need to realize the difference between a troll, a critic, and an bully. A critic sees a problem and writes it down in detail. A troll makes a problem or senses an insecurity and focuses in on it with the intention of hurting you.
    A bully wants nothing more than to hurt you, most of the time because it makes them feel better.

    I understand that professional writing is a lot different from fanfiction but the general idea is still there. Analyze the criticism, dig deep and see if you can get anything out of it. If you can’t, maybe it isn’t true. If you can, use it to your advantage. Feeling sorry for yourself or defensive creates stasis. Everyone has a contact who can give them advice, so if you’re confused bring it to them. Maybe they can help.

    Oh and at least on fanfiction, no one really trolls the little guy, so smile when someone’s giving you crap for no reason.

    1. This is so important. Criticism can be valid even if you don’t like it. If you refuse to accept valid criticism, you are only hurting yourself and your writing will never get better. If you aren’t willing to listen to criticism at all, you shouldn’t be a writer because no matter how good of a writer you are, you can always get better.

    2. “Oh and at least on fanfiction, no one really trolls the little guy, so smile when someone‚Äôs giving you crap for no reason.”

      This is what stood out when I read your reply. If people start critiquing your fanfiction, that means you’re doing something right. You’ve reach the point where someones feels it’s relevant enough to comment on it which is a huge step above silence.

  5. Great tips! I think it’s important not to lose heart when you receive negative criticism. Everybody likes different things, and I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who don’t think that Hemingway or Steinbeck are that good of writers or care for their work. Good thing those guys didn’t give up!

  6. One more thing I would like to add about criticism of any kind: Whether you are dishing it out to your just-can’t-remember-to-put-the-seat-down boyfriend, or writing a professional book review, do not criticize the PERSON. Criticize the ACTION or lack thereof – I read a review on Amazon today that was all “The author is really stupid to…” “The author must be a real b%*&^ . . . ” – that’s not helping anyone, and the only person who looks like B%*&^ is the person writing the review.

    This is a wonderful blog post, as are all the posts I have come across on this blog – please keep up the good work, Jennifer! It was also great to see a critic get in on the discussion – and I sincerely appreciate both his input and his willingness to help those willing to accept true, professional criticism (which is by definition constructive) as an opportunity to learn and improve your craft. And that is indeed the exact opportunity we should actively be seeking out, and for which we should always be grateful.

    1. Too many critics try to make the criticism personal and as soon as they do that, any criticism becomes moot no matter how relevant it may be. As you said, critic the work, not the person. Too many aren’t able to distinguish the difference.

  7. I want to be a writer, but everyone always tells me that my writing isn’t good enough. It’s so discouraging. They say that I should try and get a job doing something that’s more stable. The thing is, I don’t want to do something else. I want to be a writer. That’s my dream, but it’s so discouraging when everybody else tells you that you should do something other than your dream. How do I get rid of this negativity so that I can continue to pursue what I want to?

    1. It’s time to get new friends. Truly, if your friends don’t support you in the things you want to do, then are they really friends? A great place to get support for your writing is to join a writer’s group in your area. It will help a lot and give a lot of positive reinforcement to your writing.

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