Dealing with Negativity: The Myth of Thick Skin

Hello everyone! This is my first article as an official WG2E contributor (rather than just a guest of the fabulous Talli Roland.) Thank you to DD for inviting me to join the team!


So today what’s on my mind is part of the journey every author has to contend with: criticism.

Author Matt Haig wrote a wonderful article on the Book Trust website last week in which he talked about being a thin-skinned writer. He said: “The paradox is that while having a thin skin might make for better writing, it is not good for the process of being published. I have a new book out next week. There will be reviews. The bad ones will trouble me more than they should. Just as that one tiny hair you find in your peanut butter makes you want to throw away the whole jar.”

We’ve all seen so many instances in which authors make a huge scene over criticism. Recently Anne Rice made a bit *cough* of a fuss when she sent her legion of Facebook Fans to a tiny blog where a virtually unknown (100 fans) blogger wrote a negative review. Predictable chaos ensued.

Last week, a new author was delighted when The Passive Voice blog picked up an article in which she gave advice. She was less pleased when the veteran indie authors who frequent The Passive Voice asked if since her first book hadn’t come out yet, was she really in any position to give advice on how to be a success? The trouble didn’t really start until she took to Twitter to rant to her followers about her treatment, saying she’d been “ripped apart”. (I’m not linking to the article or naming her simply because she’s new to publishing, and I don’t want to pile on since her feelings are clearly hurt.)

I’m not picking on this new author or even Anne Rice for their overreactions. I’m mentioning it because these are just two examples of thin-skinned writers I’ve seen making a public fuss over criticism in the past week.

Even the best writers (and that’s clearly a subjective list) get bad reviews, and we all make social boo-boos from time to time. Anyone who speaks in public risks offending folks. Anne R. Allen wrote a fantastic article this week on the mob mentality that can happen on social media. She talked about not only being the victim of “Twitchforks” (I love that phrase!), but also how to be socially responsible as public figures and not send our fans / tribe / street team out on a crusade on our behalf. In her article, Anne reminded us of Joe Konrath’s advice: “The Internet is forever. Things you say will always be there to come back and bite you.” And then she added: “And they WILL bite you. Especially if you—

  • Participate in snark attacks or throw “Twitchforks”
  • Denigrate the review process with fake 1&2 star “reviews”
  • Spread unsubstantiated, harmful rumors
  • Sabotage a fellow author’s livelihood
  • Threaten a person’s life and/or family
  • Make personal attacks on reviewers

That initial rush of smug rage will subside. You’ll be left with nothing but a damaged reputation and digital egg on your face.”

And here’s what I understand after doing this a little while:

Thick Skin is a Myth

So here’s the advice I’d like to add to the conversation: Don’t be alarmed or disappointed if you have thin skin when someone says something negative about your work, your advice, or worse still, if they take a more personal road and say negative things about you.

I say don’t be alarmed because on top of the shock of negativity coming our way, we authors are so often told we should be thick skinned! If I had a nickel for every time I saw someone tell an author or artist ignore the haters, well, I’d have a whole pocket full of nickels. And I think it’s nearly impossible advice to take, no matter the good intentions of the person saying it.

How do I deal with it? (I read reviews. I know some people don’t, but I do, even in the face of advice to ignore them.)

If someone doesn’t like my books, here are some things I try to keep in mind:

  • I don’t like every book I read, even some extremely popular or so-called important books. It’s not reasonable to expect everyone will like mine.
  • I shouldn’t give MORE weight to a 1 star review than to a 5 star review. In other words, I keep it in perspective. If ten people give my book 5 stars, but on person gives it 1 star, is it really reasonable to obsess over the one and ignore the ten?
  • If the person is criticising things I can change (like typos) or learn from (pacing or characterisation), I listen. If they focus on things I can’t change (like a character’s choices) or don’t agree with (like my books being too short at 75-85K words), I let it go.
  • I have a couple of best writer-friends and confidantes that I go to when I need to whinge. I say: “Tell me not to post about this on Facebook.” They dutifully reply, “Are you out of your mind? Do NOT post that on Facebook.” And then we have a laugh and exchange stories of how the world is so cruel. Then we get back to work and write more books.

If none of that works for you, maybe this will. When a friend of Wil Wheaton was publicly criticised, a Twitter friend (Joel Watson) said this:

You make things. That’s a big deal. Where there once was nothing, you invented people and maybe places. You told a story no one had ever heard before. You are an artist, and you make things.

If someone doesn’t like my advice or an article I write:

  • If I’ve done something wrong, I will apologise. I will own my mistakes and say I’m sorry.
  • If I’ve been unclear, I will make it right. It happens. Yeah, we’re writers and we should know how to make use of language, but sometimes things come out wrong.
  • If I’ve done nothing wrong, I will take the example of Kayleigh Herbertson, the blogger stormed upon by Anne Rice’s fans, and simply say “thanks for the comment.” (That woman has class.)

Question for you: How do you deal with negative comments and reviews?


India Drummond writes fantasy novels. She knew from age nine that writing would be her passion. Since then she’s discovered many more, but none quite so fulfilling as creating a world, a character, or a moment and watching them evolve into something complex and compelling. She has lived in three countries and four American states, is a dual British and American citizen, and currently lives at the base of the Scottish Highlands in a village so small its main attraction is a red phone box. In other words: paradise. Find out more about her and her books at her website.

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About India Drummond

India Drummond writes fantasy novels. She knew from age nine that writing would be her passion. Since then she’s discovered many more, but none quite so fulfilling as creating a world, a character, or a moment and watching them evolve into something complex and compelling. She has lived in three countries and four American states, is a dual British and American citizen, and currently lives at the base of the Scottish Highlands in a village so small its main attraction is a red phone box. In other words: paradise. Find out more about her and her books at http://www.indiadrummond.com/ .

Comments

  1. Thanks for the props and I agree with a lot you say. I’ve grown up on the net and my own Rice-gate didn’t really upset me for that fact. I feel more for older writers who haven’t grown up on the net and recognise empty vitriol in comments. I do find that engaging with them in a polite way can knock the wind out of their sails, I even got some lovely comments from initial haters. I guess it’s not a common stance but I tried to remember that if I wanted people to remember I was a person, I had to treat them like a person too. :)

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kayleigh! I really admired the way you handled the situation. I’m sure you gathered quite a few new fans because of your cool-headed response.

      • AD Starrling says:

        Indeed! I’m one of your new followers Kayleigh, and had it not been for that incident, I may not have discovered your lovely blog for some time. Kudos to you for showing restraint (I would have been foaming at the gills!) and for your exemplary response to the situation.

        India, couldn’t agree more. My mantra is always ‘Grow a thick skin, AD!’ when I see a negative review, but it always hurts, doesn’t it! At the end of the day, that’s our natural human response. It’d be like somebody calling your child ‘ugly’ on the playground. Bound to bring the red mist down a tad.

        Like you said, keeping things in perspective is key. One 1 star review shouldn’t take the joy of having the 4-5 star ones. Also, trying to learn from the feedback if it is constructive.

        And Joe Konrath’s post had me in hysterics for a good few minutes :) I love that man!

    • Kayleigh, you make an excellent point about growing up on th net. I did not grow up on the net and your experience was enlightening. When I first started interacting electronically, I didn’t understand flame wars and trolls. I was shocked! Took years to figure out I simply needed to bow out and move on. You handled the massive tsunami of haters with class. I hope I don’t ever have to deal with such a reaction but if I do, I’ll keep your example in mind.

  2. I read them, make mental notes of any useful observations, and move on. That’s it. I don’t make excuses; if they didn’t like it, they didn’t like it and that’s that. I don’t hang my head. And I certainly don’t respond, whether to try to cajole them into liking it or to argue with them for *not* liking it. I just get back to my writing. And I don’t understand for the life of me why writers are so sensitive when it comes to reviews…

    Congrats on your new gig at WG2E!

    • Thanks, Bettye! I’ve been enjoying the community very much since starting my regular guest posts. =)

      It’s fantastic that you have such a great attitude about reviews. I wish more authors did as you do. We’d have a whole lot less drama if that were the case!

  3. Talli Roland says:

    This is a great post with very sage advice (I almost made a lame joke about oregano but I refrained!). When my first novel was published, negative reviews really bothered me. Like, I used to OBSESS over them to the point where they invaded my dreams! I’ve had some pretty personal ones and while I’m still sensitive to them, I tell myself the same things you listed above, and they don’t have the same impact.

    • Ha… I’d expect nothing less than oregano jokes from you. ^-^

      Like you, negatives bother me a lot less than they used to. I suppose that’s one reason it surprises me so much when Anne Rice gets into things like this. You can’t get as well-known as she is without attracting some criticism, deserved or not. You’d think she’d be used to it!

  4. Lois Lavrisa says:

    Welcome to the team! I am glad that you are here- great post today. J.A. Konrath wrote a very funny post on negative reviews: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/04/dealing-with-bad-reviews.html

    • That’s a hilarious post, Lois! Thanks for linking it. It’s only sad that he had to spell out that it was satire! I suppose there’s always the risk someone would think he was giving actual advice. =)

  5. Thanks, India – glad to find a link on Facebook to this great post about such a tricky subject. The best advice I was ever given about reading reviews was to ‘zip up your rhino suit’. As writers we have to stay open, but learn to let bad and good reviews bounce off. Easier said than done ;)

  6. Angela Brown says:

    Still being a relative newbie to the publishing scene – I suppose I’ll keep saying that until I get another year under my wings – I haven’t had the experience of a really negative review. I have read reviews that didn’t gush over my literary genius and pointed out things I could learn from, which I wouldn’t be aware of if I totally ignored all reviews.

    It’s also as you mentioned in this post. I don’t fall head over heels in love with every story I read. Even though I’d love for every person in the world to drop what their doing, get my story and love it, that is not reality. I have to understand that and keep it moving, taking what I can learn from some reviews.

  7. Glynis Smy says:

    Great post, India. I have been fortunate with my reviews, however, the one ‘negative’ was from someone who didn’t read the book. Had I made a comment, I know it would have shown me in bad light, so I left it alone. I read books, I love some, and do not enjoy others. Readers have that right, and I have to accept whatever comes my way.

    • I think the most frustrating negative comments are the ones that either aren’t true or are somehow based on misunderstanding or in your case, not even about the book! You made the right call though…even though it’s sometimes tough to do!

  8. I started out writing magazine articles, and I think that was a good training ground because people will write letters to the editor if they love or hate what you’ve written. On the same article, I’ve received feedback from a reader who applauded my objective and fair-handed treatment of a subject and feedback from a reader who questioned my moral character and ability to distinguish right from wrong. This taught me how subjective opinions can be. As I’m heading into publishing my own books, that’s what I’ll be keeping in mind–opinions are subjective.

  9. Sage advice from those who are there, and who’ve been there. I humbly add mine: readers are the reason we seek publication. What they say, good, bad, or indifferent, matters. The reasons we write, however, are so much closer to a writer’s ego; thus, a “negative” review hurts. If we’re in charge of our ego, then we can move on, and we can channel what we learn into making our next artistic creation even more gratifying to readers–and to ourselves.

    • SK Holmesley says:

      It does seem that in the sense I’m interpreting you comment (pardon if I’ve misinterpreted), for those who write fiction, a bad review might actually help, since when we write, if all we know is approval and acceptance, we might not understand how to write a character who isn’t always accepted. I know for me, it’s difficult to write about an emotion I’ve never felt, but those I have felt both negative and positive I can recall later and hope that the experience gives my characters more depth.

    • That’s a good perspective for keeping in mind. Thanks for sharing! =)

  10. Alison Pensy says:

    Great to see you as a regular poster, India.

    When I first started in this business I took the negative reviews a bit hard, but I’ve toughened up a lot over the past few years. I have to say I’ve learned from some of my earlier reviews and used some of the comments to help improve my writing. Wine and chocolate also help a lot :-)

    I did have an out of the ordinary incidence with a negative review recently. The reviewer gave one of my new audio books a 2star because it “wasn’t to her liking” .

    Usually I would ignore it, but in this instance it was the 1st and only review for the book that was newly released. I had been selling 4-5 a day up to that point, but then sales stopped immediately. I checked the reviewer’s other reviews and they were ALL 1 & 2 stars. Because this was directly affecting my sales, I did ask my fans who had already e-mailed me or posted on my fb page that they had enjoyed it, if they would post a rewiew, which a couple did. It brought my rating up to 4.5 stars and sales started again almost straight away.

    Unfortunately, readers/listeners have no idea that their comments can directly affect the author’s livelihood. Just because it’s not to their liking doesn’t mean it won’t be to someone else’s. But when you’re scrolling through the thumbnails, looking for books, how likely are you to take a second look at one that only has 2 stars? I’d understand if someone was complaining about bad grammar etc.

    I admit I have only asked my readers to help just that once. Like I said before, wine and chocolate helps a lot :-)

    • I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with asking for reviews from people who have read and enjoyed your work. (okay maybe not your mom, but legit readers? why not?) Sometimes if I get notes from readers, especially right after a release when a book has fewer reviews, I’ll write and ask if they’ll say the same thing they just said in their ‘fan letter’ on the store where they bought the book. Usually if people are happy enough about the experience to take the time to write to me, they’re enthusiastic enough to want to write a review. I think most of the time, people just don’t think to do it.

    • SK Holmesley says:

      In the sense that at the end of the if you publish, you are working for your readers, I don’t think it’s amiss to occasionally admit that you need help. That you have readers who were willing to step in says that you’re doing your job as a writer.

  11. Allan Hudson says:

    I’m an older – new writer and I know that criticism will come. If it’s constructive, I want to keep an open mind, I’m still learning and always will. I appreciate this post and thanks.
    Allan

    • You’re very welcome. Thanks for taking the time to comment! =) It’s great to have such an open attitude and be wanting to learn and improve your craft. It’s not always fun to get criticism in a public forum like reviews, but you’re right, if we can learn something from it, it makes it worthwhile.

  12. Welcome to the team, India! So happy you’ve joined us. :)
    And thanks for another wonderful post! Your advice is spot on. It’s so true that we really can’t deny the sting of negative reviews. One therapeutic technique I like is the scream into a pillow method. And I totally agree with the never respond policy. My latest challenge was a reviewer who criticized my self-published editing. She apparently did not notice that the book was originally published — and edited — by Berkley-Penguin. Proud to say I kept my itchy-to-respond-fingers in check.

    • Heh.. well done! It’s so hard to keep quiet when a reviewer has something dead wrong, but I’m sure you made the right call.

      Thanks for the welcome! I really love this community and am glad to be part of it. =)

  13. Merry Bond says:

    Great post, India (love your name, by the way!). When I got the rights back to some of my traditionally published books, the first thing I did was seek out all of the reviews I had gotten for those books to see what people *didn’t* like, and then edited them using those reviews as guides as to what I needed to work on. Hopefully, the books I’m re-releasing will be better all because of those reviews!
    Better to take bad reviews as something positive than to cry over them (which is what I think I did the first time I saw them). :-)

    • It’s fantastic that you found a good use for them. Some people aren’t able to turn their negative review experience into something positive. So glad you were able to do that!

      And thanks about my name! I get people asking all the time if it’s a pen name. Nope, I just have a very creative mother. ^-^

  14. Wonderful advice, India. :-)

  15. CC MacKenzie says:

    Welcome, India.

    Wonderful post. It’s not easy, especially when we’re raw and new and terrified. Even when we become ‘hardened’ *cough* it’s still not easy if we’ve inadvertently irritated someone who then kicks off. As for reviews, well that’s the breaks. We must go forth in spite of the trolls and just keep going.

    There have been times when it’s been very hard to walk away from the keyboard. *Very hard* But the gang bang collective intellect is alive and well online and it is not pretty. For the person who’s targeted is can be life changing, so the rule is do unto others as you would have them do to you. And always remember kindness is a blessing. And never, ever, comment if you’ve more than a couple of glasses of wine under your belt – walk away from the keyboard. :P

    • You’re so right… sometimes it’s scary thinking how many times an innocent comment has sparked someone who is spoiling for an online fight. You sound like you have a good handle on how to deal with it. The golden rule is always a good one to keep in mind. =) Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  16. What a wonderful post! I was blessed to have an author friend who told me BEFORE I published my first book, to basically be aware – some people won’t like my story – but so many more will. And I try to keep that in mind whenever I read my reviews.

  17. Doug Welch says:

    Way back at the beginning of my e-journey as a newbie clueless writer, I responded to a critical review. It wasn’t even negative and the reader had some constructive things to say. Fortunately the first sentence I wrote was a “thank you.”
    Anyway, over the life of that book my REPLY to the review was deemed the most popular and it the very first review everyone sees on the site. It’s still embarrassing to read it.

    • Ouch. That’s too bad that you still feel embarrassed by it, but it could have been much worse. Good thing you said thank you! I’ve always said that’s the only thing an author SHOULD say to a reviewer, if they must say anything at all!

  18. Great post India, and thanks much for the shout-out for my blogpost on Social Media gang behavior. It’s scary and needs to be addressed, but I hear Amazon is now rolling out a new system for reporting abuse that will allow readers to report gang attacks of one-star reviews that attack the author, rather than comment on the book.

    This type of review does as much damage to Amazon as it does to the author: “I give this book one-star and I’d never read it because the author is a skank who stole my cousin’s boyfriend in high school.”

    But negative reviews can be cruel and you’re absolutely right that they still hurt even if they’re legit.

    Alison Pensy has a great suggestion above: look at the reviewer’s other reviews. If they’re all 1 and 2 star, this is just a negative person who loves spreading a little gloom around. If they only give 5-stars to Christian inspirational books, and you write erotic urban fantasy, the review probably has more to do with their guilt at reading the book than your skills in writing it.

    So very often, the review is about the reviewer, not the book.

    • I hope everyone clicks over and reads your full article, Anne. It was such good advice for how to deal with mobs–and how to not be a part of one. I’ve got it bookmarked and will continue to refer people to it!

      I hadn’t heard that about Amazon’s planned changes. Most of us rely so heavily on Amazon for our income (even if we do sell in other outlets), that it would be nice to know there would be some protection against malicious mischief.

  19. Tamara Ward says:

    Thank you for the encouraging post! My favorite bullet point was about listening to things you can change and letting go of things you can’t change or don’t agree with. So true.

  20. D. D. Scott says:

    I drink a lot of wine…a lot of wine…a lot of wine!!! :-)

    I collect Bitchy Signs and share them on my Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest and my website. Very therapeutic signs indeed.

    I LMAO (after I’ve boo-hoo-ed a bit and yes, drank some wine), then I say a few four-letter words and keep on writin’ the next book.

    Fantastic post, India, and again…Welcome to our WG2E Team!!!

  21. Deborah Jay says:

    Great advice here, thanks! I received a 3 star on one of my non-fiction books with some harsh criticism that displayed the reader’s lack of understanding of the subject, and I obsessed about it with steam coming out my ears!
    Fortunately I have learned long since to never write anything on the internet until I’ve cooled down, and I’m so pleased for that wisdom – sending back a snappy, un-thought-through retort will only get a person into trouble.
    Now I’m cool about the whole thing, I’ve realised that ignoring it is the best tactic, and while I’d love to correct that person’s understanding, I get the impression from her language that its one of those sticking points we’d never agree upon, so not worth my time or effort.
    Look forward to more posts from you, India.
    PS, what little village at the base of the Highlands would that be? I’m on the Black Isle, just above Inverness.

  22. Ed Godwin says:

    “You make things. That’s a big deal.” Great advice, and a great post. Thanks!

  23. Jessica Burde says:

    For the most part I avoid reading reviews. I am extremely thin skinned, and even mild criticism stings a lot. So I’ll skim over the average number of stars I have on Amazon or Goodreads once in a while and focus on my next books. The email I got from one read about how my book made a huge difference in his life means more to me than all the reviews anyway. (Though I did write back and ask if he’d be willing to leave a review so others could see how great he thought the book was :)