There’s nothing more vulnerable than the act of making up stories. Whether it’s an introspective personal story or a seat-of-your-exploding-pants thriller, you’re taking something out of your unfiltered imagination and putting it into the form of a product. That people then criticize. How do you handle that?
Learning to deal with criticism is one of the most difficult parts of being a writer. You can’t write fiction (or screenplays, or games) without thinking, on some level, that you’re going to create something really great. That you have something unique and brilliant inside yourself, to offer the world. That your ideas are special and fantastic. And at some point, you’re going to have to face a reality check—this is true if you’re a beginning writer, whose work probably isn’t as great as you think it is, but it never stops being true. The best thing you can hope for, as a fiction writer, is to become so successful that you’re insulated from criticism or nobody dares to criticize your work any more. (And that usually leads to people’s work going downhill.)
As with so many things, the internet has massively multiplied the amount of criticism that any work of fiction is going to encounter. There are tons of review websites, but also anything that gets published as an e-book will have Amazon and Goodreads reviews. Some of these reviews will be an honest attempt to evaluate whether your writing is going to be worth other people’s time. Others will be just someone venting about their pet peeves. None of them will be concerned with your feelings, or aimed at communicating with you directly.
So how do you cope with criticism? The first, and most important thing, is to seek it out. For two reasons: 1) You need to get used to hearing that your work isn’t perfect and you’re not the next Octavia Butler. 2) Getting constructive feedback on your work is the best way for you to improve your writing so that you don’t give the critics more ammunition in the end.
There is a massive, huge difference between feedback that you’ve sought out, which is aimed at you directly, and criticism of your work that’s aimed at other people who might read it. You need to recognize the difference between these two things, and understand that in the former case, people are trying to be helpful to you, personally. In the latter case, it’s too late to fix whatever problems they see in your work, anyway.
But with that said, you can learn something useful from both kinds of criticism—even if a review on Goodreads isn’t aimed at you personally, you can still get something out of it. But you have to grow a thick skin.
So really, there are two separate problems here: How to grow a thick skin so you don’t take all criticism personally, and how to get something useful out of other people’s reactions to your work.
How to stop taking it personally
It can be hard to stop taking harsh feedback on your work personally, because your work is personal. It’s hard to motivate yourself to finish a work of creative writing, unless you can convince yourself that you’re doing something really great. And you have an idealized version of your story in your head, that’s the best possible version of the story that could ever exist, and the actual finished work is an imperfect realization of that.
One time, I showed one of my stories to a friend, and his response started with something like, “This is pretty interesting.” And my immediate reaction was to hear that as, “Ehh, this was okay, I guess. If you like that sort of thing.” I was so invested in that work, and so desperate for it to be the greatest thing ever, I would have heard anything short of “I love this” as deadly criticism.
But the more you get used to hearing feedback, including negative feedback, on your work, the easier it gets. And you learn to get used to the disparity between your own crazy dreams for your work and the reality of being one among a bazillion writers, who are all just as talented and clever as you are.
And the more feedback you hear, the more you get used to the sense that people will never be able to communicate with you about your work in a way that satisfies that inner voice that allows you to believe you could be the next Heinlein, but is terrified you might be writing the next Eye of Argon.
But also, giving feedback is probably the best way to innoculate yourself against receiving feedback. You get used to expressing your opinion of someone else’s work in a way they can stand to hear, and that helps you realize how hard it is to do that. Also, writing negative reviews of things can help you get used to the idea that someone will give you a negative review, too. (I would be the biggest hypocrite in the world if I didn’t welcome harsh reviews of my creative writing, at this point.)
So one huge, crucial thing is to join a writing group, take part in workshops, join reading circles, and generally take part in activities where you’re criticizing and being criticized. Get used to it. Stop taking it so personally. Recognize that you’ll never be able to see your work the way other people see it — which is why you need feedback. But also, hearing a lot of opinions on your work at the same time can help with recognizing that each opinion is valid, but is just one person’s opinion.
Getting something useful out of criticism
Again, the first and most important thing to remember is that people aren’t commenting on that nebulous, beautiful blob of potential that you shaped into a story—they’re just commenting on what you put on the page. They can’t possibly know what ideas you started out with, or what your intentions were, and you shouldn’t try to explain any of that stuff.
If your readers can’t figure out what you’re getting at in a story, or what it was actually supposed to be “about,” that could indicate a huge problem—but it could also be a function of the fact that everybody is going to read a story differently, and you can’t control how people respond to it. Samuel Richardson kept rewriting his classic novel Clarissa because people sympathized too much with the character of Mr. Lovelace, but he was never able to stop people having the “wrong” reactions to his work.
So as long as you recognize that people are purely responding to what’s on the page, and you can never entirely prevent them from having their own weird ideas about what it was about, you can correct for that and still get a sense of whether they were reading the story you thought you were writing. And also, whether it made sense to them at all.
Sometimes, there’s something tripping people up in your story, or a place where they just aren’t quite following you—and often, it’s because you didn’t set things up properly earlier on, or there’s a piece of the worldbuilding or character development missing. (There could be a whole other article on finding the trouble spots in your work, and maybe we’ll get to that another time.)
The main thing is, people’s specific criticisms of your work are symptoms—but they don’t usually tell you what the actual cause is.
There’s a quote from Neil Gaiman which is super helpful: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
To the extent that writing is a craft, just like making a chair or playing a musical instrument, the longer you do it the better at it you get. And hearing people tell you that your chair is slightly lopsided or you messed up that one arpeggio can be really painful, but there is intrinsic good in realizing that you still need to keep working at this and improving. Specific pointers to where you overused a particular word, or where one of your characters felt flat, are super useful—but so is just more incentive to keep working on your technique.
Which brings me to the thing about learning from harsh reviews that aren’t directed at you personally. A reviewer online is under no obligation to be helpful to the author (or even to other readers, although you kind of hope they will be.) If you can get something useful out of reading harsh reviews of your work online, then that’s your business, not theirs.
Edited to add: And because people are bringing it up on Twitter, I should also say here that you should never, ever respond to online reviews of your work, or try to argue with the reviewer. Just don’t. It never ends well.
At the same time, it’s totally possible, if your skin is thick enough. You just have to turn your filter way, way up—and try to listen without having an instant reaction. If a bunch of people are saying that you don’t know how to write a certain type of character, or that your stories tend to run out of steam in the third act (to pick two random examples), that’s invaluable to hear. Maybe you really do need to go and work hard on those weaknesses in your work, if they’re bugging a lot of people.
At the same time, when people review your work online, they’re not comparing your stuff to work by your peers, or to your other work. They’re comparing your story to every other story that’s ever been written, and judging it purely according to their personal tastes. They may simply hate the kind of work you’re trying to do, so that no matter what you do, you’ll never please them. They may just not be on your wavelength. Don’t get neurotic, or sabotage yourself thinking you have to try and please everybody on earth or change everything in response to one rant you read online. Seriously.
And yet... successful writers have to be a little bit megalomaniacal—but also a little bit masochistic. You have to learn to take lots of harsh feedback, ignore the stuff that seems unhelpful or off-base, and use whatever you can. Getting better at anything, especially a creative thing, requires a lot of misery along the way—but if you get used to the pain, you can use it to get better, and those harsh critics can wind up helping you more than anybody.