Most artists don’t like negative feedback. Writers are no exception. We put our time, blood, sweat, and tears into our writing; it’s an extension of ourselves. This link intensifies when we conjure the courage to publish. Reading a “bad” review of our latest publication feels like a friend bashing us on Facebook. Maybe we’re overreacting to minor criticism or maybe the person who wrote it really is being a jerk. Some people have sticks up their butts and want to troll the world. That’s a sad fact of life. Still, not all “bad” reviews and negative feedback are meant to be mean. Despite what we might tell ourselves or vent to our loved ones, they may not be entirely baseless, either. Rather, these criticisms are just honest reviews.
As with negative feedback from alpha and beta readers, our knee-jerk reaction to honest reviews can be rash and disastrous. We may blame ourselves and our writing, start badmouthing our entire being, and threaten to give up. On the flip side, we may brush it off as people hating us, our writing style, the genre, whatever, and decide that the reviews aren’t worth our time or energy. While the second option protects our fragile egos and prevents an immediate shut-down of our careers, both could damage us as artists.
I’ve preached repeatedly that you shouldn’t give up when things seem bleak, and I’ll continue to do so in the future. What I want to discuss here is the value of pursuing honest reviews, rather than ignoring them.
All writers know that, in the workshop/editing phase, we must evaluate negative feedback rationally and decide which remarks are helpful. But what about after publication? What should we do about negative reviews? If they damage our marketability, how could they possibly help us?
Despite the potential hit to sales, receiving negative reviews are a blessing in disguise, so long as they are honest.
First of all, honest reviews may not impact book sales the way you would think, even if they are negative. Yes, a review which critiques the work may deter people from reading it. However, The Ramblings of a Madwoman pointed out that readers are also more likely to choose a book if the accompanying reviews are genuine. One- or two-line positive reviews seem suspicious. Did someone drop fluff in the feedback without reading the book? Did the writer’s family or friends post these reviews to boost the writer’s confidence? If readers doubt the authenticity of the review, they’ll question the quality of the book itself.
Beyond the sales perspective, honest reviews can show you where your writing can improve. If multiple reviewers point out spelling or grammar errors, you should consider more thorough proofreading. If people appear to be harping on one aspect of the book–character development, plot, setting–you can focus on developing your skills in that area.
In some cases, you can act on honest reviews by adjusting the piece they critique. The increasing presence of e-books, small publishing companies, and self-publishing allows for more frequent re-printings. Did the review mention spelling and grammar errors? You, your editor, and/or your publisher can make note of these errors and fix them in the e-book and other re-releases of the work. Are you receiving a lot of negative critiques of your self-published book? Perhaps it’s time for you to re-read it with a fresh eye and work on re-writes. That’s the miracle of self-publishing; if you prematurely put the book on sale, honest reviews can help you see the mistake and go back to the drawing board.
Most importantly, though, you can carry these lessons into your future endeavors. You don’t have to entirely change your writing style or topics to please critics. In fact, I strongly discourage such alterations. Instead, you can keep the honest reviews at the back of your mind as you edit and rewrite your next piece. So and so said the main character for your last book was flat, does your current protagonist have depth? Most reviews complained that your transitions were clunky, should you read the new scenes aloud to see how the transitions feel? Many readers found typos in your last self-published novel, have you truly fixed all the errors this time? Should you hire an outside editor? Multiple? Can you trust the editor you used last time, or do all these complaints suggest they dropped the ball?
“Bad” reviews are hard to receive, even when they are honest (or perhaps especially). As with negative critiques from workshops, we must take them with a grain of salt. We cannot let them ruin our self-confidence and deter us, but we can’t ignore them, either. They may contain a kernel of wisdom which would take our writing to the next level, if only we listen.
What are your thoughts on honest reviews? Would you prefer an honest “bad” review or a review that blows sunshine your way? Some “bad” reviews really are left by trolls and haters. How do you ween them out?
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