Friday, February 6, 2015

Viewpoint: How Do YOU Respond to a Negative Review?

I'm a book reviewer. A five-second glance around my blog will tell you that much about me.

I promise honest reviews, not flatteringly positive ones, and I don't shy away from calling a spade a spade when it comes to aspects of a work that the author could improve upon. But I'm also not skimpy with positive feedback, either.

And ultimately, as an author, it's your decision how you'd like to respond to whatever I post when I (or anyone else) review your work.

But let's just check out a quick example of what can happen when you decide to lash out in response to a negative review.

Example: Jacqueline Howett

In March 2011, David Barnett published an article in The Guardian in which he discussed self-published author Jacqueline Howett's less-than-appreciative response to someone who wrote an honest (and somewhat negative) review of her work.

Rather than taking time to hire an editor or a beta reader and see if the reviewer actually knew what he was talking about, she called him out on social media, thereby proceeding to make herself look like a ruthless egomaniac who couldn't take a little constructive criticism.

Furthermore, since the reviewer complained about spelling and punctuation errors in her work in his review, and since at least one of her angry replies to him contained more spelling errors ... 

Really, even if the reviewer had been particularly cruel about his criticism, I don't have a lot of sympathy for Howett. How long does it take to click "Spell Check" before you submit a work for publication? (Granted, that handy tool doesn't catch everything ... which is why you need an editor and/or beta readers, too.)

A Negative Response to a Negative Review

You're welcome, of course, to respond any way you choose to any reviews you receive.

But that's part of the problem, I think. Nobody likes to hear criticism of any kind, constructive and well-meaning or not, and in the moment, it's too easy to react without thinking. When that happens, of course, choosing your response goes right out the nearest window (and sometimes sails straight through the glass, leaving a tremendous wreck behind).

Personally, I hate criticism. It wouldn't matter if Mother Theresa delivered it to me with a smile and the gentlest, kindest voice. It wouldn't even matter if the criticism were founded and true and needed to be said.

I'd still bristle, and probably lash out in a terrible tantrum.

And I'm welcome to do that.

But doesn't that make me look like a bit of a child? Like I'm particularly selfish and touchy and concerned that my work doesn't speak for itself, so I have to defend it on its own behalf?

And if I retort in a way that proves the critic or reviewer's point ... as did Howett in the aforementioned example, riddling even her intended-to-be-snarky reply to her reviewer with misspelled words ... doesn't that make me the fool?

How to Respond

Maybe it comes back to what we learned as children: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

Honestly, sometimes the wisdom we picked up during preschool and on the playground is still some of the best we could ever put into practice.

Or at least walk away from the computer for a few moments, or even an hour. Better yet, take twenty-four hours before you think about replying. It takes distance to be able to respond objectively (rather than to act like our own child has been mocked).

And maybe even consult someone else. I know your mother loved your book, and your best friend bought six copies when you self-published, and your husband thinks you walk on water. (Or he'd better.) What about someone who will be honest with you? Someone who will read the review and look at you very directly but kindly and say, "But ... he/she is right."

Can we still respond with grace in that instance? Is it possible?

I think it is.

Not easy, no. Never easy. Slave over a novel or a short story or a screenplay or, heck, even a limerick, and it becomes a part of who you are, representative of your very being. It hurts when someone attacks that.

But go back and reread the review when you're calmer. Is the reviewer attacking you, the author? Or the work itself? What made the reviewer write what he or she wrote in the first place? Is it possible you should have hired an editor? Double-checked your facts? Made sure that your character descriptions and names were consistent all the way through (e.g., Adam had green eyes on page 26 and brown ones on page 104)?

And besides, as others will tell you: even a negative review is publicity for your work, whether you like it or agree with it or not.

When in Doubt

When all else fails, here's a tongue-in-cheek fifteen-step process to respond to a negative review. I'm sure it's a process we've all been through before.

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Your thoughts?

Is there ever a professional, mature way to respond to a negative review?

What do you do to calm down after you get a bad review?

Has a negative review ever opened your eyes to something about your work you didn't realize needed fixed?

Are you a sadist who welcomes negative reviews, determined at any cost to continue to improve on your work even after you published it?

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