Writing is subjective. There are no two ways about it. What one person loves, another will abhor. What one person thinks is good writing, another will criticise. The simple truth is that no matter how hard you try, you will never please everyone – and if you try to do just that, then the chances are that you won’t please anyone.
Writers love reviews, and any other kinds of feedback. It could be a tweet from a stranger telling them how much they loved your latest story; it could be a formal, several-paragraph review on Amazon or Goodreads; it could be in the New York Review of Books; it could be from a prospective agent or publisher. Wherever it comes from, we all love to hear what people think of our work.
Or do we? Because for every positive review or person who loved what they read, chances are there’s a negative one waiting in the wings somewhere. It may never see the light of day (some people just don’t review if they don’t like something), but everyone will, at some stage, get some feedback that tells them their work is utter rubbish. And no one likes hearing that.
Sure, some people appear thick-skinned and just shrug it off, but you know what? I bet they’re just like the rest of us. I bet they get just as hurt as everyone else does – they just don’t show it. They’ve learned how to handle it. And how do I know this? Because I’m one of them.
I had someone ask me once how I managed to shake off the negative reviews and concentrate on the positive ones. This was when I wrote fanfiction, and while I had a good number of people saying “I love this story!” and other variants on that theme, there were always some who felt they had to ruin the party. “This is the fanfiction equivalent of a trashy, smutty beach novel,” one person wrote. Another told me that “your story = vomit in my mouth”. And then there were the more constructive ones … “Your characters are flat and lifeless”; “this story is going nowhere”; “the plot is laboured and predictable, the characterisation stereotyped and the narrative tries too hard”. Okay, I might have paraphrased as I don’t remember them verbatim, but you get the idea.
My answers to these reviews, though, were always polite and respectful. Even those which offered no constructive criticism at all were dealt with in that way. Why? Not because I didn’t take them to heart, but because I sat on them for a while.
“How do you just shrug it all off?” my friend asked. The answer was, I didn’t (and still don’t). They stung. No matter how many people told me how much they loved the story and how it made them laugh and cry, and (in some cases) even how it had changed their lives, the negative ones were the ones that I thought about when I was going to sleep at night. Those were the ones that stuck.
What I did do, though, was wait at least 24 hours before responding. And in those 24 hours, I thought about what the person had said. No matter how much I didn’t want to hear it, perhaps they had a point. Perhaps my characters were flat and lifeless. Perhaps the plot was laboured and predictable. And I figured that, even if not all of it was warranted (I thought the ‘trashy, smutty beach novel’ line was a bit of a stretch, for example, as my story had next to no smut in it), the person who wrote it had taken the time to read the story and also had the courage to make their feelings known. If something is reasonably popular, it can be intimidating to go against the grain and say that you don’t like it, so I had to respect that. Besides, it was quite likely that these people knew more about writing than I did, so it would be worthwhile to take notice of their comments.
So my advice is this. Whenever you can, get your feedback in writing. This is of course easiest when it’s organised online, but even writing groups will provide written notes if you ask for them. If the feedback is also provided verbally, just nod and thank the person and say you’ll take it on board. Getting uptight in situations like this doesn’t help anyone. When it’s written, though, read it and then just sit on it for a while. A day, two days, a week, whatever works for you, but make sure you do it.
The reason, of course, is that any response written in the heat of the moment will come across as defensive and argumentative, because chances are you will initially think that the other person is wrong, no matter what. Once you’ve thought on it for a little while, though, you become more measured, and more likely to take it in.
And that’s how we become better writers.