Handling Criticism as an Author

Two 1-star Review on Amazon

Two 1-star Review on Amazon

During my time as a preacher I received a LOT of criticism. And, to be fair, when you’re speaking to people about things which touch upon and often challenge deep-seated beliefs, that’s to be expected. I received both positive and negative criticism, but the scales generally tilted in favour of the latter. Now, as an author, I have opened myself up to the mixed joys of criticism once again. Criticism comes from the Greek word for ‘judgement’, and that is really what we are talking about here: a person’s judgement of our work.

As in a court of law, where a defendant may be judged guilty or not guilty, criticism can be positive or negative, though sometimes it may simply be neutral (which can probably be taken as negative!) Despite this, ‘criticism’ has something of a negative vibe to it. In fact, when I looked up a definition in Google, the first was: ‘the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes’.  This negative connotation has come about because of the way people tend to react to criticism. And I, of course, am no different. I want to receive criticism from a objective standpoint, as ‘constructive criticism’, but I often find that I fail and end up taking it personally. But why should this be the case? After all, there is some negative criticism that I can just shrug off without it having any effect on me. For example, my book ‘What Happens When We Die’ received this review on Amazon:

What a load of nonsense I chose this book because i thought it was going to shed some light on what actually happens when we do die.But all i got was a load of jiberish which contradicts itself on just about every page.I only gave it 1 star because it wouldnt allow me to give NO stars!

While it was annoying to receive one star for this book, which will make it much harder to sell, the content of the review is, in my opinion, nonsense. The book in question is is clear in its aim to see what the Bible says on the subject and does not contradict itself on any page. The woman in question either didn’t agree with my conclusions in the book, or she didn’t understand them – hence her referring to it as ‘a load of jiberish’ (I won’t comment on the spelling!) – but as far as I’m concerned her criticism is easily dismissible, since it is, to my mind, gibberish. The same can be said of the other one star review I got for the book, which simply said:

what bible says I cannot comment on this book as I have not read yet so until then I cannot say anything o. k

Genius! Criticisms like these are not the problem. Rather, it’s the ones that express my own doubts and insecurities, that seem to confirm the negative things I feel about my writing (or, in the past, my preaching). I tend to assume the things I produce are poor. Take my children’s novel, Montgomery’s Trouble In The Underworld, for example. My own concerns are that is it mediocre, unoriginal, predictable and full of spelling/grammar mistakes. Now, when someone gives me a review which says how well written the book is, how much they enjoyed reading it, couldn’t put it down, loved the characters etc. these compliments (aka positive criticism) are received much as the two reviews above. I am glad the book has a good review, because maybe more people will give it a read. But their opinions don’t line up with my own feelings about the book, so I dismiss the comments. On the other hand, when someone delivers negative criticism that says the book is ordinary, predictable and lacking spark, THAT is the criticism that affects me, which I cannot dismiss so easily. Why?

Because it confirms my own misgivings about the book and therefore reinforces my insecurities and doubts.

So, how do I deal with this? Here are my thoughts on the matter:

  1. Recognise that not everyone will like my work: I can’t claim to have ever produced something perfect, but if I had I can still guarantee there would be some people who hated it. And made sure they let me know! The actual percentage of lovers:haters must vary depending on the quality of the work or how controversial the topic, but regardless, you can’t please everyone.
  2. Be clear about my own misgivings: this is probably the hardest part of all as it takes quite a bit of self-searching to work out what I really feel about my own work, since I try to fool myself into believing it’s better than I really think it is. In fact, sometimes it is not until I receive the criticism that I realise I have a particular concern.
  3. Understand that my self-criticism is only one opinion: I have opinions on all kinds of things and, for the most part, I’m fine with being them proved wrong. In fact, many of my opinions have had to change in light of revealed facts or the opinions of others. The problem comes when I have an opinion about something I have created, because I tend to believe my opinion is the only one that really counts. Which is nonsense. The things I write are not written just for me, but for anyone who happens to read them. As a result, my opinion is no more or less important than anyone else’s. In light of this, I’ve changed my opinion about this list: this part is actually the hardest. Probably.
  4. Recognise that the criticism which reinforces mine is also only one opinion: As I said, it is this sort of criticism that really bites. However, each piece of such criticism is, like our own, only a single opinion and should not be given more weight simply because its arrow hits the target of our own doubts and insecurities.
  5. Consider the overall consensus of opinion: Hopefully, there are more opinions than just those expressed in the points above. Despite the fact that I often dismiss them, I have received a wealth of favourable comments on both my writing and my preaching. And though they tend to have little impact on me beyond causing mild embarrassment, each comment should be given equal weight to the others.
  6. Accept that if the consensus of opinion conflicts with my own, mine may be at fault: If there is a sufficient quantity of feedback, it should be possible to work out whether the balance of opinion on a given piece of work is negative or positive. Now, I suggested earlier than the majority of criticism is negative, and this is, I think, because people (certainly in the UK) tend to feel more at home with dishing out negative comments than positive. That’s just the way it is. So sometimes it may be necessary to go and garner criticism – asking people what they think – in order to get a good balance of opinion. Then, if your opinion is different, the chances are, you’re mistaken.

When put like that it all seems quite cold, objective and clinical. But sometimes, when dealing with issues that are SO subjective and personal, that is the only way to go about things. I’d be interested in hearing how anyone else deals with negative criticism, as long as it doesn’t involve too much violence!

And for those who have given me negative feedback over the years, please do not feel I am having a go. On the contrary, I’m saying I agree with you…. but that doesn’t make us right 😉