It took me a while to work out where I was going with this topic, because I can’t think of a lot of advice I’ve gotten from other writers, and none of it personal. After covering two bits of good not-quite-advice, I finally found the advice that I couldn’t step away from: “Don’t sweat the bad reviews.”
It’s not bad advice. I agree in principle, but it’s over-simplified. I think over-simplified is bad. I think over-simplified leads to professional writers who don’t read their own reviews at all and can’t see the difference between “The quality of this series has decreased,” and “Bad reviewers are just sexually frustrated haters.”
You can’t please everyone, but there’s a big difference between someone leaving a review because they weren’t your target audience1, someone leaving bad reviews because they sort of hate you personally, and someone leaving a review because they’re pointing out what they feel to be genuine problems in the work.
I don’t believe, at any spectrum of success, that an author should agonize and dwell on bad reviews. That said, I do believe in taking the bad with the good — and sometimes the bad is a reviewer calling you a hack. So, generally, I feel like this advice would be better stated as, “Consider what the bad review is saying, and make your own judgement.”
In my favorite form lately: personal anecdote time!
Still being professionally unpublished, this isn’t something I’ve really had to deal with, outside the realm of fan fiction — where things can get heated, but are easy to shrug off. (Fan fiction is not my life’s work, after all. I hope.)
I can think of, off the top of my head, two examples to make my point from a story that I will completely honest about: it was bad.
I was experimenting with form and character. I was experimenting with how I wrote a traditional love story. I was experimenting with the idea of love as all-encompassing and unpredictable but ultimately not always in our best interests. (Shut up, it sounds less dumb if I describe it like this.) I was trying something really different for me. And while there are good elements, I feel the overall execution failed both from a lack of research and lack of maturity.
Example #1: Useful Soul-Crushing Review
One commenter, way back when it was still in-progress in 2005, flat out told me the story was bad about 9 chapters in. Here, have a slice:
I’ve had my doubts about this fic from the beginning, it was ok but not up to your usual standard. This last chapter has me seriously wondering if you’re deliberately writing a ‘bad fic’ and mocking your readers. [REDACTED DETAILS TO PROTECT MY DIGNITY] And just because you say so doesn’t make it believable, you didn’t convince me.
I was heartbroken and ticked, to be sure. Looking it up just now put my heart in my throat. But years later, as a marginally more mature adult, I can set aside my hurt ego — and oh, my ego took a beating — and realize that this was actually some really great advice: And just because you say so doesn’t make it believable, you didn’t convince me.
While this review didn’t change the story as it was already written2, and couldn’t make the reader like it better, it did offer something I cling to now when writing the unbelievable. If i don’t convince the reader, it’s over.
Example #2: Incredibly Unhelpful Review
Then came a comment on the same story last October. It was… nonsensical. This particular anon said they made it to chapter four, skipped to the end, criticized me for how the imagined things went in the twelve intervening chapters they didn’t read, and then told me how they would have written the story.
god i am glad i jumped to the end of the story i made it to the begining of ch.4 then read the ending yeah their made it thru after growing up a bit end story oh and [CHARACTER] a guy? missed [CHARACTER] swings both ways yeah they will be alright did not have to shift through endless ch.s of them going back and forth oh its been so long of a time and i sort of miss him blah blah blah. if i wrote this (with proper CAPS) i would have them have sex only half-drunk so they remember around thethe4 or 5 mon. then 6 mon. hay were having fun sober. 8 mon. start to have fun else where…by year end alittle unsure they want to break up 6 mon.s later still thinking about the fun times run into at a party we did have fun wanna try for real…
This review is of no help to me as a writer. What is does tell me is that the reader wanted one thing, discovered I had written something completely different from what they wanted to read, and decided this wasn’t the story for them. And that’s okay. Really. But it did not give me anything to think about — it is not a review worth really caring about.
This is a review I did not have to sweat.
I giggled at it, shared it with some friends to see if someone else could translate it, and hadn’t given it another thought until I was writing this post.
And as a reminder, the holy grail of all great writing advice: back up your work. My only attempt at a detective novel has been forever lost to the curse of “Windows sucks and your hard drive gave up the ghost to escape it.” What? That’s a real thing.
1.While I try not to leave bad reviews on books that just aren’t my cup of tea, I will leave reviews saying that while the book wasn’t bad, it wasn’t my taste for x, y, and z reasons. I suppose your mileage may vary as to whether this is a good or bad thing.
2. Okay, at the time my ego was all puffed up and I believed the writer was trolling me. Around the same time I got this review (from an account set up on the same day I received it), I had stirred up some shit in a fandom mailing list. The timing was damning. Still: even if I was being trolled, that doesn’t make the reviewer wrong.