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How to deal with a bad review and become a better writer

Fed up of bad reviewsYou know, if there’s one thing that you can expect during your career as a writer, it’s the bad review – an occupational hazard of the vocation, unfortunately. Whilst no writer actively wants one, inevitably there will be the odd one or two spanners thrown in your way. It’s a part and parcel of the whole process, a process that befalls everyone who decides to put their art before the critical eyes of the public. In other words, before you even think about putting pen to paper, or paintbrush to canvas, or committing the first chords of that song you’ve just composed onto tape, be prepared for someone along the line to grace your efforts with some less than flattering words.

Of course, when you’re just starting out, a bad review can be quite cutting and create uncertainty as to whether this is the right line of work for you to be pursuing. A part of any writer’s armoury of confidence derives from people liking their stories – it tells them that they’re doing something right, as well as helping them to connect with people on some fundamental level. There’s nothing quite like the buzz of the 5* review, especially from some random member of the book-buying public. This is essentially why writers write – to entertain readers, and when someone is entertained enough to let you know about how much they enjoyed the book then it all makes the effort worthwhile.

My book’s been slated – now what?

So the question for the newly published writer then becomes ‘What do I do when I get that first stinker of a review?’ The most straightforward piece of advice that gets bandied about is to ‘develop a thick skin’ – just accept that you are going to get bad reviews, no matter how good you are, and just move on. Even the master storytellers get them, and there’s some comfort in that fact.  However, most people who are at all serious about their writing see just as much value in the bad review as they do in the good (predicated on the assumption that said bad review has something constructive to say and isn’t a mere slagging off for the sake of it – more on that later). It’s by far the most sensible approach, other than pretending that the offending review doesn’t exist (an approach which may or may not have its own merits).

How to lose readers and alienate yourself

insanityI have noticed, however, a tendency amongst some writers to be completely incredulous when their latest stab at literary stardom is met with a less than stellar appraisal, more so when their faults are pointed out. Last year there was the case of one writer who went ballistic when a reviewer gave her book a 1* review – the exchange in the comments went viral on just about every social media platform. If nothing else, it was an object lesson in how not to handle criticism. It also points, perhaps, to a disturbing trend amongst some sections of the creative community – the unwillingness to face rejection or to take criticism on-board in order to improve their craft, perhaps deeming that craft already perfected. I’m no professional sociologist or psychologist, therefore I don’t have the methodological tools to discern just why this is so but, even so, I do have my suspicions about this as well as an inkling of just why we’re seeing this. Please bear with me on this, as I will be approaching it in something of a circuitous manner.

It may have something to do with the phenomenon of celebrity culture, an obsession with elevating people who have achieved fame for no other reason than their appearance on a television programme or for regularly making newspaper headlines. In most cases they’re simply famous just for being famous, and often not even in possession of any talent other than going to the right parties and being seen with and knowing the right people. I’m aware that this has always been the case throughout history, so it’s nothing particularly new or shocking. The difference, I believe, is the ubiquity and democracy of technology, in particular social media and other forms of outreach, which enables anyone and everyone to participate in creative endeavours regardless of whether they have what it takes to excel or otherwise. I sometimes get the feeling that a certain proportion of those who do put their material out there harbour a high level of expectation concomitant upon making their work available to the public – that the rewards are merely there for the taking or, further than that, that they are due the rewards, as if it’s some kind of right.

The ride to the top is hard

Snow MountainsThere was a time when fame was earned through sheer hard work and dues paid, a journey that was sometimes painful emotionally and more often than not very, very slow. For instance, the writers, bands, film stars and comedians of my youth, despite enjoying widespread celebrity and kudos in the limelight for a time, only got there because they slugged their way through countless years (sometimes decades) of toil, rejection and drudgery to get where they were. Those years honed them as artists (and as people), and what followed were the true rewards for hard graft. Underlying it all, however, is the undeniable fact they possessed talent, as well as a certain intangible ‘something’ which elevated them above all the other hopefuls.

The result of today’s culture of ‘instant fame’ is that, beyond a certain point, there are some types who really do expect that fame to be theirs as well. Write a book, upload it to Amazon, and just watch the money rolling in. Become another e-publishing phenomenon like Amanda Hocking – start selling not just in the thousands but stratospherically into the millions. Following that, naturally, will be the multi-book publishing deal with one of the majors and maybe the film rights. All those television appearances and interviews, perhaps even awards. All this simply because a newbie writer decided, upon seeing someone like Ms Hocking achieve the success she has (regardless of merit or otherwise), that they wanted to be a part of the revolution, so they wrote a book and uploaded their e-book onto an international e-book sales platform. All they had to do was sit back and wait. What appears to have gone by the wayside in all this is the idea that it takes hard work and sheer determination, allied to talent, to make this scenario happen and even then there’s no guarantee. There appear to be more than a few individuals who truly do labour under the illusion that what I’ve described above is exactly how it’ll play out for them.

An overnight success rarely occurs overnight

Torn by Amanda HockingAnd that’s what worries me. At the heart of this is a basic lack of self-awareness, plus a cavalier disregard for commonsense. Becoming a well-known writer is a laudable ambition, no doubt about that, but that aim has to be tempered with the hammer of realism and reason. Just how likely is it to happen? Even if a writer does start creating a buzz about their fiction and essentially becomes an ‘overnight’ success, who’s to say that the preceding five to ten years hasn’t been spent in honing and carefully nurturing their talent? The writers you particularly resonate with, especially those who keep on bringing out the goods time after time, have gone this route. Additionally, they have learnt a craft and suffered the proverbial slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, attracting both the good notice and the not so good. On top of that, they’ve read and studied the masters of the past, and have taken advice from fellow writers, editors and, yes, even reviewers. These people understand story and the art of word-smithing. They know what makes a story work and what doesn’t, and those aspiring authors who wish to join their favourites up there amongst the gods would do well to listen to these experts.

It follows, then, that a constructive bad review is, in some instances, just as valuable (if not more so) than a good one (and this also applies to critiques as well). They can tell you where you’re going wrong, why your stories don’t work or why you keep getting rejected. The vast majority of fellow writers (in addition to the editors and publishers out there) are only too keen to help out a new author – let’s face it, they’ve already gone through many, if not all, the vicissitudes that regularly befall the new author. It behoves the latter to listen to the accumulated wisdom of these gurus – collectively they could save you some heartache.

The one-star sticklers

grumpy tortoiseThe astutely observant will have noticed that I qualified my statement opening the last paragraph with the word constructive. Another trend, which I’ve noticed springing up quite recently, is the pointlessly atrocious and vile 1* ‘review’, whose sole purpose appears to be to denigrate and upset. What I’ve discovered is that the anonymity of being behind a computer monitor almost gives carte blanche to some to trash the efforts of others, without risking any kind of payback. Most of these so-called ‘reviews’ can safely be ignored (or made fun of, depending on your preference), as they don’t offer anything beyond notification that the poster has nothing of any worth to put forward. One of the worst examples of pettiness I heard of recently was when someone gave a book a 1* review on Amazon simply because it wouldn’t download properly to the purchaser’s Kindle – let’s just say as kindly as we’re able to that that’s probably one of the most pointless exercises I’ve ever come across.

So, a bad review can be turned around to your advantage, even if an initial reading inspires your blood pressure to head north. It’s all a question of approach, along with how you feel about reviews in the first place. And there’s one important thing to remember – a review is just one person’s view, not everyone’s. Reviewers are human too, and are subject to both good and bad days just like the rest of us. They’re knowledgeable yes, but certainly not the absolute last word on the subject. A sense of perspective is needed at all times. Use the useful ones, good and bad, as tools to further understand not just about your work in particular but also why your favourite author’s stories work, and why some go on to become classics. Above all, although native talent has a big part to play, don’t forget that hard work and slog have roles as well. Part of that hard work and slog is to look at the negative as well as the positive – and I believe that this is the only way to learn and grow successfully.


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    • Jason on March 7, 2012 at 9:14 pm
    • Reply


    Insightful and well-reasoned stuff… I am an author whose first novel is coming from a medium-level publisher this year and I am astounded at the fear of critique from many fellow would-be authors. Someone saying that you had flaws or problems with your manuscript doesn’t mean they hate your guts. It just means that you may have things to improve, which needs to be your first goal as a writer. While all writing is personal on some level, it doesn’t have to be petty. A good, constructive, honest critique can be amazingly helpful, maybe even can give an author inspiration to improve. Don’t fear the message, it may save you from bigger mistakes.

    • JD Gillam on March 7, 2012 at 9:54 pm
    • Reply

    Hey Simon,
    A well written and thoughtful piece there.
    Just to reiterate the issues with the good old 1* review – I had one on B&N the other week. The beauty was that the reviewer hadn’t even downloaded the story (a free short story I hasten to add!). No, no, they left a 1* ‘review’ and the comment (I kid you not!) “Is it worth reading? How many pages?”
    And another – for the same story – saying “Whats it about???????????????” and leaving 1*.
    Absolutely crazy!
    Fortunately, I am able to rise above such idiocy and realise that these aren’t reviews. How these people work out how to use their Kindles is beyond me! I’m waiting for a 1* review that asks “How do I switch my e-reader on?”
    I also echo Jason’s comments above about constructive criticism being invaluable to an artist in any field of media. We can only improve and grow as an artist if we listen to where we are going wrong and not just concentrate on what we are doing right!
    Thanks again for a great piece Simon.

  1. An excellent article, Simon, and I agree with all of it.

    When I was first getting serious about writing, my girlfriend gave me Iain Banks’ “The Wasp Factory” to read. The first thing I noticed was the review extracts on the first page- all of them were from bad reviews. I thought it was a brilliant idea, especially as I loved the book upon reading it, and I think that when I actually get the point where I’m getting bad reviews, I’m going to wear them like service medals. Because, as you say, all writers get them.

    And in regards to the anonymous, critical-for-the-sake-of-it reviews, it’s something that I’ve been concerned about for a while. There is value in anonymity in certain situations (such as where it offers protection from revenge for speaking out, etc), but given to most people it simply results in baser instincts coming out. I resolved a long while ago that anything I write on the internet will be under my name, and I will face any consequences or criticism that comes along with it. Anonymity to hock rudeness and offensiveness is simply cowardice.

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