Dealing with Criticism as an Author
First an analogy to help understand why dealing with criticism as an author is important:
Writing a book is like having a baby.
You’ve spent years getting your book ready to be published: thinking, organising notes, writing, editing, rewriting, losing sleep, gaining weight, getting so excited to see your dream become a reality.
Just like having a baby, the time spent preparing for the arrival includes a lot of fantasising about what it will be like. The time approaches and you get more and more enthusiastic. Finally, your book comes out…
…and then you discover the cold, hard reality of what it’s really like.
Some people love your baby and coo over it, although probably not as much or for as long as you expected. People say your baby is adorable, but no one is going to take care of it for you, because it just isn’t as important to them as it is to you.
Most people are indifferent – everyone’s got a baby, what’s so special about yours? And, as hard as it is to imagine, some people think your baby is really ugly and don’t mind telling you so.
How do you handle the inevitable post-publication anti-climax. If your book hasn’t been a bestselling, life-changing triumph, how do you deal with the lukewarm reception and the downright nasty criticism?
I asked Dr Anita Sanz to give me some advice.
Dr Anita Sanz is a psychologist, with twenty-five years of experience treating depression and eating disorders.
This is what she had to say:
Dealing with Criticism: the 90/10 Rule
Ninety percent of what anyone tells me about my book I figure is really giving me information about them and only ten percent is potentially helpful information about me or my book. I only need to pay attention to the ten percent, and it’s up to me to figure out what that ten percent is.
I wrote a self-help book. If someone tells me it was worthless, it may be because they don’t need self-help or don’t want self-help. Or maybe I am not being effective in telling people how to help themselves. It’s up to me to find the kernel of truth hiding in all the chaff.
When you receive criticism, ninety percent of it is about the person giving you the criticism. Only ten percent is about what is being criticised.
No Criticism is Bad Criticism
If you’re trying to do something well, you want to get feedback. Because no feedback coming your way means one of two things: you’re so perfect you’re above being criticised or (more likely) no one thinks you’re worth taking the time to give you feedback.
When you get feedback on your novel, it means someone took your work seriously enough to read it, comment on it, maybe even intending to help you become better. You might not like it when the coach tells you where you’re screwing up, but it means the coach believes in you and thinks you can do better. Try to take criticism in that spirit. It not only hurts less, it may even inspire you to work harder and get better.
So, try to remember to thank the person for taking the time to give you feedback.
Getting critical feedback on your work is a compliment.
Dealing with Criticism: Haters
Of course, as well as the reasonable criticism, there are haters and trolls: people on the internet whose sole joy in life is causing people pain by criticizing them and bringing them down. Personal attacks, providing a critique of your work without actually reading it, and attempting to ruin your reputation are all par for the course with trolls.
Never, never, never respond to a troll. Do not defend or explain yourself. It just encourages them.
Non-trolls don’t attack, and people who do attack aren’t interested in your honest explanations. They simply want to drag you down to their level. Don’t let them.
Instead, pity them. Rise above their petty taunts.
Don’t feed the trolls.
Dealing with Criticism: Don’t Forget Your Purpose
Remember why you wrote your book in the first place. Because you had to, perhaps? It was in you and it had to be written? Something inspired you? Or maybe you had to do something that had meaning to you and you hoped might affect others?
Whatever your reason, I hope you didn’t write your book to become rich, famous, or to gain literary immortality. There’s an enormous crash coming for you if you did, because literary immortality descends on only a lucky few.
And remember, even those lucky few will not be gripping a copy of their bestseller on their deathbeds.
Don’t forget what really matters: who you really are, and who really values you. Your book is unlikely to clarify or solidify any of the most important things in life. It’s up to you to not forget your purpose in writing your book, in choosing to get it published, and in taking whatever seems like the next best step for you.
Just like having a baby will always change your life, in some ways for the better, and in some ways that make you wonder why you ever could have thought it was a good idea, publishing a book will change your life. It’s up to you to make sure you learn how to take the bad with the good, turn criticism into motivation, and keep it all in perspective.
Don’t forget the things that really matter.
Graeme: My Experience
Thanks, Anita. Just to add a little about my experience of dealing with criticism.
Although the reviews of A Kill in the Morning have been overwhelmingly positive, inevitably it didn’t work for one reviewer, who said amongst other unpleasant things:
Completely fails to live up to the publisher’s claims… cartoon characters, devoid of any depth… attempt to give support to what is a very thin storyline… One star – reluctantly.
So how did I feel after getting such a poor review? Well, you know, not good, but the thing I try to remind myself of is this: you can’t please everyone.
I was tempted to argue with the reviewer as several of the things he said were just incorrect and suggested he hadn’t actually read the book, but I resisted. As Anita says: don’t feed the trolls.
Instead, I imagined I was a rhino.
Have you ever tried criticising a rhino? They don’t listen – they just keep on doing their rhino thing. Whatever you say, it just bounces off their armour-plated hide.
Rhinos don’t care about stupid criticism.
Dealing with Criticism: The Role of Chocolate
The other thing I found when I was dealing with criticism of A Kill in the Morning was that it’s best not to obsess. Instead I got out, and did other things, cycled, played football, shopped, went to cafes, ate chocolate. As Anita says, remember what’s important to you.
In my case, it’s chocolate.
The chocolate doesn’t care how good your book is.
Dealing with Criticism: Bad Reviews Increase Sales
Studies by Stanford and Wharton Business Schools show that for books by relatively unknown authors, on average bad reviews increase sales by 45%. The analysis showed that even scathing criticism makes more readers aware of a book and that’s more important than praise if you aren’t famous. So your haters are actually doing you a favour by drawing attention to your book.
There’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Dealing with Criticism: The Things That Matter
Dealing with criticism can be one of the toughest parts of being an author. But try to remember:
- 90% of criticism is about the writer not what they are criticising.
- Feedback is a compliment, and it means someone has engaged with your work.
- Don’t feed the trolls.
- Don’t forget the things that really matter.
- Bad reviews increase sales.
- Chocolate is nice.
In the end, you have written and published your book – that’s an enormous achievement, and no one can take it away from you!
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