Creative Writing Fiction 2021-01-18 00:00

How to Recover from Critical Reviews

bad reviews for to kill a mockingbird on screen

Forgive the crass comparison, but bad reviews are like pimples—nobody wants ’em, but we still get ’em.

I don’t mean to diminish their effect on us. Bad reviews are disappointing. They hurt. They make us second-guess our choices. In extreme cases, they might even make us wonder why we write at all.

So consider this article your facial cleanser. I’d like to offer some tips and inspiration on getting over negative reviews.

  1. Try to Learn From Them
  2. Focus on the Aggregate, Not the Individual
  3. Remember: Everyone Gets Them
  4. In Conclusion

Try to Learn From Them

One thing I’ve learned about criticism of my work: If everyone’s saying the same thing, it’s probably a problem.

If most of your negative reviews note the same issues, you might want to correct that problem in subsequent work. Perhaps your plots are becoming too complex, or you need to work on making your characters more likable. Viewing bad reviews as areas of improvement rather than complaints might help you get over them faster.

But be careful with this method. Some reviewers simply aren’t going to enjoy your work, no matter what you do. And sometimes the aspects you love will be annoyances to others.

For example, take author David Mitchell. You’ve probably heard of (or read) his opus Cloud Atlas. His newest work, Utopia Avenue, is also excellent, and was one of my favorite books of the year. Mitchell’s books are often characterized by nonlinear storytelling, leaps forward or backward in time, and perpetual shifts in point-of-view.

Since Mitchell has always written like this, I assume he enjoys it. His approach doesn’t adhere to traditional notions of storytelling. For readers like me, that might be refreshing. To others, it could be frustrating. This reader, for example:

What was [Mitchell] tripping on? Weird. Couldn’t finish it.

I like Mitchell’s works precisely because they’re "weird," yet this reviewer gave it a one-star rating for the same reason. Imagine Mitchell read this review and others like it, then decided to write less weird, more mainstream work. I believe that would be detrimental for his career—and that’s why this method can be dangerous. View bad reviews as areas of improvement, yes, but don’t let them change your core identity as a writer.

Focus on the Aggregate, Not the Individual

When many voices speak, the truth rises to the top. In other words, rely on your good reviews to cancel out the bad ones.

Consider your own habits. Do you ever make a purchasing decision based on one review, or do you usually read a few before deciding? I'm willing to bet it's the latter. So keep that in mind when you get a bad review.

Furthermore, most review sites (Amazon and Goodreads, for example) provide the average review as the most prominent item. And on Amazon, only the first handful of reviews are displayed on your book’s landing page. All this is to say that you might get some one or two-star reviews, yet the weight of the four and five-star reviews should suppress the others. So even if you get a poor review, remind yourself that it’s not as devastating as it might seem.

This concept applies most directly to review sites using a numerical rating system, true. So what if you get a bad review on a book blog or long-form review site, then? Well, the mindset can still help here. Remind yourself that your better reviews will be more plentiful and will carry more weight than the others.

Remember: Everyone Gets Them

Seriously. Everyone.

Let’s examine Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as an example. This is undeniably one of the most beloved novels of all time. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Five decades after its publication, it’s still read by schoolchildren throughout the world. The Museum, Libraries and Archives Council conducted a 2006 poll in which they asked librarians, "Which book should every adult read before they die?" To Kill a Mockingbird topped the list, defeating such heavyweights as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and even the Bible.

So yes. I think it’s safe to say that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most popular books of all time. Yet even a book this good doesn’t have unanimous acclaim. Head to its Amazon page and you’ll find reviews like this:

What a boring read.

Or this:

Syrupy overload. The book is an example of leading the witness.

Even this:

Terrible book. Don’t read. I do not recommend this book to anyone, especially teenagers.

In fact, Mockingbird somehow has 617 one-star ratings on Amazon as I write this article.

If a book of this stature can get a bad review, so can yours. The truth is, every book can—and every book will.

Next time you get one or two stars on Amazon or elsewhere, remind yourself that it happens to everyone. This time it’s your turn. And remember, for every bad review, a good book will get five, ten, maybe even hundreds or thousands of positive ones.

In Conclusion

If you’ve received a bad review, use these tips to move on from it. The worst thing it can do is dampen your enthusiasm and enjoyment of your work—and that is unacceptable! Keep looking ahead, writer. Everyone gets a bad review every now and then.

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