Last week I wrote about how to respond when someone gives your writing a bad review for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your work. Basically, once you recognize that your reviewer has personal issues with the piece you can’t control, you distance yourself from the review and let it slide off into the water unheeded. But, what do you do when you think there might be a kernel of truth in the review, negative as it is? How can you tell if they’re really on to something?
Before we look at the review, we have to look at how you will be predisposed to deal with it.
KNOW THYSELF: The Good Boy
Writers tend to lean toward two different personality camps. The first is what screenwriter John August refers to as the, “Good Boy Syndrome.” August notes that many writers were decent students in school, and as a result tied much of their personal value to making the teacher happy with their written work. The problem with this camp is that, as noted last week, it is impossible to please everyone with your writing. No matter what you do, someone somewhere will be unhappy with it. Writers who automatically capitulate to the feelings of others will avoid risk-taking and will be disinclined to fight for characters, plot choices, and themes that challenge conventions. This writing is weak and watery, lacking depth and heart.
Takeaway : Some reviews are completely wrong. You need to be confident enough to fight for things you believe in, even if it makes someone upset.
KNOW THYSELF: The George Lucas
The second personality camp is the “George Lucas Syndrome.” The polar opposite of the “Good Boy,” that rolls over to the whims of others, George Lucas doubles down on his position and refuses to budge, even when critics, other writers, and fanatic devotees completely disagree with his choices. While it’s true that you can’t make everyone happy, for your career’s sake, it’s a good idea for at least someone to like your work. People who alienate their readers by refusing to consider alternative viewpoints will find that their writing careers are rocky at best, and short-lived at worst.
Takeaway: Some reviews are accurate. You need to be sensitive enough to realize when people are pointing out real problems that you should address.
Understanding where you fall on the personality spectrum will help you gauge your response to a negative review. How can you get an objective view of the merits of the review?
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
Generally speaking, the more people who point out a negative issue, the more it’s worth paying attention to. So, if your entire critique group agrees that your toddler-kicking protagonist comes across as unsympathetic, that might be something for you to consider. If everyone who reads your manuscript gets confused during the zero gravity shuffleboard tournament it ought to at least be a point of consideration as you look over the next draft.
BAD ISN’T ALWAYS SO BAD
A couple of qualifying points are in order here. A lot of people having a negative reaction is not always a bad thing. Most people agree that the first few chapters of The Great Gatsby are a bit nauseating because all of the characters are self-absorbed and arrogant, but this doesn’t mean that Fitzgerald missed the boat by starting that way. In the end, those elements are part of the story’s broader theme and appeal.
Secondly, sometimes a weird herd mentality develops in the reviewing community. One person on Amazon or Rotten Tomatoes leaves a negative review. That review colors the experience of the story for the next person who reads it, and so on. Negative reviews can catch fire faster than an autotuned political gaffe. Sometimes people give negative reviews just so they can fit in with their peers. This can sometimes be the case in critique group environments. To avoid negative groupthink try to keep your reviewers separate from each other, a review in isolation sometimes offers more authentic results.
One strategy for feedback that is less susceptible to corruption is to get feedback from someone whose writing you already respect. This avoids the tendency for people to critique art that they themselves have never tried to create. A good writer can also give helpful concrete suggestions instead of vague emotional fog banks.
If you determine the bad review is baseless, personal, or doesn’t accurately reflect your work, then return to last week’s suggestions (What to Do When They’re Wrong).
If you decide that there are at least nuggets of truth in what the reviewer says you’ve got some options. Which I’ll talk about next week.
In the mean time, leave your thoughts below. I won’t cry. I promise. 😉