On taking criticism

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You know those awkward X-Factor auditions that are broadcast purely to ridicule the contestants? Those poor people ended up in that situation because they'd only ever exposed their talent (or lack thereof) to friends and family, who either hid the truth or didn't have the critical language to be usefully constructive. This chapter is about not being one of those people.

The Wattpad community is, in my experience, very friendly, positive and constructive. As my book started to reach wider audiences it also started receiving comments. Most of these have been positive but it's not been universal praise, and this is where it's very easy to become unstuck if you're not used to your work and your self being in the public eye.

The positive, friendly comments are the easy ones. If somebody takes the time to actually comment on your work, it's invariably a good idea to reply. If they've said something nice, be sure to calmly, warmly thank them but try not to get too over-excited - you don't want to freak them out and push them away. If they ask a question or raise an interesting discussion point, absolutely engage them if you're comfortable, but remember that their reading of your work won't necessarily be the same as your original intent (which is fine; once you publish something, you can't claim ownership over its subsequent interpretation). If multiple readers are having a discussion among themselves, it's often best to let it carry on for a while before wading in, as the presence of the author can actually be a bit of a dampener as everyone gets either starstruck or worried about offending.

Negative, unfriendly or constructively critical comments are far trickier beasts.

There's a few things you need to ask yourself, especially as a self-published author. If you're going this route because you feel you've been burned by the traditional system, be sure to check any lingering bitterness at the door. Nobody is here to read your book as a way of sticking it to the man, and there's nothing more off-putting than an entitled self-pub author thinking that they're owed something by the world.

Even more importantly, consider whether your work has ever been properly assessed. Have you ever sought out honest, independent feedback? Family and friends generally don't count, unless they happen to be literature or creative professionals. The reason this is worth thinking about is that once your book is out in public you will start attracting new readers - that's half the point of reading this guide, right? - and they will be complete strangers. They will have no investment in you as a person, so their point of encounter is your writing. If you've experience of seeking constructive criticism it can really help - whether you join a local writing group, an small online community, take evening classes or study at university, they're all invaluable lessons on how to cope with the collision of your creative work with the real world. Maybe you've even taken my advice in Proofing & Publishing and got yourself an editor/proof-reader.

Let's assume that your writing is worth reading. In fact, we'll take a further leap and acknowledge that your writing is really good. Even then, you're still going to receive negative comments. The biggest, most popular books and authors still have people who hate them. Literary fiction doesn't tend to be crowd-pleasers, and pulp and genre fiction is often looked down upon. Point is, some people will love your story, some will hate it, and many more will fall somewhere in-between.

The trick, as an author, is to cope with that range of response both internally and externally.

Dealing with negative feedback is a hard thing. You've put a ton of time and effort and passion into this thing: how can someone not like it? If loads of other people have already given you nice comments, and this one guy just said something negative, then surely he's just WRONG?

Ultimately, it's all opinion. Just because one person thinks something doesn't mean that you have to agree with them. But that doesn't mean that isn't the right opinion for them.

There's three kinds of negative comment.

Number 1: The vague, polite negative comment. Something along the lines of "This is a bit weird, don't really get it." There's nothing in there to really discuss or take on board. In this case, it's probably simply not their thing. There's nothing you could have done to appeal to that person. The crucial point to acknowledge is that you can't please everyone, and that trying to do so would be a waste of your time and talent. Instead, write for yourself and your tribe. Replying to this person probably won't yield much of use, and you don't want to seem like you're nitpicking at their opinion. If you want to say something, go with a simple, non-judgemental "Thanks for your feedback"-style response.

Number 2: The specific, polite negative comment. "This is quite well written, but the main character is really unpleasant and I didn't like it." Here it's all about context: if your protagonist is supposed to be an anti-hero, then this is probably mission accomplished and the reader simply doesn't like those kinds of stories; if you thought the protagonist was a super cool guy, then it might be worth investigating further. Someone who replies politely will quite possibly be up for further discussion, so feel free to engage them about their point, but don't make the mistake of trying to change their mind, or openly disagreeing. Approach a dialogue as more of a fact-finding mission, where you're trying to find out about them and their point of view, rather than aiming to sell them on your authorial intent. These are people you can learn from: they will make your writing better.

Number 3: The rude negative comment. "You are the worst writer." It's going to happen at some point, although Wattpad in particular seems to self-regulate and keep genuinely unpleasant people away. These aren't the wild badlands of YouTube comments. Quite simply: don't respond, as there's nothing to be gained and you don't want to get drawn into a protracted and ugly argument with a non-fan. Save that effort for people who actually like your stuff. One note - don't be tempted to sanitise your comments area by deleting negative comments, as that can get you a bad rep and attract accusations of censorship. The exception to that rule is actively offensive/threatening language - you should also report that to Wattpad staff.

Vitally, someone saying you're a bad writer doesn't mean you're a bad writer. It just means that they think you're a bad writer. If other people like your stuff, then you're probably still on track. If more than one person gives you the same specific piece of critical feedback, then it's probably worth considering further - they might have a good point, which will help you write a better story.

The more your write and publish publicly, the thicker your skin will become. You'll also hone your ability to filter through feedback to find the genuinely useful stuff which will improve your work, while discarding anything that could impact on your creative confidence.

How do you deal with negative feedback?

Next up: What next?

If this guide helps your writing, you can buy me a coffee here: http://ko-fi.com/simonkjones  

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