Assorted writing tips #4 – how to take negative feedback

"Writing", 22 November 2008

“Writing”, 22 November 2008 (Photo credit: dr_ed_needs_a_bicycle)


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.


Filed under writing, writing tips

11 responses to “Assorted writing tips #4 – how to take negative feedback

  1. This is a crap blog post.😉
    It’s crap because I was intending to write an article on exactly this topic.
    One issue that applies here is whether the writer should attempt to explain why they did things the way that they did. Often there’s a good reason why a reviewer’s suggestion wouldn’t work, or a reviewer may simply have missed the point. While it’s tempting to justify oneself and perhaps educate the reviewer, it probably comes across as defensive—but I could be convinced otherwise.

    • Lol. Peter, if you’d told me you were planning on covering this topic yourself, I would have steered clear! I just sat down at the computer this morning, thought “What shall I write about”, and came up with this. Sorry! :)

      In any case, you make a valid point. I should have distinguished between criticism of something done deliberately vs something done accidentally. If you’ve chosen a particular course of action and someone doesn’t like it, you could always just say “I see your point of view, however I have chosen to do it this way.” It’s your story, so if you’ve made that conscious decision then stick with it, and I don’t think it’s necessary to give reasons if you don’t want to. In my FF novel there is a person with a strong accent, which I wrote phonetically. I got a lot of criticism for that, and some people chose not to continue reading because of it, but I liked it so it stayed. That was my choice. I’ve also had people make suggestions that were the polar opposite of what I was trying to achieve, and again I told them that I had chosen to go a different way. Again, my story, my choice.

      If, however, I’m getting criticised for something I didn’t choose to do, well that’s when I think I should sit down and take notice. That’s where my writing will fall down if I don’t listen to what other people have to say, because they’re only trying to help.:)

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. I think writers who stay in this business long enough take a similar approach most of the time. But, yeah sometimes people say the stupidest things and some of them lack diplomacy and emotional intelligence. Have you tried Critters Writers Workshop? It’s probably the best place online for feedback.

    • No, I haven’t (because I haven’t heard of it before now), but I will! Thanks for the tip, much appreciated.

      As for taking criticism, well some people seem never to learn, no matter how long they’ve been in the game. However, I think you’re right, and in that sense this is aimed more at new writers who are getting feedback for the first time, or times. Having someone hate your work can be very discouraging, but there’s usually something we can learn from if we’re willing to listen and take it in.:)

      • Yes, listening and absorbing is the best policy. It also helps to get a consensus of sorts. Say six or eight people critique your work and the majority believe something isn’t working, it’s definitely time for a review just to make sure you’re making the right decision.

        Also, sometimes feedback can cause you to jettison the original story, which allows you to write a humdinger of a replacement.

        And I think it’s important to remember that most feedback is free. I see each critique of my work as a gift. Of course, some gifts are unwanted, but on the whole, they’ve come from people who want to help.

  3. Ones ability to handle the hard knocks partly depends on their faith in their own ability; primarily, their own judgement. Therefore, there’s a strong relationship between coping with criticism, and one’s self esteem.

    • Absolutely right, though I think everyone when they start writing has quite low self esteem, in that they have no idea if what they’re doing is any good. I remember being terrified of my first reviews. Even people who are very self assured normally can be quaking in their boots at the idea of someone reading something they’ve written. But you definitely have a point, and I think the more feedback you get, the better you’re going to feel about yourself generally (unless it’s ALL bad, which I hope doesn’t happen very often). Thanks for the comment!

  4. Eric White

    Good advice! Thanks for posting! : )

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