Saturday, June 12, 2010

Six steps to surviving a bad review

Everbody's a critic, but nobody like to be criticised.  That's true of everyone - it's not surprising that the occasions people find most stressful and uncomfortable involve exposure to the judgement of others - job interviews and appraisals, marriage proposals, acting auditions. It's not something we get much better at over time  - most of what we might consider to be maturity and contentment lies in gathering around ourselves sympathetic family and friends and avoiding challenges to our self-image and self-worth.

But with some activities, this exposure comes with the terrtitory -  publishing creative work is one of them: there will be reviews and comments, and these will be hard to deal with, since they may attack your core identity and beliefs.  So what can you do?

1 Don't react

It is natural to feel hurt.  And natural to want to retaliate. Literary history is strewn with the dead and wounded from intemperate responses to criticisms. Although theoretically there may come a time when you might be able to calmly and rationally debate the merits of the review with its author, that time is not now. Leave it.

2 Use the buzz

The emotional impact of being criticised can be devastating.  The urge to react arises from the complex mixture of energy, defensiveness and aggression - you want to prove them wrong. This is an opportunity, used well- an opportunity to get on with doing something else, something you had put to one side when you were feeling complacent.  Success (at something else) is the best revenge.

3 Own the pain

Writers are often advised to ignore bad reviews. It's hard to do. There is no way to avoid the loss you have incurred - the fantasy that your work will be universally praised and admired has been brutally falsified. That's gotta hurt. Don't be surprised when it does.  The pain will fade (the scars remain).

4 Respect the critic

Back at Stage 1, a typical response is to say that the reviewer knows nothing of your work, or the genre, or writing in general. How many books have they written?  (annoyingly, the answer is usually 'several').  A test for whether you are ready to move on is to think about your critic. Is their judgement usually sound?  If so, is it just because it affects you that you are discounting it? If you would have been glad to get their praise, you must credit them with some powers of discrimination.   So you should be open to the idea that they have a point. 

5 Find the positives

We do not read carefully when we are reading reviews. The criticisms leap out of the page at us, while praise goes unnoticed or unremembered. Once you are ready to accept the critic's opinion, re-read the review.  It may well be less damning than you had thought - it may even be, on balance, positive.  In which case you should be glad you hadn't given in to the idea of sending them a death threat when you first read it.

6 Grow from the negatives

Praise tells us to keep on doing what we're doing. You can argue that it is therefore unnecessary - we would probably carry on anyway.  What is hard is to be self-aware enough to recognise the need for change.  Luckily, other people will tell us to change. Not in so many words, and not nicely. And maybe their advice is wrong - they may not know enough about you to devise a programme of improvement.  But one thing is clear - negative criticism is a good cure for complacency. And pretty soon we'll be thinking about new stuff, the next book, rather than living off the glow from the last one.

And that's all there is to it.  It may still sound a bit negative, but I hoep it is more useful than the conventional mantra of 'what do they know?', 'genius is never recognised', 'I'm in the wrong gang' with which writers seek to comfort themselves.

Martin Locock


You're probably wondering. Yes, I had a bad review. It told me I needed to check and edit my work properly. I knew that already, but had forgotten.


Madeleine said...

Very useful advice Martin and yes it is important not to over react to comments others make about one's work.
Your 'Find the Positives' point would also hold true for the reviewer, since there are ways of couching critcism so that it seems more palatable.

Martin Locock said...

Thanks. It's easy to overlook how much emotion we have vested in our written selves, how easy it is to hurt or be hurt by words.