Julia Kell

Negative reviews.  They’re not always easy to deal with.  When I began writing novels in earnest at the age of 14, I was afraid of criticism.  I didn’t want to hear that my book was ‘bad’ or even that it needed a lot of work.  I shared my work on websites for young writers and loved reading positive comments that focused on my story’s strengths rather than its weaknesses.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the reviews that would stick with me and allow me to grow the most were the harsh ones.  If you are a writer sharing your work with the public, you will probably receive a negative review at some point in your life.  The fact is, you can’t please everyone, and it’s important to realize this.  But before you write off the reviewer as ignorant or mean-spirited, think about what you can learn from their feedback.  Some reviews can be rude and unhelpful, but many critics only want the writer to improve.  After you look at your piece of writing from their perspective, you may realize they have some good points after all.

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I will never forget one particular review I received on my novel, which I had started in 10th grade and completed a year later.  I knew my book needed an honest set of eyes, so I reached out to a reviewer who gave harsh but thorough reviews.  I believed this person would be able to help me with my book, but I didn’t realize how much they would end up benefiting me in the long run.

A few weeks later, 17-year-old me was not thrilled when I received the 1,000-word review that said my characters were undeveloped and lacked motivation, my worldbuilding needed a lot of improvement, and my dialogue was unrealistic and unnatural.  I thought that I had these elements in the bag.  I didn’t understand how this person could have misconstrued my book in this way.  It was like we were reading different versions of the same story.  And, in a way, we were.  I was too close to my story to distance myself from it, and the reviewer was viewing it with an entirely unbiased eye.

I experienced the four stages of writer’s grief after I received this review.  The first: denial.  I believed this reviewer was wrong and simply didn’t understand my story.  I reread the critique multiple times, nearly in tears; I couldn’t believe my novel could be this bad.  Denial quickly led to the next stage: anger.

Anger was a tricky stage for me to navigate.  Now that I have overcome this hurdle, my advice is to not lash out or ‘correct’ the reviewer.  I was tempted to do this, but I ended up keeping quiet; I realized arguing with someone wasn’t going to get me anywhere.  If you do argue, it’s possible the reviewer won’t even respond or just agree with you so you leave them alone.  In short, you may win, but winning a fight with a reviewer isn’t your goal.  Improving your novel or piece of writing is.

The next stage was self-doubt.  I felt helpless and began to believe the reviewer was right on multiple levels about my story.  If so, that meant I had a lot of work to do – developing my characters, entirely rewriting dialogue, and overhauling the plot.  I shut down and never wanted to look at my novel again.

Reviews can sometimes feel like personal attacks because even if they are only critiquing the work itself, it can feel like they are critiquing you as an individual.  In a way, our stories are extensions of ourselves.  When you pour hours into a project only for someone to tell you it's mediocre, it can be heart-breaking.  In my experience, the review I received led to me thinking I was ignorant and didn’t know how to write.  I believed my story was no longer worth pursuing.  It’s easy to become discouraged as a result of a harsh review, so don’t be afraid to take some time for yourself, away from your writing.  This was what I ended up doing, and after a vacation from my novel, I came to the understanding that the reviewer had my best interests at heart.  The critic saw the potential for the story and only wanted to help me make it better.  Once I realized this, I was able to escape from the hole of self-doubt I’d dug for myself.  I created a battle plan and accepted that I had a lot of work to do, but I was up for the challenge.  The biggest change I made was making my main character much more proactive.  I wanted him to drive the action in the book rather than simply respond to the events around him.  I was uncertain at first if I wanted to do this as it required rewriting his entire backstory, but I believe this change made my novel much more interesting and action-packed.  It was the reviewer’s advice that provided me with this idea and helped me build my story into something much better than before.  After I completed the second draft, I sent the reviewer a message telling them how grateful I was for their feedback, and I honestly meant every word.  I know my novel still needs work, but this time, I am determined to be open-minded in regard to harsh criticism.  This experience changed how I viewed my novels, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the review that changed everything.

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An honest critical review should not be met with an attack – only gratitude.

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Though this person’s review was actually very helpful, keep in mind not all negative reviews are going to help you.  Reviews that attack you personally shouldn’t be taken seriously as it’s likely the person just wants to hurt you and not actually help you with your writing.  Also, it’s important to take some time away from your story.  Think about what is best for your writing.  Come back to your story later with fresh eyes and read the review once more.  What good points did the reviewer make? What do you agree with and disagree with? This way, you can figure out what to work on next and create an action plan.

I will always stand up for reviewers who give constructive criticism.  An honest critical review should not be met with an attack – only gratitude.  Many reviewers work hard on providing constructive feedback and this can take a lot of time out of their day; yet, they may do it for nothing in return.  I haven’t always liked editing and even dreaded it when I was younger.  Now I can say I enjoy using the constructive criticism I receive to shape my books into new and improved stories.  My motto is ‘A writer’s work is never done.’ This is why you sometimes see multiple editions of books being released and why it may take years and years before books are published.  Being a writer can be demanding, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  After all, seeing how my stories have improved over time is, in my opinion, one of writing’s greatest rewards.

 

Julia Kell is an English major at Radford University who intends to work in book publishing after graduation.  Since childhood, she has enjoyed writing and is the author of multiple novels.  She also loves Broadway musicals, animals, and the outdoors.   

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