Tips for Coping with Criticism as a Writer

Have you ever had a performance review at work? That awkward meeting when your boss evaluates whether or not you deserve to keep your job, what you could be doing better, etc?

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have regular, unscheduled performance reviews, often from total strangers, on a variety of different platforms? Well, that’s basically what being a writer is. Our readers are the boss, and we rely on their feedback to improve our craft, make our books as good as possible, and, ultimately, to get paid.

Of course, some feedback will be encouraging and constructive. Other feedback will be … less so. If writers complain about harsh criticism of our work, we’re often told that we need to grow a thick skin. Which isn’t bad advice, but how, exactly, are we supposed to do that?

The fact is, a lot of writers are sensitive people. And when you pour your heart and soul into a book, harsh criticism of it can kinda feel like someone is pointing at your child and calling her ugly.

So I’ve been thinking about some ways of dealing with criticism, and I’ve come to realise that there are actually a number of different reactions to harsh critique. I think that recognising and understanding them could be helpful when dealing with them, so let’s start with…

The Defensive

“This beta reader has pointed out a whole load of flaws in my book. But she clearly hasn’t read chapter 3 properly – if she had, she wouldn’t be saying the ending needs foreshadowing. And she can’t be right about the pacing, I paid extra attention to that. Yeah, honestly I just don’t think she gets it.”

If your knee-jerk reaction is to scoff and dismiss criticism, try to do the following:

  • Pause. Let the words sink in. Try not to be afraid of them or how they’ll make you feel.

  • Listen to your gut, not your knees. Knee-jerk responses are rarely helpful, but gut feelings can be useful. If your gut feels confident that the criticism is one you can safely ignore (for example, the book simply not matching a reader’s preferences), then go ahead and dismiss it. But if your gut tells you the reader is making an important point, ignore that criticism at your peril!

  • How many people are saying the same thing? If one reader makes a criticism, this may be a matter of personal taste. If multiple readers say the same thing, it’s more likely that you have a problem to address.

The Defeatist

“My writers’ group just gave me some pretty some harsh criticism. I don’t know how I’m ever going to fix this manuscript. Maybe I should just start a new one. Or try a different genre. Or quit writing altogether.”

If you find yourself wanting to throw in the towel, try these first:

  • Remember positive feedback you’ve received. A bad review doesn’t make you a bad writer. Chances are, your writing has brightened many people’s days, and quitting would be a loss to those readers as well as future readers.

  • Read 1* reviews of classic literature. Pick a masterpiece like, say, Pride and Prejudice. Then go and read 1* reviews where readers complain that there’s no kissing and Mr Darcy is a snob. There’s no stronger evidence that perfectionism is pointless.

  • Read a flawed book that you love. Maybe the plot is thin but the characters are fantastic, or maybe the dialogue is a bit flat but the world-building is phenomenal. Remember that a lack of negative feedback is not the goal. Bringing readers joy is the goal.

The Drama Queen

“This reviewer really hates my book. But that’s okay, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. It’s not the end of the world.” (Said while looking up the reviewer’s address and buying lighter fluid and matches)

No judgment. But maybe try the following tips before making any rash decisions:

  • Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. Despite what many people say, it’s okay to be hurt by bad reviews. It doesn’t mean you’re over-sensitive, over-reacting, or over-anything else. That being said, lashing out at the person criticising your writing is always a bad idea. Yes, even if they’re talking out of their arse.

  • Use criticism as rocket fuel. So what if certain people think your writing sucks? You’re going to work hard, become a super-successful, widely-read, award-winning author and … well, they’ll probably still think you suck. But you’ll be super-successful and won’t give a shit anymore.

  • Remember – one person’s 1* review is another person’s 5* review. A lot of complaints: “too slow-paced”, “the main character was a bitch”, “too dark”, “too silly”, “too gay” are exactly what other readers are looking for!

I hope some of these tips are helpful. Feel free to add your own in the comments, and if you disagree with any of my points go ahead and tell me … I can take it.

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