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September 24, 2015

Criticism & Reviews: How Do You Handle Feedback?

Statue of woman in pain with text: Can You Read Your Reviews?

Many of us start writing because we have stories in our head that demand to be told. That often grows into the desire to share those stories with others.

For many writers, the point of writing is to connect with others through our words. A story that’s not shared is like the hypothetical tree that falls in a forest when no one’s around. A story without readers can seem less real.

Because of that desire to share our stories, the feedback we receive is hard to ignore. Obviously, we need to read the notes from our beta readers, critique partners, or editors. (Otherwise, what’s the point?)

But what about after we publish? Should we read reviews of our published work?

The Case for Avoiding Reviews

As writers, many of us suffer from self-doubt. We can doubt our story ideas, our characters, our plot events, our writing craft, our cover, our blurb, etc. The list goes on and on.

So exposing ourselves to reviews can seem like torture. Why would we want to see evidence of how many people don’t like our book? Or what if they find a plot hole and we can’t do anything to fix it?

Avoiding reviews can be safer for our mental and emotional health. We already doubt ourselves enough on our own, and we don’t need others to help.

For many authors, it is best to avoid reviews, and no one else should judge them. Heck, we all have days when we’re feeling more fragile than others. Maybe we’re sick or didn’t sleep well, or maybe we just received other bad news, or maybe we’re already in a self-doubting mood.

That’s okay. We’re all allowed to set our own boundaries.

Most reviewers know they shouldn’t tag an author in a tweet or post about a negative review (because that’s the social media equivalent to getting in someone’s face and telling them how much they suck). So those who do are likely just being mean.

Unless we run into someone mean like that, we should be able to avoid our reviews if that’s what we want. We can choose to not visit our books’ pages on Amazon and Goodreads, not click on the review section of our Amazon Author Central account, and not Google the titles of our books.

But…

The Case for Reading Reviews

Curiosity can be hard to ignore. The potential of seeing evidence of others connecting to our story can be a powerful temptation. We might want validation that others heard our words.

Curiosity, connections, validation—there are many reasons why even those authors who intend to avoid reviews might give in and take a peek.

Most authors I’ve seen discuss this question say they don’t read reviews, or they tell others that it’s best to not read review. But I’ve also seen many of those authors admit that they cheat and look anyway. *smile*

I’m of the opinion that either choice is valid. There are several ways we can approach reading reviews with a healthy attitude—if we so choose.

Some authors purposely seek out reviews of their work. They might shrug and decide that their skin is already sufficiently thick, so they’re not going to worry about encountering anything negative. Or they might figure that they were able to handle their work being torn apart by beta readers or editors, and they don’t see a difference with a review.

Others might be able to emotionally separate themselves from their stories. They might not see their books as their babies, or they might understand that reviews are for readers, so they don’t take reviews personally.

A few authors might treat their initial readers as beta readers and look at their reviews to see where changes are needed. (Not recommended!) While others might see the reviews as big-picture feedback of things they need to work on in the future, such as character likability, finding a new copyeditor, etc.

What Category Fits Us?

I’m one of those types who doesn’t try to avoid reviews. Partly, that’s because negative reviews don’t bother me. Seriously.

I would never let a review affect a friendship or how I feel about someone, because I don’t take them personally. I’ve never cried over feedback, a bad contest score, or a rejection either. So to me, reviews aren’t much different. Also, I know that reviews aren’t for me—they’re for readers.

I don’t say that to brag or sound superior. As I stated above, we’re each allowed to set our own boundaries and decide what works best for us and our mental/emotional health.

In my case, I suffer from withering self-doubt in tons of different ways. Reviews just happen to not be one of them.

(That might be because my self-talk is often worse than anything others could say, especially on my bad days. I’ve learned to ignore myself. A lot. *smile*)

Whatever my neuroses, I can definitively state that I’d much rather have those who read my books feel comfortable leaving honest reviews for other readers than for them to not leave a review at all. I’m not joking when I say that I laughed and celebrated when I received my first one-star review.

My books aren’t for everyone, and I’m okay with that. (So yes, if you’ve debated leaving a review, please do. This isn’t just me putting on a “brave” face—I really don’t have an ego about my writing. *smile*)

If We Peek… A Survival Guide

However, there are many authors who intend to avoid reviews but peek anyway. For those, I really appreciated this post by Eric Trant on Kathy Pooler’s blog on how we can survive bad reviews.

He points out that bad reviews fall into several different categories, each of which say something different about the reader. I really liked these categories he shared because they give us a structure to look at negative reviews in a constructive way:

  • Heckler:

These reviewers find entertainment in the writing of their review. That’s okay. They’re not writing their review for our sake, so if entertainment is what drives them, that’s not for us complain about. (My first one-star was a heckler, and I was entertained too. *smile*)

The point for us to remember is that while there might be some gems of useful information in their review, they’re likely not our ideal reader. So don’t worry about their dislike of our story.

  • Constructive Critic:

These reviewers often give thoughtful feedback, so it’s more likely that we’ll find nuggets of insightful information here. Maybe they point out a pacing problem or that grammar errors distracted them.

These reviewers could be part of our target audience, and the fact that they took the time to give a thoughtful review says a lot. We want to care about these reviews enough that we see what we could learn for the future, but after that, we need to move forward.

  • Non-Audience:

These reviewers often pick on our genre, the tropes used in our story, the type of story, etc. If we’re smart, we’ll be grateful for these reviews because these elements are subjective. What they say they hate, another reader might love. A “Too much kissing!” complaint can grab the attention of a reader who thinks, “Oh cool! A kissing book.”

Regardless, we really shouldn’t worry about these reviews. These are in no way personal, and these negative reviews can help other readers find our books by pointing out what might be catnip for them.

  • Subconscious Fan:

These reviewers say they dislike our book, yet they can’t stop reading it. Eric’s post compares them to eating spicy food—when we want to stop but can’t—and that’s a perfect description.

In other words, they want to dislike our story, but they really liked it despite themselves. *smile* Others reading their review will notice that disconnect as well, so these negative reviews won’t hurt us either.

I also really liked Eric’s observation about paying attention to what the negative reviews don’t say. If we don’t get any reviews complaining about grammar or copy edits? Yay!

Same with plot holes, unresolved questions, characterization issues, point of view problems, confusing sections, etc. Each element that doesn’t come up in negative reviews is a victory for us.

That said, it’s still valid to want to avoid our reviews. We have to do what’s best for us. But if we happen to cheat or see them anyway, it’s good to have guidance helping us through the experience.

As Eric points out, the biggest lesson to take away from being exposed to negative reviews is that we shouldn’t let them discourage us from continuing to write. No matter where we are in our writing journey, we can learn, grow, and improve.

What our weaknesses are today don’t have to remain our weaknesses tomorrow. Whether the feedback comes from beta readers, critique partners, editors, or reviewers, the same mantra applies: Take what works for us and ignore the rest. *smile*

P.S. Would you like to guest post on my blog? Now’s your chance!
To make my NaNo November easier, I’m taking proposals for guest posts to run during November. Interested? Submit a proposal here.

Do you know what category you fit into: read or avoid? Why is that the best option for you? If you fall into the avoid category, do you ever cheat? Are you able to handle negative reviews or feedback, and if so, how? Does seeing these categories help with knowing which reviews you don’t need to worry about?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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34 Comments on "Criticism & Reviews: How Do You Handle Feedback?"

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Carradee

I’m one of those types who doesn’t try to avoid reviews. Partly, that’s because negative reviews don’t bother me. Seriously.
[…]
In my case, I suffer from withering self-doubt in tons of different ways. Reviews just happen to not be one of them.

Word.

My family denies it now, but I remember being taught that 100% negative commentary = “loving” and anything positive was a polite fiction at best. Compared to what I grew up in, even online trolls are more likely to make me snicker about their amateur screwups rather than bother me.

I seriously have to bite my tongue, sometimes, against the urge to advise the troll on what they’ve done wrong.

Just this week, I got called a skag (among other things), with an added comment that no man would ever marry me—in response to an on-topic comment on a grammar-related blog post. I raised my eyebrows, suspected the person had followed me from a comment I’d made and was ruffling feathers on a gender-related post, and couldn’t help but chuckle at how the person assumed I was 1. ugly, 2. a whore, and 3. interested in marriage. (I’m an aromantic asexual. Gift of celibacy, yay!)

So I ultimately found the comment more amusing than anything else, but for others’ sakes, I did report the comment to Disqus. It was removed within the hour, though that could’ve been due to deletion by the author.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Oh man, that was a very nasty thing to say. 🙁 I’ve also heard of someone saying online to a girl who wrote a feminist article, that he wishes she will sit on a butcher’s knife and lose her reproductive ability. O_O My gosh, how disgusting these people are!

But I’m glad you’re secure in your sense of self and that these trolling comments don’t affect you. 🙂

Reporting trolling comments is a good way to handle this too!

Carradee

🙂 Yeah, I was actually more bothered when Dad trolled my blog—for all of a few seconds, before I paused and realized, “If anyone else said this, I would’ve immediately recognized it as an Internet troll.”

Mary Kate

I’m not published yet but I’ve been able to handle classroom critiques really well–but that’s because most of them have been really positive. I am actually terrified of putting my work out there and having strangers through the internet write bad things about it.

I actually made it a policy myself not to write bad reviews on the internet–then I had one writer tell me that as a writer, she’d prefer the bad review to no review at all. So now I do write them (though not on my blog–only on Goodreads or Amazon) but I definitely try and be respectful and constructive as opposed to “this sucks”. I can only hope for the same from my future potential readers!

Roni Loren
When I debuted, I remember being wounded by negative reviews (or pissed, lol.) But I think it’s because you’re so very tender when that first book comes out–even if you’ve been through tough critiques and rejections before that. You feel like SO much hinges on those reviews. I’m now 11 books/novellas in and my skin is a lot thicker. It helps when the vast majority of the reviews are positive. If mine were all negative on a book, that would stress me out because then I’d know I’d really messed something up. But recently I got a review on my m/m novella that said verbatim: “She can’t write. It hurt my brain.” That was the extent of the review and I honestly laughed and then sent it to my friends. I was like–this one would be the one if I read my “mean tweets” like they do on Jimmy Kimmel. But it didn’t hurt me personally because a) the person has the right to feel that way, clearly they don’t like my style, b) I love that novella and am proud of it and 96% of the reviews are 4s or 5s and c) I’m a lot more confident than I was 10 books ago. I can take it. Now, that’s not to say I’m not wracked with insecurity every time I’m drafting a new book, lol. My thoughts: The previous books were a fluke! That RITA nomination was just luck! I suck! I’m only confident once the book is… Read more »
Amanda

I try to avoid reviews, but I’ve found you can’t ignore them completely. If you self-pub and you’re sending out your own review requests, going through the reviews to find reviewers who enjoyed your books is kind of a given, unless, of course, you don’t care about inadvertently sending a request to a reviewer who absolutely despised the last book of yours they reviewed. You can’t really avoid them either if you go through a publisher – I was just filling out promo forms for a new publisher and they asked for review quotes on my previous books.

I got a “heckler” review on my self-pub debut. The reviewer marked it as DNF at 40%, gave it 2 stars, and then proceeded to write a snarky review full of GIFs (which, I’ll be honest, is one of my favorite kind of reviews to read, because they are pretty entertaining and strangely informative). Oh, and since she’d received the copy through NetGalley, she wrote a SEPARATE review to send through NetGalley. After I got over the stomach-drop feeling, I had to laugh – she likely spent almost as much time writing both those reviews as she did reading the 40%!

Morgyn Star (@MorgynStar)

OMG, Jami! The world is full of this stuff. You’d never know it unless you are willing to put your soul on the line and take the hits.

Have to say, the thing that stuns me the most is the vituperative, I gotta get them before they get me nonsense.

I don’t review. For a bloody good reason. I haven’t the gall to tell the world that my supreme wonderfulness is such that all who hear it should bow down. My reviews are for my writing and my eyes only. So I don’t replicate the stuff that drives me wild and makes me stop reading after one or two grafs.

Karen McFarland

Awesome suggestions Jami. This would be another reason why I haven’t pushed the publish button yet. I’m afraid that if I push out the book too early, that’s only going to provoke more negativity. None of us can produce a perfect product. I get that. But why ask for trouble ahead of time. 🙂

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

When my book was published years ago I sought out reviews. Except for one reviewer who said she put the novel down after five pages of ho hum writing I was fortunate and got really good reviews. I’m going to be putting out that same book (self-pubbed, 30,000 words stronger and nearly 90% different) in about a month. Very excited about this after so much time being out of the picture. I’m going to seek out reviews again. It’s just how I am.
I want validation. I want to know people are reading my work.

Great post!
Have a WONDERFUL weekend!!!
Tamara

Mike

Good post and discussion.

I think EVERY reaction to one’s work should be considered. Hey, we’re in this game to be read, considered, and, hopefully, be talked about. Not that we should take every review as gospel — some people’s superpower is to miss the point, even spectacularly — but ignored, no.

Marcy Kennedy

I’m someone who tells herself she shouldn’t look and then I peek anyway. I don’t have a problem at all with the genuine reviews where someone didn’t like something. But I find it so frustrating when someone clearly misunderstood my intent or wants the book to be something it wasn’t intended to be (sometimes people criticize my books for being too short, for example, and all I can think is…”short is kind of the point”). I think those bother me so much because I know I can’t respond and set the record straight. I just keep telling myself that all I can do is my best and to focus on my intended reader. Easier said than done of course 🙂

LG O'Connor

Great post, Jami. My first review ever on my debut novel was a 1 star review from some dude on NetGalley six months prior to pub. Talk about a blow. His rant, filled with spoilers, showed he read all the way through. After my initial devastation, I re read it another three times. Heckler comes to mind. He compared my work to Nora Roberts. I took that as a compliment. These days, I smile and shake my head at negative reviews. Luckily, there haven’t been that many. Hey, I despised Gone Girl. It was a DNF for me. But that doesn’t make it’s a bad book. Just one that I personally didn’t enjoy.

Glynis Jolly

I scout for places online to get the constructive critism. That’s means going to places like Writing.Com and submitting work for critique. I avoid all other types.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Haha I’m way too curious to avoid reviews. (I’ve never had any official reviews posted on Amazon or Goodreads yet. Only feedback from friends and family who read my stories.) Ooh I LOVE constructive criticism reviews! I think they are very helpful and often insightful. Even if I disagree with what they say, or think that if I implement their suggestion, my story will be “damaged/ ruined”, I still really appreciate the reader’s time and effort in writing this critique. They can be very entertaining to read too, e.g. when different readers feel differently about something. One reader said “I think these tangents are too long and boring, please cut them out”, while another reader wasn’t bothered by them at all and liked the detailed character development inside the tangents. I unfortunately agree with the first reader, though, lol, and will get this changed in my story soon. Actually, you could say that I care more about the specificity of the feedback rather than the positivity or negativity of it. So I’d rather get comments like “I think X needs more character development. So far, he only looks like a perfect guy, and that’s boring (to many readers)” than comments like “I love your story!” Of course I’m happy if the reader loved my story, but if very general positive comments are all they say in the review, well…that’s not very interesting or helpful, haha. I wouldn’t force anyone to write about more specific details, of course, but I just… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Sorry, I forgot to mention one more funny story: For one of my short stories, my friend said that he doesn’t like this “fairytale and deliberately repetitive” style, doesn’t like the handsome and multi-talented protagonist (this story satirizes the Gary Stu XD), and also doesn’t like the abrupt change in tone from super silly to a much more serious and philosophical somewhere about 2/3 in the story. But my friend then said that what he said “doesn’t mean it’s bad”. Lol!! I actually didn’t even interpret that my friend’s critiques meant my story was bad. I only interpreted it as that my friend was not the target audience, and that it was not his type of story, haha. Still quite kind of him to reassure me, though. And I understand what he means about the abrupt shift in tone being unpleasant to at least some readers, yet I personally really love that sudden shift. So I might still keep that the way it is. ^^ At least this short story was only for fun and for practicing my writing, not for publishing. Hehe, yeah, I find it so hilarious when someone gives you a critique, then say “that doesn’t mean you /your skill/ your work is (are) bad” , while you actually never even thought that their critique would reflect poorly on you, your skill, or your work! A friend of mine suggests that it might be because I have a very high self-esteem. ^_^” Maybe.
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