On taking criticism as a writer
Don't take it personally
Over the past six months I’ve been covering how to write serialised fiction, from plotting and planning to pacing and publishing. Before we go any further, we need to talk about something important. Criticism. Feedback. Comments. People not liking your writing.
Because it will happen. Even the most popular books in the world, or the most critically acclaimed, have thousands of people who utterly hate them and aren’t afraid to share that opinion.
If you’re putting your work into the world for the public to encounter you have to be ready for what that means.
It’s a double-edged sword: you can’t find success in reader numbers or financial reward without also being open to very public responses. Writing online and serialisation in particular puts you very close to your readers - far more so than, say, traditional print publishing - which mean you need to be mentally prepared. In my experience this isn’t nearly as terrifying as it sounds, because most readers are lovely - it’s a very different community and culture on the whole to, say, the wilder realms of YouTube or Reddit. The vast majority of comments I’ve ever received have been friendly and positive, and when a reader has been critical they’ve invariably done it in a constructive, respectful and useful manner.
I’m also conscious that I’ve had a long professional career of putting my work on the internet, one way or another, and have developed a healthy set of armour towards this kind of feedback and interaction. If you’re not used to making your work visible to the public it can be a lot more daunting.
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A few tips, then:
Think of yourself as a product
Yes, that sounds extremely odd, I know. And very capitalist. But bear with me.
This is a tip I picked up from the two Marks on the Bestseller Experiment, and it involves a subtle mental shift which builds in a bit of armour that will make it easier to contend with your first feedback. The notion is to think of yourself as An Author, upper case, when dealing with your written work. It’s about creating a buffer between your personal self and your work, crafting a professional persona through which you can filter your interactions with the public. When a reader leaves a comment - good or bad - I don’t receive it personally, as if they are directing it me, Simon. Instead I treat it like I might if I was at work, in the day job, and a customer called up. That’s where Simon K Jones comes in - my author entity.
Practically there’s no difference, of course. It’s still me. But by approaching my writing with a professional attitude, it stops criticisms feeling like personal attacks. A little bit of distance is built-in that gives me space to breathe. It can help in other areas as well, such as being disciplined about your writing and the quality of your publishing.
All that said. Don’t turn into a vacuous, corporate shell. That’s not the intent here - apply just enough distance to take the hurt out of comments, and leave it at that. You still need to appear genuine, especially in the writing itself.
Take a breath
If you get a less than positive comment about your work, whatever you do don’t respond immediately. In fact, it’s often best to not reply at all to negative comments.
Remember: your job is not to convince the reader that they’re wrong.
It’s their opinion, there’s no changing it. At most, thank them for their feedback and leave it at that. Trying to start a conversation will almost certainly not end well, especially for you.
There’s three kinds of negative comment.
The vague and polite negative comment. Something along the lines of “This is a bit weird, don’t really get it.” There’s nothing in there to really discuss or take on board. In this case, it’s probably simply not their thing. There’s nothing you could have done to appeal to that person. The crucial point to acknowledge is that you can’t please everyone, and that trying to do so would be a waste of your time and talent. Try to appeal to everyone and you’ll miss everyone. Instead, write for yourself and your tribe. If you really want to say something, this is when to go with a simple, non-judgemental “Thanks for your feedback”-style response.
The specific and polite mixed/negative comment. “This is quite well written and the dialogue is decent, but the main character is really unpleasant and I couldn’t relate.” Here it’s all about context: if your protagonist is supposed to be an anti-hero, then this is probably mission accomplished and the reader simply doesn’t like those kinds of stories; if you thought the protagonist was a super fun time, then it might be worth investigating further. Someone who replies politely will often be up for further discussion, so feel free to engage them about their point, but don’t make the mistake of trying to change their mind, or openly disagreeing. Open up a dialogue as more of a fact-finding mission, where you’re trying to find out about them and their point of view, rather than aiming to sell them on your authorial intent. These are people you can learn from: they will make your writing better. Value their time and they’ll be grateful.
The rude negative comment. “You are the worst writer! lol can’t believe this is what passes for literature these days.” It’ll happen at some point. Quite simply: don’t respond. There’s nothing to be gained and you don’t want to get drawn into a protracted and ugly argument with a non-fan. Save that effort for pleasant discussions with people who actually like your stuff! The internet is littered with prominent authors who came unstuck by arguing with their own critics. One note - think carefully about controlling your comments areas by deleting negative comments, as that can get you a bad rep and attract accusations of censorship. Founded or not, it can inadvertently make things worse, Streisand Effect-style. The exception to that rule of course is when someone is being actively offensive or using threatening language, aimed at you or anyone else - in those cases report it, nuke it, ban it, always.
Be a happy writer
The other aspect here is your own well-being. For every 9 positive comments you receive, the 1 negative comment will be the one that sticks in your brain. We all focus on the negative when it comes to feedback on anything and you need to keep an eye on yourself once you start publishing.
Remember: some people don’t like Shakespeare. Lots of people dislike the Harry Potter books. Each year there will be people who think the Booker Prize-winning novel is terrible. Think of any classic book and there will be naysayers. Think of a book you don’t like, and there’ll be people for whom it’s their favourite.
Point is, it’s not about your writing.
It’s about humans having a wide range of reactions to everything, which makes it impossible for you (or anyone else) to write something which everyone will like. Once you accept that, it becomes a lot easier to accept when people don’t like what you’ve made. It’s not you, it’s them. And that’s fine.
Also keep in mind that the feedback, no matter how personally it is phrased, is about the work itself. It’s not about you as a person. If someone doesn’t get on with a book you’ve written, that doesn’t say anything about you. Which comes back to the earlier point about establishing a bit of separation between yourself and your author persona.
Positive, friendly comments are easier to receive but you can still become unstuck. If somebody takes the time to leave a nice comment on your work, it’s always a good idea to reply. The reader will feel heard, might be excited to have a connection to the writer, and it’ll possibly increase the likelihood of them returning for future chapters and projects. That said, don’t be too effusive - don’t freak them out. They’re not your new best friend, they’re a reader. Treat them with respect and maintain a professional demeanour. You don’t want to them away or have a chilling effect on open conversation between readers. You also don’t want to become too visible as The Author, as it might interfere with their ability to enjoy and become immersed in the writing. If they ask a question or raise an interesting discussion point, remember that they will have an interpretation of your work that is quite likely to be different to your own. Once a book is out in the wild, it no longer belongs entirely to you, the writer. Especially if multiple readers are having a healthy discussion, consider carefully before wading in. The author suddenly appearing in the middle of a fan conversation can seriously kill the vibe.
Is your writing any good?
OK, that heading is a challenging one. Most writers are worried about the quality of their work throughout their careers, regardless of their individual successes. If you’re an early career writer, especially if you’re preparing your debut, it’s even tougher. You don’t have any evidence either way as to whether you’re a good writer or not.
Before you dive in head first and start serialising your work online for all to see, it’s a good idea to seek out some smaller scale audiences to gauge responses. Look for local writing groups, or share samples with friends and family. Take writing classes and workshop with other nearby writers. Seek independent readers who don’t have an emotional stake and can be relied upon to give you honest feedback. If there are any fundamental issues with your writing it’s better to address them with a small audience before you post it widely.
Remember always that ultimately it is your book. You have to sift the feedback you receive, whether from editors or agents or readers, to figure out what is useful and true and what can be discarded. You don’t have to take it all on board. Over time you’ll tune your senses to identify when feedback has to be acted upon and when it can be ignored. If more than one person gives you the same specific piece of critical feedback, then it’s probably worth considering further - they might have a good point, which will help you write a better story.
Someone saying you’re a bad writer doesn’t mean you are a bad writer.
It definitely doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
It just means that your stuff didn’t work for them. Not a problem, especially if it worked for all those other readers.
The more your write and publish publicly, the thicker your skin will become. You’ll also hone your ability to filter through feedback to find the genuinely useful stuff which will improve your work, while discarding anything that could impact on your creative confidence.
Don’t be afraid, but do be aware.
Thanks for reading. Hope that’s useful. I’m nearly at the end of this comprehensive tour through writing serialised fiction. Do let me know if you’re working on your own serialised project.
You can check mine out on this very Substack:
On another note, given the century’s latest apocalypse, this video seemed pertinent:
I’ve always admired J Michael Straczynski’s ability to craft memorable speeches - especially when put into the mouth of Andreas Katsulas, who somehow delivers incredible performances from beneath a ton of prosthetic make-up. I often wondered at the time why politicians didn’t hire JMS; though in retrospect I imagine he has more discerning taste in clients.
That episode was broadcast sometime around 1995, I think. I’m always fascinated by art which not only endures but takes on new meaning over time, either on the personal level or on a wider cultural level. As a teenager I read Babylon 5 as a warning about the past; as an adult it’s clearer as a warning about the present.
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash
I’m bookmarking this for therapeutic reasons. Excellent!