Occasionally I see a take on social media to the effect of “If you can’t handle criticism, you can’t be a writer,” and while this take isn’t exactly wrong, I think it gets the cause and effect backwards. The suggestion is that a tough skin is required to be a good writer, while the truth is that sensitivity to criticism has nothing to do with writing ability. It’s just that writers can’t avoid negative feedback, which means those of us who’re more sensitive to it are also more likely to quit.
I spent most of my life wanting to write but not doing it, and that was about 40% laziness and 60% fear. On the rare occasion that I overcame my own internal editor long enough to finish a piece and show it to someone else, I was so inevitably devastated by getting anything less than glowing feedback that I would drop the project.
But I’m happy to say that I’ve finally perfected my technique—my technique for avoiding negative feedback, that is. Because it’s that technique that has resulted in a string of published novels, all of which I’m quite happy with even if not everyone is. And so now I’m going to share it with you.
Let’s start with that pesky internal editor. If yours keeps convincing you to quit, then the trick is to not let it look at your document until you’re finished. That’s the heads-down, keep-writing technique NaNoWriMo taught me and for which I’ll forever be grateful.
Yes, some people edit as they go. Some people read back through what they’ve written at the end of their writing session or before starting their next one. I am not those people. I can’t be. Yes, that means I occasionally contradict myself, repeat myself, or introduce plot holes. But all that can be dealt with in editing. If I quit before I have a finished first draft, then it’s game over.
If I don’t let myself look at my first draft, how much less do I let anyone else look at it? I used to be eager to show off what I’d done, seeking confirmation that it was worth the effort of continuing, but helpful suggestions for how to make my story better only ever made me decide it wasn’t worth the effort.
People aren’t wrong to provide constructive criticism, to point out areas for improvement. That’s what conventional wisdom says they ought to be doing. It’s just not helpful to me at that stage. So I’ve learned not to employ what are called “alpha readers.” I don’t show my work to anyone until it’s polished to a point where I know I’m proud of it regardless of anyone else’s opinion.
Eventually I do have to show my work to someone else, because I don’t know what I don’t know, and I can’t see what I’ve been looking at for multiple drafts. Publishing something that has never made it out of the echo chamber of my own mind isn’t going to lead to my best work and might result in putting something out there that’s problematic, hurtful, or just plain wrong. This is where beta readers come in.
Choosing the right beta reader is key, and the tricky thing is that until you’ve built up a stable of them, you’re going to be at the mercy of relative strangers (because using non-writing friends and family rarely works out, I promise you). As a super-sensitive writer, I share my tips for engaging with beta readers:
- Only use beta readers who normally read and enjoy your genre. When I had my action-adventure-loving friend read my saga about women struggling with addiction, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he complained about there not being enough action. I took his criticism to heart and shelved that book, thinking it was hopeless when actually he just wasn’t my target audience. He would never voluntarily read a saga about women alcoholics, so how would he know if mine was any good?
- Set expectations. There’s no shame in letting a beta reader know what percent of negative feedback you can handle. Don’t say “give me your worst” when history has shown that someone’s worst will leave you curled up in a ball sobbing for a week.
- Set expectations for level of detail too. I’ve had a critique partner give me a line-by-line review, and I didn’t like it. It’s fine for beta readers to pick out a few lines per book that confused them or didn’t work for them, but I don’t need to hear their opinion on each and every word I used. My sentence structure and vocabulary are mine. This isn’t a team project. So if, like me, you prefer high-level feedback, tell your beta reader that. I also find it helps to provide a PDF, mobi, or other format that doesn’t encourage in-line editing. When you turn over an editable doc to a writer, their busy little fingers are going to edit it.
- If it’s a bad match, don’t re-engage. If, despite setting appropriate expectations, you get feedback that’s too detailed or too negative, stop reading it. Thank the beta reader for their time, then delete their critique and don’t use them again. Not all readers will like your writing style. That will always be true—promise—so don’t change your style to suit someone who’s a bad match. Ideally, a beta reader will think your book is about 80% great. Find those beta readers and hang onto them.
- Eating the middle of the sandwich. Even 20% negative feedback can be hard to handle. My trick is to skim the critique quickly when I first receive it, then close it and leave it to simmer. I don’t immediately try to address it, and I definitely don’t argue with whoever sent it. A couple of weeks later, when I’m ready to dive into edits, I read it again and decide how much of it I’m going to incorporate into my next draft, bearing in mind that just because someone thought such-and-such doesn’t make it true. Do I think it’s true? That’s the key thing. Useful negative feedback makes me think, “Hey, you already kind of knew this.” Useless negative feedback tells me, “That thing you were trying to do with this book? People hate it.” Even a good beta reader is occasionally going to provide feedback that is better ignored than internalized.
I didn’t get a lot of negative feedback from querying because I didn’t get any feedback from querying. And if negative feedback feels bad, silence somehow feels worse—like you’re too low to bother raising up.
That’s why I stopped querying. So, yay for self-publishing where we can find our readers without going through gate keepers. Is that delusional? Isn’t admission into the wonderful world of traditional publishing the only way to gain true validation?
Well, I look at it this way. There are a lot of gates. Trad publishing manages one gate, but there are (and always have been) readers waiting on the other side of a lot of different gates. Those readers might be looking for what I’m writing and wondering where it is. I may never write a book that a particular agent or publisher considers “good enough,” but I write books that a lot of readers want to read, and self-publishing allows me to connect with those readers.
If seeking trad publishing approval has you bogged down in a querying cycle that doesn’t produce fresh output, consider breaking out of it by self-publishing what you’ve already written. You can always query the next book. If there’s a next book to query.
Here’s my dilemma: I love good reviews. Good reviews motivate me to keep writing. I like making money from writing—and it’s somewhat necessary financially—but I get a bigger thrill from the idea of people reading and enjoying what I’ve written than I do from the royalty check. I want to see the good reviews, but bad reviews can be crushing, and I’m capable of letting one bad review spoil twenty good ones.
This is the point where people are going to tell me to grow a thicker skin, but if they sell thick-skin seeds at Lowe’s, I haven’t seen them. I am who I am, and owning that instead of beating myself up for it has allowed me to work out how to keep working.
Negative views stop me from writing, so I need to stop myself from seeing them. It’s as simple as that. And honestly, there’s nothing helpful in negative reviews. Firstly, by the time the book has been published, it’s too late to fix whatever that review thinks is wrong anyway. And more importantly, not everyone will agree it needs to be fixed in the first place.
If you’ve ever published a book, you know that what one person complains about will be another person’s favorite part, so why let the complaints of a handful of readers stop me from producing more work that will please other readers?
Here are my tips for taking the occasional peek at your good reviews:
- Don’t go to Goodreads. Just don’t. I log in once per book to make sure the new book has been listed correctly, keeping my eyes carefully away from any other details as I navigate to that page.
- Read your ARC reviews. These are generally pretty good because your ARC readers should be people who like your style. And these early reviews will be indicative of all the reviews you’ll get. So you might see a bad one (and maybe you’ll take something away from it), but after the first few days, you can assume nothing new will be said.
- Let your children go. Checking every day to see if you got a new review can set up a negativity spiral (see querying above), and most of what you’ve heard about how important it is to get x number of reviews on Amazon is urban legend. Put your focus into the next first draft. Your last book baby has flown the nest. Tend to your new hatchlings.
- Surf cautiously. Need a positivity fix without exposing yourself to potential toxicity? Go to the page for your book on Amazon and scroll down, keeping your eye firmly to the left edge of the screen and scrolling very slowly, until you reach the review chart which starts with 5-star reviews. Click on the 5-star review link. It’s now (mostly) safe to read what’s on the screen. Do NOT scroll up or you’ll see the “most helpful negative review” which, trust me, isn’t a thing you need to see.
- Abort! If you accidentally start reading a negative review, click away immediately. You’re not required to read your bad press, I promise you.
- Warning: Don’t complain about your reviews in public. Public means social media. Have a discreet friend or two you can vent to in private. Though we may not enjoy negative reviews, it’s the readers’ right to leave them, so avoid what can be avoided and rant privately about what can’t.
Protect your writing habit
What about “improving as a writer” you might ask. Isn’t negative feedback necessary in order to grow? Eh. The best way I’ve found to improve as a writer is to write, and if negative feedback causes me to stop writing, then it’s definitely not helping me improve. How much better would my writing be now if I’d been writing all those years that I let criticism shut me up? How much more would I have written?
If criticism motivates you, then go ahead—soak it in. You’re sure to find plenty of it. But if, like me, you’re too sensitive to handle it, then take steps to protect yourself. And no, that doesn’t make you a less-good writer or a less-good person. It makes you honest about who you are and what you need. So let’s all join in repeating John Steinbeck’s famous words loudly and proudly:
“Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.”John Steinbeck