Criticism can he hard to swallow as a writer. After all, your story is like your baby! You put so much love and time into making it what it is that criticism can feel like an attack. I hear you! It’s not the nicest thing in the world to look through your fanmails and see post after post telling you what you did wrong. But that’s not the point of criticism! It’s not there to judge you or make you angry. It’s not there to hate on your story. In fact, it’s there to help you become a better writer.
But how should you deal with it? Should we be just blindly accepting all the feedback that we get? Of course not! It’s all about assessing what criticism works for you and your story and making an effort to see things from your readers’ points of view. After all, they’re the people you need to appeal to. They’re the ones who are going to give you the reads and praise and popularity that you want. And if you don’t handle criticism well, you could end up angering, upsetting or lashing out at the people who are there to support your story. Not a good image! And it will affect the way your work is treated in the future.
So here are some tips on how to deal with criticism in the right way. It should let you keep being the boss of your story whilst giving your readers the say that they want and deserve. The fact is that they’re going to discuss and criticise the story whether you like it or not. So you might as well give them the space they need to help them feel comfortable and happy!
Realise Your Story Isn’t Just Yours Anymore
One of the biggest problems I find with the way authors handle criticism is how they treat their story. They think that they still have full control over it, which means that they feel entitled to police discussion about their work. This ends with authors trying to control how their work is spoken about, when and where, which just isn’t fair to your readers!
The truth of the matter is that you don’t have that control over your story anymore. As soon as you release to the public, you are letting the public read and have opinions about your work. And if you try to stop these, you’re working against freedom of speech. You see, there’s an exchange that comes with being a writer. Readers give you reads, praise, popularity, followers and (possibly) money. In exchange, you entertain them and give them the choice to discuss your work if they want to. There’s nothing you can do about that! Unless, of course, they’re plagiarising your work in some way.
Public work gets public opinions, too! So don’t try to force people to go underground with their criticisms. They get to choose where they talk about your work just like you chose to expose it to the world. You don’t get to take that back just because you don’t like the way people are talking about it.
So you need to know the risks when you publish. If you don’t want people discussing your story in ways that you can’t control, don’t publish. Otherwise, you come across as self-entitled and selfish. You do have some control over your story, of course, but so does the reader! So here’s how it’s split.
The Author Controls the Truth
As the author, you are in control of the truth of the canon. That means that you get to decide what happens in the story, when and why. It’s up to you to choose when the next chapter or book comes out, and you are in your rights to add details along the way. You are the law in the story! You work in things that actually happened: the who, what, where, when and why. No reader can ever take that job away from you. If they try to say something happened when it didn’t, they are just plain wrong
For more info on what you get to control in your story, have a look at my article on the Death of the Author.
The Reader Controls the Response
The reader, on the other hand, gets to control how they respond and react to the facts that you give them in the story. They get to decide whether they think you’ve pulled off a good story, if they think a detail doesn’t work and what feelings they get from reading it. That’s their domain and you’re not in charge of how your work is received by the public. Here is a list of things that readers are allowed to do that are 100% in their rights:
- Start discussions about your story (publicly or in private).
- Send fan mails to you if you have that option open.
- Express what they liked and disliked in a story.
- Make fanfiction about it (fanfiction is a response to your story and doesn’t take away the truth of what happened).
- Express what they think needs improvement.
- Make fanart (as long as they’re not making money from it without your permission).
- Write articles and reviews about your story.
Of course, you’re welcome to join in with the reader’s role! Loads of readers love it when the writer gets involved in discussions. However, it’s not your job to control the discussion and sway it in the direction you want.
Learn the Difference Between Hate and Constructive Criticism
That being said, you don’t have to take all comments as criticism. There are many people like to message readers with a message like “this was trash” or “the worst story I’ve ever read”. This isn’t constructive criticism! It’s just plain hate. If this is the case, you are allowed to kindly ask the reader to stop messaging you. If they keep it up, this would be considered harassment. You don’t need to deal with any hate that you don’t want to see! No matter how much someone hates your story, they have no right to attack you or make you feel bad on purpose.
Here are the things to look out for when it comes to hate posts:
- Vague Criticism. Basically, any criticism where they’re not giving you a way to improve. They’re not telling you what was actually wrong with the story. They’re just throwing around negative words to make you feel bad.
- Threats. Threats of any kind should be reported. Don’t stand for that and make sure you’re safe!
- “I didn’t read this but…” if they didn’t read the story, their opinion on the story isn’t going to be valid!
- Ad Hominem Attacks. All criticism should be about your story, not you as a person. If they’re attacking you, you don’t need to stand for it. If you did something wrong, that’s a different matter. But people have no right to attack you if they dislike your story.
Criticism Isn’t Demands, Either!
Never accept demands. I’ve spent a lot of time telling you how you shouldn’t try to take away the reader’s job of responding to your work, but the same applies to the reader! If they’re making demands about what they want to happen in the story, they’re trying to control your job, too! If you give in to demands once or twice, you’re going to find hundreds of readers expecting you to give into their demands when they want you to.
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with taking polls over what people want to see happen in your story, but do it on your terms. You’re in charge of the truth in your story, so it’s up to you to give away a little bit of that right to the readers through polls if you want to. But don’t be a pushover and let them take it from you, though! Readers don’t get to decide that they want to take over and explain what the plot is going to be. Remember that this is still your story. If they don’t like the truth that you’re creating, they can either exercise their right to respond to it or they can move on and find another story. Heck, even a fanfiction with their own ending would be ok! They don’t get to change the truth, though.
Adopt a Positive Attitude Towards Criticism
This is where it gets hard. You need to start seeing constructive criticism and feedback as a good thing instead of an attack. That way, you can keep with with what your readers think and feel without getting upset or angry with them. You’re also more likely to take their criticism on board and improve in the long run. It’s going to take some time for you to get to that place, but it all starts with a shift in your mindset.
The first good thing to think about is that it’s very hard to come up with constructive criticism when a story is all bad. How can you pick out one or two things that are wrong and could be improved if the plot
But praising all of your good points isn’t going to help you get better as much. Sure, it’s good to know what you should keep on doing, but it’s going to help you a lot more if you think about what you can change. So it’s time to start thinking of constructive criticism as a way to improve instead of an attack. That reader has taken time out of their lives to tell you how you can improve your work. They’re helping you get better in the future! That’s a good thing!
Stop Tone Policing
You’re going to put yourself in a bad state if you focus too hard on the tone of someone’s criticism. First of all, most of the feedback you’re going to get will come from the internet, which means it’s likely that you’ll not be able to hear the person’s tone in the first place. They might mean it in a very different way, so don’t bother looking at the tone or how “harsh” the language is. Don’t worry about that. Instead, have a look at whether you can learn something from what they said.
“This story is trash” isn’t going to help you get better in any way, so we can throw it out of the window. On the other hand, “that dialogue was trash! They were so awkward. No one even talks like that” might seem like it’s way too harsh at the beginning, but there is a lot that you can learn from it! The person is telling you that you need to make your dialogue sound more natural. It doesn’t matter how harsh the feedback sounds. It can help you in the future!
The fun thing about taking this approach is that you end up annoying people if they did mean to upset you. Have you ever tried to anger or upset someone and they just smile and take it? It stops you right in your tracks. You’ve failed to get them down and you might have even helped them. Oops!
So give readers the benefit of the doubt with their tone. You don’t know how they meant to say the post. You only know what they said. It helps you to get all of the good feedback and have the last laugh with the trolls.
Don’t Lash Out
This is where a lot of writers go wrong. They respond to the criticism in the moment when they feel angry and attacked. Bad idea! You’re either going to regret what you say or you’re going to give yourself the reputation of “that author who can’t handle other people’s opinions”. So take a deep breath and think before you reply to criticism. Let it mull over and only come back when you feel calm.
One of the worst things you can do is retaliate. You might think it is a good idea to take to your critic’s writing and poke holes in it. It might feel good to tell them that they need to “take what you dish out”, but at the end of the day, you’re just being petty and ridiculous. Would you really say those things if you weren’t upset? And don’t you think your critic would be able to point other, more pedantic details in your story if they were as riled up as you? It’s not a healthy way of dealing with criticism.
Don’t let yourself get angry like that! You’re either feeding the trolls or screaming at someone who just wants to help you. Plus, it’s not very good for your mental health, either. It’s much better to take note of what you’re feeling and take a break. You’re only human, after all! And it’s ok if this kind of thing affects you, as long as you don’t take it out on others.
Don’t Project Your Self-Criticism onto Others
We all do this to some extent. We have a little criticism goblin inside our heads telling us how awful our work is. It eats at us slowly but we try desperately to ignore it. It works most of the time, too! At least, until some innocent fan comes along with some feedback. Then the goblin rears its ugly head and the feelings of incompetence are stronger than ever. I get it! I feel it all the time! You don’t know how many times I’ve told myself that The Queen of Freaks is a derivative piece of trash. Then some poor soul comes along and says something as simple as “this story reminds me of…” and I’m in the foetal position crying about how unoriginal I am.
But you can’t take this out on the reader. The chances are that they didn’t hear the little goblin in your head. They didn’t mean to give it a megaphone! Although it is hard to avoid, it’s a good idea to check yourself and make sure you’re not letting your own insecurities affect how you’re replying to the readers. Think before you publish. Don’t punish your readers for how you feel.
How do you do that? Well, it’s time to do some self-reflection. Ask yourself why you’re so angry. Is it because the criticism is hitting too close to home? If so, should you really take your anger out on the reader? And can you use your little criticism goblin to help you become a better writer? Of course, that’s hard to do when you’re still angry and upset. That’s why you need to make sure that you take a break before you reply. You’ll be less likely to regret your reply if you do!
Realise That You Don’t Have to Agree
Readers are all going to have their opinions. It can help you to listen to them and think about what their criticism means for your story. In fact, you shouldn’t if you want the story to still be yours. But you should still listen! You see, even when you don’t decide to incorporate these new tips into your work, you can still use them to learn and improve — if you’re smart about it.
Take some time to listen to your readers’ views and take them on board. You don’t have to agree with them, but consider them and think about what your story would be like if you did use the criticism. Then, assess whether the story you’d have in the end is the story you’re trying to tell. If it’s not quite there, you can thank the reader for their feedback and stick to your original idea. If it helps you to tell your story or it’s better than your original idea, feel free to use it! But make sure that you take the criticism seriously, especially if more than one person has said the same thing.
This involves knowing what kind of story you want to make and why. That way, when you’re given feedback, you can quickly assess whether it fits your image or makes it better. That shows that you can treat readers’ opinions with respect without losing your own sense of self. So sit down and decide what kind of story you want to make before you engage with criticism. This will protect you from changing too much, but keep you open for suggestions that might help. After all, knowing what you’re not trying to do with your story is just as important as knowing what you are.
But Be Polite
Be polite. Please. Even when the critic seems to be rude, try your best not to do the same. After all, while you’re not supposed to be tone policing other people, you should take the time to consider how you’d want an author to speak to you. You can make assumptions about how you think a reader is trying to say those words, but you could always be wrong. You know what tone you mean for your words to be read in, so keep it polite. It would be pretty hypocritical for you to have an issue with the critic’s tone that you’re not sure they meant, when you were deliberately trying to be rude.
The critics who don’t mean to hurt you don’t deserve for you to be rude, even when you decide you’re not going to use their advice. The trolls, on the other hand, aren’t going to last very long if you kill them with kindness. If you don’t rise to the criticism and make it turn you into a bad person, you’re going to find that readers are more willing to engage with you and be positive about your work. If you are rude to them, it’s much harder for them to read your work without seeing the smallest of errors.
When you’re a writer, you are your own brand. That means your behaviour is going to affect your story views and popularity. The best thing to do, even in the face of criticism and trolls, is to be polite. You don’t have to take nonsense. You can be firm! But at the same time, do it in a way that doesn’t make you react as badly as the trolls.
Ask The Critic Questions
Asking your critic questions can help you on so many levels! It will show that you’re willing to engage with the criticism and use it to grow. If you feel confused or want to know more, you can ask the critic to explain what they mean. A lot of critics are more than happy to explain and give you more info, which can help you grow a lot! Even if you don’t take their criticism on board, you’ll have a better understanding of why. After all, you don’t want to strawman their argument or turn it into something it’s not. Ask them questions to avoid coming to the wrong conclusions. This will also show that you’re able to treat your critics with respect, which can, in turn, make them respect you and treat your story more positively.
Also, it can help you to disarm the trolls. I mean, sometimes it can be hard to tell a troll from a blunt but honest critic. A blunt critic might say some things that come across as pretty mean, but they mean well. They’re trying to help! A troll, on the other hand, is trying to make you angry, and then hides behind “well, I’m just a blunt critic” when they get called out. By asking them questions, you’ll find that a troll’s arguments fall apart. They don’t have much to say, really. They can’t give you the feedback that you really need. That makes it a lot easier for you to dismiss the trolls and use the criticism that matters.
Asking questions is always going to be a good idea. It gives you the chance to call down the situation and speak to each other like equals. The conversation will be more civil if you show you care about your reader’s opinions.
Your Writing Is Not You
Separate yourself from your work and stop seeing all criticism as a personal attack. I know I mentioned dismissing ad-hominem attacks before, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that most criticism is aimed to hurt you. Separate your ego from your work. I know that’s easy to say, but it is a good thing to do if you want to survive
In fact, self-reflect before the critics have a chance to do the same! Keep reading advice on how to improve stories and never stop learning. That way, you’ll get where people are coming from when they give you some valid criticism in the future. You can even take some time to laugh together over the issues that you have with your story. Take the ego out of it and remember that a criticism of a story doesn’t have to mean you’re a bad author. In fact, it would only really mean that if you weren’t willing to get better!
The truth is that most of your critics don’t know you as a person. When they say that they don’t like your story or they think it could use some work, they aren’t calling you a bad person. They only have your story to go on!
Don’t let it get to you (easier said than done) and you won’t have to deal with simple criticism turning into an all-out war.
Let Your Readers Have Their Say
Readers have the right to talk. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the conversation or not! They can say what they want without contacting you. If you’re ok with publishing your story to the world, you need to be ok with criticism being published to the world, too. You see, when readers criticise and share their opinions on a story, they’re not just doing it for you. That would be a very self-centred way to see the world. Sure, it’s about you to some extent, but they also do it because they want to talk about the stories that interest and speak to them. It’s a good thing that they want to talk about it! It means it’s had an impact on them. Plus, no matter what they’re saying, it’s
Also, reading criticism directed at another writer can help you with your own work. If you’ve read Harry Potter and you hear people talking about how Cho Chang doesn’t offer very good representation, you can be more careful in your own work. Other writers can learn a lot from discussions about your work. You have no right to try to control or stop the discourse about your story. People don’t need to DM you before they post and they don’t need to get your permission to start a forum thread. That’s just not how things work. You’re a writer, not a dictator!
So just accept the fact that the discussion exists. Join in if you’re not going to silence people, but this isn’t your role. Let the readers do most of the work and focus on answering questions and clearing up any confusion. Let people know what you think about your story, but remember that your opinion isn’t any more valid than anyone else’s!
At Worst, Remove Yourself from the Discussion
There are many reasons why a reader might not be up for discussion. It might be a bad time. They might not be in a good mental state to be criticised. You could just need a break from the story. That’s fine! Take some time to remove yourself from the situation and take a breather. You can’t stop the discussion, but you can choose to not be part of it.
But this does come at the expense of praise, too. You can’t expect and want people to praise your work and not say anything negative about it. That’s not fair to them! So you’ll have to do things to remove yourself from all opinions about your work until you feel better. Close your fanmails. Let people know that you’re not taking reviews in your PMs. Don’t look for discussion threads in forums. And when you find them by accident, don’t click on them and read.
If a reader were then to bombard you personally with criticism when you’ve politely explained that you don’t want to be personally contacted, this would be considered harassment and that’s an issue on the reader’s part. Until then, you either get all opinions or you get none. So choose which one suits you.
Of course, it can be hard to take criticism, but that doesn’t give you a right to turn into a tyrant. Do yourself a favour and accept criticism or take a break.