When I first started writing online, it was fan fiction, most of it in the Star Wars section on FanFiction.net. I was MistiWhitesun for quite some time, and I was a bit notorious for being "rude and a little mean".
Not that I intended to come across that way. But I didn't mind receiving forthright critical reviews, so I gave them, too. After my feedback left an in-person friend offended and hurt, I approached her to figure out why she was upset. I realized:
- Most folks don't see 100% negative feedback as an implied positive. Me, I knew how much time that took to create, so I knew the critic had to see something worthwhile if they bothered to spend their time reviewing.
- Folks take negatives better if you couch them between positives. Open with a positive, put the negative in the middle, and close with a positive.
Yes, I actually had to learn that. I'm from the North (of the US), a region that's renowned for being blunt. If someone doesn't like you, they're mean to your face. They aren't all sweet to your face before they backstab you with gossip later. (Yeah, I live in the South(east), now. Talk about culture shock.)
So when folks told me point-blank that a story sucked, I was more inclined to take it as honesty (as they saw it) than meanness.
I have a point to this rambling. A lot of advice online says "Don't read the negative reviews" and "If you must read them, don't reply—and definitely don't agree."
But here's the thing. Negative reviews can be anywhere. Even if you actively try to avoid them, someone will helpfully send you a link to a lackluster review. Someone will send a poorly-formatted rant into your inbox. Your fans may comment on your social media site about this terrible review that they lambasted.
You'll get negative reviews. You'll see some of them, whether you want to or not. So why not learn from them?
Think of negative reviewers as critique partners in a writing group. Some will be wrong. Some will misidentify a problem. And some will be spot on.
What if someone reads your short story and is squicked by the characters who are cousins and lovers? In some regions, that situation doesn't bat an eye. In others, it's legally incest. (And no, the Bible does not have any regulations against first cousins marrying; I mention that because some folks assume it does.)
A reader might be so grossed out by the cousin-lovers that they can't enjoy anything about the story and leave a 1-star review. They may harp on the (presumed) illegality of the relationship. They may call you a pervert and say all sorts of unnecessary things that makes your blood boil.
But what's the actual problem? They can't handle the cousin-lovers. That is not your fault.
I fail to see what's wrong about replying to that person to say "I'm sorry that those characters disgusted you so much. Just so you know, sexual relations between cousins of the first degree is legally permissible in the state of South Carolina." That way, someone else who reads the review gets both sides of the issue.
Now, what if a reader sometimes couldn't keep track of who was speaking? The reader gives the story a 1-star review, saying you don't know how to write, need to take some classes, etc.
A retort "I DO know how to write! I've written professionally for years!" wouldn't help matters. Their opinion of your writing ability isn't the problem. The problem is that one of you wasn't paying attention: either the reader missed some speech transitions, or you didn't put them in. That could be your fault.
So take another look. Maybe the reviewer is way off-base, or not your target audience—or maybe you did screw up the speech transitions. There's even a line in Black Beauty where the wrong name was attributed to the speaker in a conversation. Confused the heck out of me when I was in grade school, until I figured out what had happened.
And then there are the 1-star reviews that complain that the story was a complete waste of time. Those bite, and I've gotten two of them. (I also earned those, and we'll get into why in my next post.)
But consider: What makes someone consider something a waste of time?
When what they get doesn't match what they were expecting. And that, folks, likely is your fault. You (or your publisher) screwed up. The cover, the description, the blurb, the excerpt—something mislead the reader. The reader feels cheated, and you've wasted their time. The chances of them intentionally reading anything else you ever write are slim.
Are there exceptions? Certainly. I know some folks were furious upon getting a graphic novel when they ordered Homecoming by Patricia Briggs, even though it was clearly marked and marketed as a graphic novel. That was their fault, not the author's or publisher's.
Then there are the hateful trolling reviews that are just someone's attempt to tear you down to make themselves feel better, but we'll get into how to approach those in post 3.
Do you read your negative reviews? Why or why not? Do you respond?