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IWSG: Evolution of a storyteller (Why it’s impossible to ignore bad reviews)

Before there were writers, there were storytellers. People who wove tales around the campfire while their audiences gasped. In the days before television, movies, smart phones, and the internet, the storytellers were entertainment. Talk about a lofty responsibility! Imagine if everyone in your community depended on you to come up with something brilliant each evening to whisk them away from their daily struggles.

Every single writer is a descendant of that tradition.

I wasn’t born in the Middle Ages, but I’m willing to bet the most successful storytellers took their cues from the audience. They would quickly learn what types of stories were the most popular, what made people laugh, what made them cry. The best of the best would leave their audiences spellbound and desperate for more, and they did that by paying attention.

These days, we’re told to do the opposite. Negative review? Someone had a bad day or he’s a troll; don’t listen to him. Didn’t win the award or get in the anthology? It’s nepotism, don’t you know? And those judges have no taste. Writing teacher says your plots fall a bit flat? Clearly she’s not a writer–if she was, she’d be writing, not teaching. And on it goes.

But most of us do pay attention to our bad reviews, and we take them to heart, and for a little while, the self-doubt crushes us. Am I really good enough? What makes me think my stories are worthy? And then we feel even worse for letting the negative review get to us because that guy’s a troll–what does he know?

Being a writer is like living through a tempest in a teapot. One day a horrible review, the next someone says you’re her favourite author. One day a rejection, the next someone admires you enough to want to collaborate on their next project. Back and forth, to and fro, it never ends.

Why it's impossible to ignore bad reviews www.jhmoncrieff.com

I’ve heard (and read) a lot of authors say we can’t pay any attention to this stuff, that if we’re influenced by the good feedback, we’ll be equally influenced by the bad. That what matters is the craft, the story, nothing else. But is that true? I don’t know many writers who are satisfied with creating in a vacuum. Most of us, though we may be terrified, want to share our writing with others, want to move people or make them think or entertain them, whisk them away from their daily struggles. It’s what being a storyteller is all about. Being a writer is a constant quest for excellence that is never realized–we can always improve, we can always strive to be just a bit better than our last work.

How on earth are you supposed to avoid being affected by this stuff? Do the authors who spew this advice wear a negativity-proof suit of armour I’m not aware of? Maybe you can numb yourself to the slings and arrows after awhile, but do you ever not notice them hitting you? If you can honestly say none of this stuff ever gets to you, please tell me how you manage it. I’d love to know.

A lot of bad reviews are nothing more than someone venting their vitriol for god knows what reason, and that’s not helpful. But it’s also not helpful to feel guilty if said vitriol makes you feel like shit for a while, or if a kind word puts you on top of the world. Storytellers have a long legacy of listening to their audience. The ones who paid attention survived to tell more stories. The ones who turned their backs on the crowd did not.

As for me, I’m going to stop telling my fellow writers to shrug off their bad reviews and ignore them like they mean nothing. They do mean something. They mean someone, for whatever reason, hated our work. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with feeling badly about that for a little while. I would argue that it’s natural to feel badly about that.

So feel bad. Or feel amazing when something good happens (and it will). But then dust yourself off and tell an even better story. For we were meant to tell stories. That’s what we do.

Painting credit: The Storyteller by Martin Pate

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43 Comments

  1. I read all of my reviews. It’s easy to spot the troll ones, and I ignore those. But there are poor to bad reviews with merits and we can learn from them.
    Send me the information on your books and I’ll promote their release for you!

    Reply
  2. I think it’s similar to when we receive critiques – we listen to them all, positive and negative, consider them, take what works for us, what will improve our craft then let the rest go. The negative words sting but it’s up to us how long we let ourselves be hurt by them.

    Reply
    • JH

      True, with the caveat that some writers struggling with depression may want to ignore their reviews for a while. That I completely understand. No sense being kicked when you’re already down.

      Reply
  3. How are we to improve if we ignore criticism? We need an open mind and a willingness to change and grow as writers.

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree. Some criticism is unmerited, but I can’t imagine never reading any reviews. The curiosity would always get the better of me.

      Reply
  4. It can be tough reading any review. When I write, it’s for me mostly. And a reviewer can’t touch that. When something of mine gets published, I already have someone telling me my work is okay and no one can take that away either–bad day or not.

    Bottom line for me is, everyone has a right to an opinion. I’ll respect theirs and hope they’ll respect mine.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    Reply
    • JH

      Good point, Anna.

      Reply
  5. The trick of course is having someone leave you valid feedback. I agree, criticism can be very useful, but when it’s just “I didn’t like this. 2 stars!” What are you going to do with it? Or if someone specifically says “this is not my mind of book.”

    Of course, if some takes the time to say “I didn’t like this because…” then that’s actually way better and more useful than a 5 star review that just says “this is great!” Feedback, actual useful feedback, is a treasure.

    http://www.cdgallantking.ca/2017/05/daniel-radcliffe-fcks-horse-apology.html

    Reply
    • JH

      For sure, and not every bad review is going to tell you something useful. That wasn’t the message of my post. What I’m trying to get across is that it’s okay to feel bad about bad reviews, as long as they don’t throw you into an irreversible funk. Some people just won’t like our work, no matter what we do. And if that makes us feel sad or angry or wretched, that’s okay.

      So often we’re counselled to ignore and shrug off everything, and I don’t think that’s realistic.

      Reply
  6. We really do have to give ourselves permission to feel, eh? Too often we suppress our feelings and tell ourselves it’s only okay to experience positive things. Some of my greatest growth as a writer has come from negative reviews. And yes, the downs hurt, but they helped to build perspective on when to ignore a rant, and when a seed of truth aught to be heeded.

    Reply
    • JH

      And even the positive things aren’t to be experienced, according to some. I’ve heard more than one writer say you need to shut out both, so that neither good or bad responses to your work will move you. So, what? We become unfeeling robots? That doesn’t seem like the best goal to me.

      Reply
  7. I think that any writer who really manages to “shrug off” negative reviews has a problem. Not only should be notice them–especially if several are saying similar things–but any artist who wears that much armor seems to me to be shutting herself off from part of what makes you create. To make art is to be vulnerable.

    Rather than armor, we need our people who help put us back together.

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, Rebecca. And beautifully said!

      Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Donna. I’m just tired of writers beating themselves up for being human.

      Reply
  8. I’ve never had a bad review, but I did have a close friend tell me she didn’t like my book. That hurt more than I’d like to admit. After the initial shock, I was able to ask her some good *why* questions which helped me realize what it was she didn’t enjoy. Unfortunately, it is hard to ask bad reviewers for more detail, and maybe that wouldn’t be helpful anyway. A cruel review should be ignored. A review that critically points out flaws or issues should be a learning experience. Great post, Storyteller.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks so much, Ryan. That would really hurt, coming from a friend. Good for you for being able to calmly discuss it with her. Did it end up improving your writing, or was it just a case of her not “getting” you?

      Reply
  9. For a while I was reading all of my reviews, then the bad ones hit. I didn’t ignore them or write them off, if anything I took them more to heart than the good ones. Because of that, for now I’ve had to stop reading them. I knew if I didn’t I’d let the self doubt take hold and I’d never finish my project. Excellent post and I love the new blog .

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks so much, Meka. I’m glad you love it. Bad reviews are really tough. I’m going through that right now because I went against type in a formulaic genre, and people either love that my book is different or hate it for being different. I think it helps when you know where bad reviews are coming from.

      Reply
  10. I don’t read any review. I get whiplash from the rollercoaster it puts me on, and it doesn’t matter if the review is good or bad. I get derailed and can’t write for a while. It kinda sucks because I’d like to read them and see if the bad ones tell me where I can improve, but it’s just to distracting for me. I should make hubby read them and tell me.

    Reply
    • JH

      How do you manage not to read them? I can’t help it. I’ve even tried, but I always have to peek.

      Reply
  11. I couldn’t even stand when stories or reports I wrote in school got anything less than a stunning review! I can’t even imagine how full-fledged writers feel! I’ve dabbled with the thought of writing many times, but I feel I’m too unpolished of a turd (I really couldn’t think of another way to say it, I swear) and I also enjoy reading WAY too much to take all that time and invest it in something I’m not even sure I’d be that good at anyhow. I mean, reading is almost like needing food, for me. I just don’t feel myself without it. Also, way too sensitive. Sometimes people just comment stupidly on statuses I post on Facebook and I ask my husband what the heck is wrong with people. Neither of us have figured it out yet, by the way. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      In that case, it’s about them, not you. It’s difficult to be as sensitive as writers normally are AND open to critical feedback of our work, but sometimes bad reviews can be telling us something important. As long as you’re pleasing more people than not, I think you’re good.

      And no one would give you less than a stunning review!

      Thanks for commenting! <3

      Reply
  12. When I was a kid, I used to do little skits in front of my friends. I was so shy and thought I was dumb, not funny, but they’d laugh and laugh, and ask me to do it all the time. Because I felt awkward doing it, I did look to my friends (my audience) to gauge their reaction and what they’d like. That’s how I was able to make them laugh. 🙂

    P.S. I love your new site look. I was gone from blogging most of April, so if these changes are old, that’s why I haven’t noticed until now. lol

    Reply
    • JH

      Hi Chrys!

      Nope, they’re pretty recent. I launched the site mid-April. Thanks for the kind words.

      I imagine what you learned from doing those skits has served you well as a writer.

      Reply
  13. Love your the new look of your site. Love the cover of the Evolution of a Storyteller
    No good advice about handling negative comments, but open to hearing it lol. ‘ Juneta @ Writer’s Gambit

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Juneta! This site was a labour of love and a LONG time coming!

      Reply
  14. The creative life can be a bit of a rollercoaster.

    Reply
    • JH

      To put it mildly. 🙂

      Reply
  15. Your advice makes a lot of sense. Ignoring reviews and feedback may be fine if a writer is only writing for their self (but then, why is someone else even reading it 😉 ).

    It’s human nature to want to protect ourselves from negativity, but completely ignoring feedback in any form is ignoring a valuable source of improvement information.

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, KT. And I’m not even saying writers have to read their reviews. I’m just saying we shouldn’t feel guilty about having a reaction to them.

      Reply
  16. It was a character driven plot and that wasn’t her thing, or so she claimed.

    Reply
    • JH

      Hmm…well, I wouldn’t feel too badly about that review. “This story was too well written. It’s not my thing.” 😀

      Reply
  17. None of us like to hear/read negative comments. Yet, we can grow from them. I tend not to read my reviews. Why inject negativity into my day? I’ll take criticism from my critique partner and/or my editor.

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s great you’ve found something that works for you, Diane. I always peek–I just can’t resist.

      Reply
  18. The danger of bad reviews is letting them affect you so much that you stop writing or work too hard to write something with broad appeal. That sounds like a good way to produce a mediocre product. My worst criticisms as of late have been about typos, so that’s an easy fix–hire a copywriter.

    Reply
    • JH

      True, copyeditors are a must! If you need a good one, let me know. I highly recommend mine and his prices are reasonable.

      Bad reviews are always challenging, but I suspect handling them gets easier with time.

      Reply
  19. I think I’m still in that phase where I’m trying to get reviews. At this point, if I get a bad one that seems legit, like the actually ready, I can’t be too mad. At least they read it. Not sure how this happened, but you ended up in my spam file. I found weeks of posts I’ve been missing. Gonna get caught. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Might be because of the new site design. Could have triggered something. Glad you found me!

      I hear ya…I’d like more reviews too. But some of the nastier ones I could do without.

      Reply
  20. I love this post. True and from the heart. I cannot imagine anybody not being affected by a negative review or comment. It makes us feel bad, sometimes even worthless.

    My husband and I are growing thick skin in this field, because of some of our customers. We have learned you can’t make everybody happy – no matter how hard you try and how much time you invest – and we are doing our best not to take the complaints and spewing of inaccurate accusations too personally. Very hard to do, if it is your product in which you have invested so much time, energy, knowledge and effort and you are consumed by it 12 hours a day. Just like writers do… And, some people are just so angry at the world, that some of us have to take the brunt of it, unfortunately. Luckily, there is the opposite of the spectrum and the people who do like what we do, and express it, can make our day, when it was broken yesterday. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed. I’ve just heard so many writers say you shouldn’t let the good reviews affect you either. So if you don’t listen to good or bad reviews about your work, what barometer do you use to make sure your writing is resonating with your audience–sales numbers? Not everyone will have decent sales numbers, especially at the start.

      Reply
  21. On a different note, the form factor for comments of your new site is not showing up correctly on my iPad. The button “submit comment” overlaps the field of “website”. Maybe worth looking into on Safari?

    Reply
    • JH

      Hi Liesbet,

      Thanks. It’s a new issue we’re dealing with. Hopefully my developer will fix it soon!

      Reply

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