Who They’re For

Throughout my life, I’ve worked primarily within industries in which my work is put on public display. As a columnist, a painter, a designer, a web develop, a blogger, and an author, everything I’ve done is out in the world with my name on it. Like a street-level billboard with a face on it attracts Sharpie-drawn Hitler mustaches, my work, by its nature, has always attracted critique.

This is both boon and bane. It’s a good thing, sometimes, because the right critique at the right time can lead to improvement. Something I wasn’t seeing because I was too close to the work being done, or something I never would have thought of because it was derived from a perspective different from my own.

On the other hand, day-ruining feedback is common, and you either have to develop thick skin to deal with it, embrace the hurt and try to channel it into something useful, or avoid all feedback, hoping there isn’t any glimmer of helpfulness in your book reviews or online commentary that will go unnoticed, lost in a sea of mean-spiritedness and disdain.

I’ve opted for the thick-skin route. That doesn’t mean the angry, upset, sometimes troll-ish comments don’t hurt, but it does mean they’re less likely to ruin my day.

The best advice I can offer for dealing with negative critique, other than acknowledging that such is the nature of some businesses, is to stop and ask yourself a simple question any time you’re given a negative review:

Who is this for?

In some cases, the person criticizing is doing so for themselves. They want to appear superior or smart, or to elevate themselves by putting you down. They want to be seen as a person capable of dishing out criticism. If this is the case, recognize that it’s human nature to want to do so, and that it’s how some people (perhaps many people) cope with difficulties in their own lives. It may be the only time they get to feel big and strong. Let them have that. The critique isn’t for you.

Some criticisms, though, are very clearly meant to help in some way. Perhaps by pointing out something that could use improvement, or telling potential readers of your book what was done well and what was done not-so-well. They may say it nicely, they may be terse or cold about it, but if the critique contains useful information rather than just contemptuous opinion, it’s probably meant for you and worth your time to acknowledge and consider. A negative review of this flavor is only negative if you take nothing away from it; the right course of action is to filter the useful stuff and silently thank the kind soul who both read your work and took the time to provide useful feedback. It’s a gift, even if it may not seem like one at first.

This is one of the better ways I’ve come up with to stave off the downer-feeling some critiques trigger without filtering out the potential useful bits that are included in otherwise ‘bad’ reviews of my work.

Consider how the same might apply to your own work, and analyze feedback critically, not emotionally.

Update: April 14, 2017

I wrote this at a moment in time where the positives flowing in were largely positive, because I didn’t want it to seem like a reflexive pushback against something negative. But man, there have been negative reviews, and yeah, some of them are pretty bad. Some of them I agree with to some degree, and some are clearly just angry and vapid.

Coping with reader response is one of the more crippling aspects of this industry for some people, though, so it’s worth getting a grip on it, if you’re intending to publish or make publicly available your work, whatever shape that work might take.