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You Got Bad Reviews - Now What?

It’s enough to strike fear in just about any writer’s heart. You see it and your stomach drops. Your palms get sweaty. Your heart rate spikes. Some will curl into a ball and question everything they ever thought about themselves.

Or maybe you see it, shrug, and move along.

Either way, they’re inevitable.

That’s right. I’m talking about bad reviews. Like death and taxes, bad reviews are one of the things a writer can count on in life.

First and foremost - this is not a guide or even really advice on how to handle bad reviews. I just chose to write this because it seems to be a topic that comes up a lot and is pretty much a universal experience among writers. So take that as you will - it’s just my personal thoughts on negative comments and how I personally deal with them.

Now, I don’t get a lot of comments or reviews on my original fiction in general, but I have gotten some bad/mean/negative comments/reviews on my fanfiction.

And I survived journalism school.

If there is ever a place where you are sure to have things you’ve written be ripped to shreds or given back to you quite nearly bleeding, it’s journalism school. Trust me. Journalism professors are not about pulling the punches. They are all about preparing you for the real world of news, which is hard, fast, and not at all comfortable. I lost count of how many times I went back to my dorm room and cried after News Writing 101. (And maybe contemplated changing my major - only the once, I swear.) But then, I picked myself up, wiped away my tears, and got back to work.

However, even after growing a thicker skin, I won’t lie - it still hurts.

Even after years of working in the news industry and getting negative feedback on articles or stories (usually because the reader didn’t agree with something an interviewee said - not something I wrote), I still have to fight my knee jerk reaction to get defensive. To immediately reply with a strongly worded response telling the commenter to f**k off. To be snarky. Or to take it personally.

It. Is. Hard.

But it’s something I have to do.

A lot of people say to ignore bad reviews, and I agree to an extent. There are always going to be reviews that are just mean-spirited and offer nothing constructive. Those you can ignore, unless you’re really good at witty comebacks.

But I think there is something to be said about reading bad reviews and trying to glean information from them that you can use to make your work better. Sometimes even the mean ones have solid constructive criticism, though it can take a bit to put your feelings aside to find it.

It’s for this reason that I always take a step back, give myself some breathing room, and then go back to it a day or two (or a week) later when I’ve calmed down and can look at it constructively. Sometimes I do find areas that need to be cleaned up or fixed. Or maybe I could do a bit more research into something and flesh things out. Or maybe it’s something that I think is valid, but I have reasons for why I’ve written it the way that I did and I stand by my decisions.

It’s in these cases that I respond. I always thank the person for taking the time to leave a comment (because these comments usually are pretty long, at least in my experience), and then I’ll thank them for pointing out things that I missed. Or I explain to them why I did the thing the way I did.

I’ve done this with people pointing out grammatical and spelling mistakes in dialogue (I like to write the way people actually speak, usually in the Oklahoma or Ozark/NW Arkansas accent, which is riddled with errors). I’ve also done it when someone complained about a monarchy I created in a Merlin fanfic. While I did go back and clean some things up, I kept a lot of things the same because I liked it that way and I had reasons for it.

Also, it was a fanfiction about a fantasy story. Something that was never going to be published, so I didn’t really care if they didn’t agree with how I did an elf monarchy. I had already put in a lot of work with research and structuring for a fanfic and didn’t feel like making it a carbon copy of the current U.K. monarchy. Maybe if it was an original work that I intended to publish, I would have been more meticulous. But it wasn’t. So I didn’t. It was a difference of opinions between myself and the reader and I left it at that.

Okay, maybe I’m still a bit sore about that one. They kept coming back and making MORE hateful comments and I got to the point where I finally told them they didn’t have to keep reading if they didn’t like the story. (I tried to stay polite.)

Anyway, back on topic… For me, I always try to be careful if I respond. I don’t like giving trolls more fodder to come after me (saves me a headache), and I don’t want to offend someone who might actually like my work, but has some (valid) issues with certain parts.

But at the same time, I think it’s a decent thing to remember when leaving comments or reviews, that you don’t have to be an asshole about it. Even if you’re making valid points. I’m not saying you have to sugarcoat, but there are ways to leave comments and suggestions without attacking the writer.

Especially if the writer was incredibly upfront about what the story is about and the various themes that it includes. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen one-star reviews on books with the person saying they didn’t like A, B, and C, when it was clearly stated in the description that the book contains A, B, and C. Usually followed by “If you can’t read these things or don’t like them, then please feel free to pass on my book. I totally understand.” This is something that I usually post in the Author’s Note at the beginning of stories I know contain difficult themes. Or that might seem like a romance, but it isn't (some people get really upset when they start something thinking it’s a romance and then find out it isn’t… sheesh). It’s up front and there. Read at your own risk.

In the same vein, I also don’t like it when a writer goes after someone in the comments when they did actually point out something worthwhile (and weren’t a jerk about it). It can be hard sometimes to get general tone across in text. I don’t think the default should be to assume that everyone pointing out something that could be better is doing so out of malice.

There can (and should) be common courtesy on both sides. Besides, a lot of us are already dealing with rejection from publishing companies. Do we really have to go after each other too?

In short, we could all stand to be a bit kinder. Support each other as writers. Think a bit before you leave that review. And also think a bit before you respond to that bad review.

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