Aug 25 2011

How to Deal with Unconstructive Criticism


1.  Not all impolite criticism is unconstructive.   There are some people that would like to help you but are not naturally diplomatic or polite.  “Your spelling needs work!” is a bit rougher than I’m used to, but I’d give those reviewers latitude because they’re trying to help.  Also, some editors are pretty blunt and learning to work with different sorts of people is an important professional (and life) skill.


2. Genuinely unconstructive reviews tend to be insulting and/or completely miss the point of what you’re trying to do.   If you feel like the reviewer’s main goal is proving that he/she is a better writer than you rather than helping you improve your writing, the only two people in the world that have any reason to care about the review are the reviewer and the reviewer’s therapist.  I would recommend disregarding these reviews as soon as possible because they won’t help you grow as a writer and aren’t meant to.


3. If you’re not sure whether a review is abusive or not, here are some red flags.  

  • It uses words/phrases like “awful,” “really bad,” “terrible,” profanity and/or “sucks” with reckless abandon.  I could (maybe) forgive one use, but anything more than that suggests that the reviewer is not trying to help you.
  • The reviewer states everything as facts and commands.  However, unless a review focuses on obvious mechanical errors (like “tehn” -> “then”), virtually everything in it will be some sort of opinion.  A reviewer that uses personal qualifiers like “I think” and “I feel” and suggestions probably cares more about trying to help than about establishing dominance.
  • The review gets too personal and/or reaches negative conclusions about the author based on the quality of the writing. For example, I think it’d be really dubious to imply or state that the author is an idiot because he/she doesn’t understand writing mechanics yet.  One reviewer got in a pissing contest with an author that turned out to be a grade-schooler.  Smooth move, champ.  (Another possibility: English isn’t the author’s first language, but he’s writing in English because it has a larger online audience).


Solving the Problem


4. Your first reaction should be to remain calm.  It happens to everybody and doesn’t mean anything about your writing. For example, my List of Superpowers once got a hilariously childish, profanity-laden tirade from a reviewer that wanted the superpowers to be grouped differently.


5.  If you feel a reviewer is not helping you much, I would recommend cutting off contact quickly.  Calmly and politely send the reviewer a link or two about how to review diplomatically and wish him/her the best of luck editing other people’s works. I’d recommend limiting this to 3 sentences.  No whining.  If you’d like to see an example of how to politely cut off contact, I have a sample response here.


6. Do NOT bother arguing the substance of an abusive review.  You won’t persuade him/her and you’re wasting those hours.  As a writer, you’ll never have every reader in your camp and that’s okay!  Instead of fruitlessly going after one reader that hates your writing, it’s more productive to promote your work to new readers that might actually enjoy it, write new material, and/or revise old material.  If you take yourself seriously as a professional, spend your time with people that take you seriously as a professional.


7. Delete abusive reviews, if possible.  You’ll forget about them and that makes it easier to move on.


Do you have any ideas or suggestions or particularly disastrous reviews you’d like to share?  Please see the comments below for some real winners.  

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “How to Deal with Unconstructive Criticism”

  1. Grenacon 25 Aug 2011 at 2:24 am

    Once someone screws up 4, 5 and 6 pretty much go downhill as well. Reviews are totally cool, but people need to realize that something like “u suk lol” should be ignored. But if there is at leastsomething one can pull from the review that could be used to improve upon the writing, then it should be taken at its basic level, stripping away any insults it’s wrapped in.

    Everyone’s made different and that’s something every author and reviewer has to keep in mind. Expect anything and grow a bit of thick skin* or learn to tone that harshness down a peg.

    *It’s pretty much a requisite to have thick skin on the interwebs.

  2. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 25 Aug 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Here’s some unconstructive criticism I’ve gotten before, from the same guy as above.

    “…it is, quite simply, the single most stupid collection of writing advice I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. Basically, it’s one thing to write a bad novel, but it’s another thing entirely to give out bad advice when it comes to advising others on how to write. As such, I feel rather obligated to tear them to shreds for the good of all other writers out there who have even the slightest hint of a clue; that’d be quite a large group, but that’s how it ought to work. The website in question is Superhero Nation, run by a few people who decide to apply their rather flawed outlook to the world of writing. They focus on all of the wrong things, and as a literature student I can spot them from a mile off.”

    Here’s how I would politely and calmly try to head off this disaster in the making. “If I could offer some advice, I think your ideas would be taken more seriously if your goal were not to tear things to shreds. Please see How to Review Stories You Find Awful for more details. Best of luck with your studies.”

  3. Wingson 25 Aug 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Oh, do I ever have some stories…

    Allow me to introduce you to my dear, dear pet reviewer, codenamed “Jane Doe” to protect the innocent. She also writes writing guides on Fictionpress, and appears to have seen me as competition.

    Also, she’s possibly the biggest, most hilarious hypocrite I’ve ever met.

    “With all due respect, I think you’re talking out of your ass on this one. All of those so-called rules I’ve seen broken more than effectively. And that’s the thing. You can’t give commands and rules in these things, just advice. Because at the end of the day, you’re on the same site as the rest of us.” – Jane Doe, a review on The Sane Writer’s Guide to: Titles

    I think she was trying to be profound with that last line, but stuff like that doesn’t work without a good page or so of buildup. I believe I responded with something along the lines of “Sorry, I thought putting the word “guide” in the title would tip people off. Guess I overestimated you guys.”*

    “Set (Seth) was atually the God of chaos, storms and the desert, and was not considered evil. Nephthys was the protective goddess of the dead, she was not a nature goddess. Isis was also the goddess of healing and female ferility, as well as magick. And you left out Horus.

    Frey was only the

    Frey was only the God of male fertility, as well as male sexuality, prosperity, mariiage and kingship. Freyja was Goddess of plants, forests and animals, love, female fertilty and sexuality, and magick. She had nothing to do with war.

    I suggest you research things like this more thoroughly, as not all the information you will find will be completely acurate. Please note, I’ve been researching egyptian mythology for around 8 years now, and norse mythology for 2 or 3.” WolfletteMoon, a review on The Sane Writer’s Guide to: Angels, Demons, and Gods

    This one’s not really funny until you factor in some background. According to Jane Doe’s profile, she’s 16. Apparently she’s been an Egyptologist since age 8.

    “Though this was an improvement on the trash you’ve been writing until now, you need to pick better examples. You learn just as much from the twilight extract as the other one. You only learn about looks in both, but you learn their hair colour, how they wear it, Rosalie’s figure and Cimorene’s height, and how people react to their looks. Try thinking things through, and reading your examples properly.” – WolfletteMoon, a review on The Sane Writer’s Guide To: Character Description

    I really hate this particular SWG, but it’s fairly popular anyway. She has a solid point in that my examples were bad, but her credibility went straight out the window with that first line.

    “Firstly, hippogriffs and pegas are not the same. Hippogriffs are half bird, and have the front half, head and foelegs of a bird. Pegasus just have wings, aside from that they are completely horse.

    I’ve never seen siren portrayed that way, it sounds more like harpies, that had the lower half of a bird, often an eagle or vulture, and were human fron the waist up, except they had wings, and beaks.

    Also, I think you’ll find, in modern fiction, dragons are rarely portrayed as beasts, but usually how they were portrayed in the inheritance cycle.

    Frankly, I don’t think you did your research. And you should, because anyone who’s been to primary school could see these mistakes.” – Jane Doe, a review on The Sane Writer’s Guide to: Fantastic Creatures

    “Why no Jane Doe, I didn’t go to primary school. I went to elementary school.”

    And the best worst review I’ve ever gotten? Actually didn’t come from Jane Doe. It came from one of her friends/goons…

    “what the hell this is so crap. you clearly dont know anything about fantasy because why else would you use wikipedia to define dragon. no one cares what wikipedia thinks its all a load of s*! U NEED TO LEARN TO WRITE.

    P.S why dont you stick some of your own stories up instead of telling us how to write!” – Soapymouth (not her real name), a review on The Sane Writer’s Guide to: Fantastic Creatures”

    The fact that I had to censor Soapymouth’s real name twice before should say something. I considered mailing this person a bar of soap, but I hate licking postage stamps.

    Have I mentioned that I love this job? ‘Cause I really love this job.

    – Wings

    *Alright, I lied, but I really wanted to say that second part.

    **I apologize to any British readers, but I can’t speak on America’s behalf.

  4. ekimmakon 25 Aug 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Strange… You release an article on how to criticize people, and then one on how to be criticized…

  5. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 25 Aug 2011 at 1:56 pm

    In the article on how to criticize awful stories constructively, one of the commenters (Chihuahua) asked for advice about how to take advice that isn’t constructive. I thought that an article about how to deal with unproductive criticism would be a useful follow-up, so I posted one.

    In both cases, I think the critical skills are emotional maturity and professionalism.

  6. Chihuahua0on 25 Aug 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I’m glad you made this article so soon. I feel like I triggered something useful.

    About the bad reviewer B Mac mentioned: From my viewpoint, that “review” has a few flaws. It’s more of a rant, without any evidence to speak of (what “wrong” things is this site focusing on?). Did you respond to this person, or are you ignoring him? Any course of action would be reasonable, since I get this trollish vibe from him.

    Unfortunatly, I don’t have any other cases of bad critiques to show (besides the one on the other article). Not a whole lot of people had reviewed my works, and I don’t seek out bad reviews.

  7. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 25 Aug 2011 at 3:37 pm

    “I’m glad you made this article so soon. I feel like I triggered something useful.” For sure! Thanks for the help.

    It was a year or two ago and I unwisely tried to argue the merits with him. It took me a while to realize how much time I was wasting. I haven’t responded to his emails since.

    In the review above, I found the claims too vague and/or implausible to be useful. For example, what about my outlook is wrong? The main issue he mentions there is that I focus too much on sales figures. I find that tenuous because only ~10-20 of my 300+ writing articles mention sales figures.

  8. Carradeeon 26 Aug 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Ironic. I found this post right after releasing the first post in a 3-part series I’m doing on how to take negative reviews.

    Something to bear in mind is “politeness” differs with culture. For some people, being direct is polite, and beating around the bush is what’s rude. For others, it’s the other way around.

    Once the ad hominem (personal attacks) come out, that’s usually a sign that someone’s more interested in tearing you down than helping you.

  9. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 26 Aug 2011 at 4:52 pm

    I hate hate hate unconstructive reviews. I’m glad I’ve gotten to the point where I can take criticism and not just break down thinking “Oh God, I’m so bad, I should just quit and go die.”

    Now they just annoy me, instead of hurting me. I just say “meh” and delete them or ignore them. No point in replying to somebody whose goal is to make people miserable, after all.

  10. B. McKenzieon 30 Aug 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Hello, Carradee! I tried posting this on your article, but unfortunately it kept giving me error messages when I tried to sign in.

    “Do you read your negative reviews? Why or why not? Do you respond?”

    Some negative reviews are incredibly helpful. Other negative reviews are impolite but still might be helpful. Then there are abusive and/or entirely clueless reviews.

    1. I think most negative reviews are worth the author’s time. Like you said, Carradee, most negative reviews are caused by unfulfilled expectations. I think it’s very worthwhile for an author to figure out what expectations people develop about his/her work and either try to better fulfill them or change how the work is presented so that expectations are more consistent with what’s actually in store.

    2. Some reviewers are more polite than others. Some reviewers are pretty blunt and I think it’s a good career plan to figure out how to get along with blunt people that mean well.

    3. I wouldn’t worry at all about abusive reviews (e.g. ones that gratuitously insult the author, etc). If the reviewer isn’t trying to help you get better, I don’t think it’s worth your time to read the review. Responding to such reviews is almost assuredly a total waste of time. You won’t convince the person to give your work another chance and trying to interact with people that are insulting you can only play to your detriment. You’ll look like more of an adult by NOT responding. I think it’d be much more productive to be working on your next project or promoting your current one than wasting time on readers that are probably lost to you. Some readers won’t like your work and that’s okay.

    4. If a review is pretty clueless, but not abusive, you might politely clarify your work, but don’t get defensive or judgmental. For example, maybe try something like “I see you would have liked the past relationship between the two characters to be clearer. I thought that the conversation on page 120 covered their one-time fling pretty well. Do you have any ideas about how I might have done it differently?” If the review is TOTALLY clueless, I wouldn’t worry about it. “This romance isn’t any good! It needs more ZOMBIES.”

    PS: Please don’t worry about 1-star reviews. As long as a lot of people are liking your work, negative reviews will not reduce sales. Most people reading a review have never encountered your work and would not have ever heard of you otherwise. Exposing readers to a book could ONLY increase the chance they will buy it.

    1. Some people reading the review will think, “The reviewer didn’t like that very much, but it sounds pretty good to me.”

    2. Some people reading the review will like the premise of the book and want to either check it out or at least look for more reviews.

    3. Some people reading the review will think, “It couldn’t really have been THAT bad.” Morbid curiosity does drive some book sales. (I’m looking at you, Atlanta Nights).

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