When I first started writing novels in junior high, my stories were very precious to me. So precious, in fact, that very few people knew they existed, and fewer still were ever given the opportunity to actually read them. I knew they weren’t ready, they weren’t good enough, and I didn’t want to face the sting of negative criticism until they were “perfect.” I tricked myself into never showing anyone anything I’d written so that I wouldn’t having to come into contact with anyone who didn’t like what I had to say. Eventually, I showed my work to a few close friends, which was great, but my friends liked me and didn’t want to say anything bad about my work. It was great for my ego, but it didn’t necessarily improve my writing.
I dove into the deep end and decided I was going to try and publish my book. I sent it out to literary agents galore, but even this process wasn’t that harsh: there were rejections, but they were generic rejections. My book didn’t fit with their tastes, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad book. I could live with that.
Life got busy and I shelved my book for five years. Then I heard about Swoon Reads, did a very panicked re-edit, submitted it, and a month later, WHAM, it was chosen for publication. Even in the editing process with my publishers, there was never any harsh criticism, and while there were changes, they were all changes I very much agreed with. I’d managed to make it through 15 years of writing without anyone saying anything particularly terrible about something I’d created. But this criticism-less paradise was not to last.
When I got my first bad review on Goodreads, it floored me for the rest of the day. I’d known that some people wouldn’t like it, I’d known that I would get some bad reviews, because EVERYONE gets bad reviews, but it still hurt more than I could have ever predicted. I wandered around the house the rest of the day feeling sick to my stomach, feeling like a failure, feeling like I should never have put my work out into the world.
And then I sat down again and really looked at the review. And I thought about my book. And I compared what they’d said with what I knew to be true about my story, and you know what? They didn’t line up.
I want to hear what people have to say. I want feedback to inform and improve my writing, but I don’t want to get so wrapped up in criticism that it immobilizes me or devastates me to the point of inaction. I decided I’d set up some rules for myself when reading reviews:
Rule 1. Is the review accurate to my story?
Maybe they hated the dragon on page 257 and thought its dialogue was atrocious, but I didn’t actually have a dragon on page 257. In fact, I didn’t have a dragon at all. Or maybe they compared it to another book they hated (or loved), but that book wasn’t the same genre, time period, POV, mythology, or style, and therefore the comparison didn’t make sense. Whatever the criticism is, I want to make sure that it lines up with what I know about my own work.
Rule 2. Is the review helpful?
Was the reviewer revelling in tearing my novel apart, or were they carefully dissecting it in order to give useful criticism that could help improve my future writing?
While the extremely enthusiastic reviews are as exhilarating as the extremely negative reviews are devastating, what I’m really looking for are the reviews that take an honest, critical look at my story. I want to be told what worked, what paid off, and what was satisfying to my readers, as much as I want to know what didn’t work, what I forgot to wrap up, and what was distracting or frustrating to my readers.
If a review is not accurate to my story, and not critically helpful, I get to give myself permission, as an author, to completely and utterly ignore it. That’s incredibly liberating. And it gives me the space to keep writing despite negative criticism. So if you’re working hard at a story, and if you can apply these two very simple rules when you receive criticism on your own work — whether that’s from friends, family, or complete strangers — you will be able to separate out the good criticism from the lazy criticism, the useful feedback from the malicious response, and you will improve.
In short, keep at it, and keep writing.