So You Got a Bad Review

Or maybe your beta reader/s had some less than ideal feedback. You’re freaking out, and don’t know how to handle this negative take on your book baby.

I wrote a post about writing a review the other day, and I’ve also written something about being a beta reader and how to give feedback. Then, last week in one of the writing groups I frequent, there was a discussion about dreading a beta reader’s feedback. I realised I’d never written about actually receiving feedback before, and a lightbulb flashed in my mind.

Now, we’re all human here. There will always be that bit of feedback that shreds your soul. That moment when someone says they don’t like the story at all, or when a beta reader changes the positive feedback they’ve been giving you all along to something super negative, or when you get your first one-star review on Amazon.

It happens and it sucks.

When it comes to any kind of negative feedback, we must learn how to deal. So, let’s start at the beginning.

Know the difference

* Criticism

Criticism is given to show disapproval. This kind of feedback usually comes from a place of I could have done better and is often worded in a way to showcase that.

People who criticise want to bring you down to show their superiority. Most of the time.

Some people actually believe their severe honesty and the brutal dissection of your story’s faults will help you. These people mean well, though their feedback is more likely to crush someone’s creative dream than uplift it.

Criticism sounds like:

  • This book is horrible and no one should read it.
  • The protagonist was a bag of wind, with no substance and no motivation.
  • All of the characters suck.
  • I would have done it this way.
  • You should have done it this way.
  • You have no skill as a writer.

* Critique

Critique is given with the idea to help someone improve something. This kind of feedback will almost always be accompanied by a suggestion that will help you understand the issue.

Yes, mistakes and problems with the story will be highlighted. Yes, you might still feel like crap when you get that feedback. BUT the person who offers critique truly wants to help you.

Critique sounds like:

  • I didn’t really understand Annie’s motivation for running away. Maybe it would be a good idea to elaborate on the events that led her there.
  • The narrator keeps telling us Joe is his best friend, but never really acts as if he’s Joe’s friend at all. Maybe if we saw them interact as bros, it would be easier to believe.
  • The writing style was too long-winded/jumped around too much. I struggled to connect with the characters. Perhaps if the information is delivered in a different way, the story would be easier to follow.
  • The romantic plot was so sweet that it didn’t fit the otherwise dark tone of the novel. Maybe if the sweetness was toned down a bit, it would have seemed less out of place.

Sometimes, the critique will come without a suggestion. I find it challenging to give competent feedback to people I look up to, for instance. How do you suggest something to the person you regard as sensei, or that guru who knows leagues more than you do?

Also, many people who are just getting into beta reading or are the author’s friend struggle to give honest feedback because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. They tend to word things super softly, and don’t always have the courage to suggest something.

Sometimes a beta reader notices something off in the story–a feeling, maybe having to reread a passage multiple times, disliking a character but not knowing why, and so on. They’ll know there’s something wrong, but don’t know how to put it into words.

Then your critique might be delivered in lots of questions, or sound like:

  • I didn’t really connect with Marie. She seems nice enough, but I feel like there was something missing. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong.
  • I really struggled with chapter five.
  • I don’t understand the magic system.
  • It took me forever to realise Luke is actually half-robot.
  • I felt unsure about the world. I can’t picture it clearly.
  • Why did Helen lay down her sword? I don’t get it.

Sometimes, the answer is clear enough in vague feedback too, but we’ll get to that.

* Good feedback or troll?

You can usually tell if a person is out to get you or if they want to help you by the way they phrase their feedback.

Some people reckon beta reading translates to find fault. They’ll criticise everything, find mistakes where there are none, and send you feedback that makes no sense other than to break your heart. Don’t work with this person. They do not spark joy.

If a beta reader comes recommended by a friend, I know it’s someone I can trust. Experienced beta readers are wonderful. They tend to find mistakes you glossed over a hundred times, and ask the questions your inspiration-addled mind ignored. Because of their experience, they know which building blocks a story needs to stand on its own.

I believe every writer needs at least one beta reader who is a more experienced writer than they are. You learn so much from them.

Don’t throw away the noobs, though. Some of them have really insightful ideas, even if they don’t necessarily know the technical terms of what they have to look out for when beta reading.

The most important thing is that all beta readers are readers. You want to know what readers think of your story.

In terms of reviewers, you can usually tell which ones are trolls just by looking at their review history. If every review they give is a cutting 1-star, ignore them. If their usual rating is 3-stars or higher but they give a book a single star, they didn’t give that rating to be mean.

Readers who tend to give only 5-stars are the happy-go-lucky souls of the universe who will also be the wind beneath your wings. Cherish those reviews, write them in a journal and read them again when you need motivation.

But the 3- and 4-star givers, these are usually the reviewers who have put the most thought into their reviews. They highlight what they loved and disliked, and their feedback is gold. You can learn a lot from a reader who cares enough to try and help the author in any small way.

Develop the skill

When I studied art, we were often critiqued by other students. As someone who’s had to deal with loads of critique even before I took up writing, I can confidently tell you that you get used to all kinds of feedback and can level up the critique-handling skill.

As a writer, you’re going to have to spend many skill points on critique-handling. Here’s why.

* Writers will be critiqued often

You’ll be beta read, edited, proofread, and reviewed. And, guess what–the people doing the beta reading, editing, proofreading, and reviewing have diverse opinions.

I think Meryl Streep is the best actor of our time, but you might loathe her (what is wrong with you? πŸ˜‰). Just as people can’t agree over left or right, coffee or tea, cats or dogs, they sure as hell won’t agree about loving or hating your book.

In the Internet Age, everyone has an opinion, and web-anonymity allows them–with the click of a button–to voice their opinions. Repercussions? No, ma’am, on the internet, people can say what they want, when they want to say it. People who are nice in person might use the facelessness of the internet to troll or harass.

We all know this for a fact, yet we still wrote that manuscript and plan to let anonymous internet people with diverse opinions read it.

A writer won’t survive without a thick skin.

* Critique is an important tool

You’ll find truths and inspirations in the critique you receive. Sometimes, that aha moment comes from the lips of someone else. You might discover nuances in your characters and world you’d never imagined, or be inspired to write a plot twist nobody could predict, just because your beta reader made a throwaway comment in passing.

Good, solid critique will help you plug plot holes, write well-rounded characters, or knock the sequel out of the park with all you’ve learned from the reviews. That’s what we all want, right?

* Critique will improve your writing if you let it

As an extension of the idea above, learning how to handle critique early on will have a noticeable impact on the writing that follows. People will see an improvement from draft to draft or book to book, and will comment on it.

When you learn from your mistakes, there will be fewer mistakes in every other thing you write, which means fewer rewrites or revisions. There’s something extremely satisfying about getting your manuscript back from the editor, and there are some pages without any red ink.

* How you handle critique will impact how people perceive you

This is probably the most important thing of all. Yes, you’re free to vent about that bad review to someone you trust–but don’t vent online. Remember that everything you put online is a part of your author brand/persona, and you will be judged on every interaction you upload into cyberspace.

If you’re going to be the author who comments harshly on every remotely negative review/feedback of your novel, you will scare off prospective readers and attract trolls. Or, in the case of a beta, that person will either be mysteriously unavailable to ever read anything for you again or turn into a yes-person.

The vast majority of your readers will never write a review, but many non-reviewers still hang around sites like Goodreads to read the reviews left by others. When they see you’ve written multiple comments explaining why the reviewers are wrong, the prospective reader will likely click away from your page and never give your novel another thought, except maybe to tell a friend not to read that book because the author is a brat.

Reviews are opinions and people don’t like the same things. You, the author, also don’t like all the books in all the genres. To publically throw a tantrum about a bad review won’t do you any favours.

Now, I personally believe the way a writer handles critique shows how serious they are about writing. It’s also a fairly good indicator of where they are on their writing journey.

I might be totally wrong here, but in my experience, the people who bitch the hardest about feedback are usually brand new writers, or the ones who ultimately fade away. The ones who buckle down and learn to handle critique are the ones who work the hardest to refine their craft, and put out stories that get progressively better.

I got the critique, now what?

Okay, so you’ve just read the feedback from a beta, or found that less than perfect review.

* Take a break

Allow yourself an hour or two, or maybe even a day or two to come to terms with what was said.

Often enough, just allowing yourself to think about feedback with a level head will help you to process and see the truth of it. Having said that, I know how hard this can be–especially in the beginning.

If you need to discuss the feedback with someone, go ahead. Just not online. πŸ˜€ Talk to someone you trust, bounce around some ideas, and see what you come up with.

The good news? You reach a point where even the most negative feedback can get you excited. There’s this magical moment when a reader makes a random remark and All The Ideas jump into your head. Your fingers itch and your butt longs to dent your workspace chair–you know how to fix the problem. And it’s going to be epic.

* Consider all the feedback you’ve gotten

Sometimes, a person just doesn’t like something, and that’s okay. As an author, though, you need to be able to sift through the feedback to get to the core problem.

The general rule of thumb is that you have a problem when multiple beta readers/reviewers point out the same issue.

If one beta tells you Susie never reacts to anything, fine. Opinion. You also have an opinion, and you think she’s great, so those two opinions cancel each other out. If more than one beta remarks on the same thing, you’ve got work to do.

The same with reviews. If your book has ten reviews and five of them say the plot is riddled with holes and inconsistencies, you’re going to need to address these issues in whatever you write next.

Trust your editor, friend. You’ll often find that the things betas/reviewers comment on are those things your editor mentioned and you chose to ignore. On the flipside, if your betas/reviewers are constantly picking up stuff your editor missed, maybe you need to shop around for another editor.

In one of the earlier drafts of A Study of Ash & Smoke (now available in print 😁) multiple beta readers had an issue with the main romantic plot. They couldn’t believe that the characters involved even liked each other, let alone wanted to be together romantically. I had no idea how to fix it. Then, a beta reader made this throwaway comment that nobody wants a relationship with someone they fight with all the time, and I understood the problem. I cut the arguments, made the pair allies, and behold, beta readers were suddenly rooting for the (now) happy couple.

* What does the feedback mean?

  • Characters

If readers are struggling to connect with a character, the character probably needs some layering and nuance. A backstory, a humanising moment, a scene that explains their motivation–that kind of thing.

I’ve learned that the way characters react will heavily impact the way readers view them. If she’s weak but trying to get shit done, she’ll be much better received than when she’s weak and passive (though a story might call for her to be exactly that).

Warning lights should flash when multiple readers compare your character or story to another well-known character or story. If everyone says the character reminds them of Bella Swan and the town where she lives is just like Forks, and you’re not writing a parody or something that was meant to mirror Twilight in whatever way, you have a problem.

Also, if you are retelling an old tale, put your own twist on it. Copying something story arc for story arc is bound to get you the worst kind of feedback. Usually from a law firm rather than a review. πŸ™‚

  • Word choice and style

If readers are complaining about struggling to read something, it may be because you’ve used too much exposition, too many unfamiliar words, too many passive sentences, or words with repetitive qualities (like too many was -ing constructions, or -ly words). It could also be that there’s not much happening in a scene, which means that it can probably be cut from the novel without anyone mourning it.

Eyes gloss over info-dumps, sentences of the same length, or too many run-on sentences. If all the sentences are too short, reading them will be choppy, and the reader will probably keep losing track of events.

  • World and dialogue

If readers can’t picture the setting or characters, adding descriptions will likely solve the problem.

Sometimes, readers will complain about too many details and you’ll need to cut down on descriptions.

If readers say the characters don’t sound like teens/wizards/dragon-riding snake-people, research dialogue and speech patterns. Go sit in the park or mall, and listen to the conversations of people as they pass.

Bonus tip–make up your own slang if you don’t want to date the book with the slang of the day. In twenty years, nobody will be using those words anymore–except the geekiest of geeks, like me.

If you’re still unsure, find a good writing community. I belong to a couple of groups with members of varying writing experience. These folks are able to offer insights into feedback that I might have missed, give pep talks when needed, and share their own feedback experiences. It seriously helps to chat to people who know first hand what it feels like to get negative feedback.

* Brainstorm

This phase works even better if you discuss everything with that person you trust.

Come at the story from different angles. Try writing exercises where you take the problem scene and write it from another character’s perspective. Maybe write short origin stories for the characters who seem too bland. Try letting the dashing heroine fall in love with another character. You could also write the story from a different point of view altogether–you might be surprised with the result of going from third POV to first.

Write down every idea, no matter how random or silly they seem. Even if you don’t use these ideas for this story, they might come in handy for another plot or a later book in the same series. Point is, our brains often struggle with critique and suggestions on a subconscious level, and many of the random ideas are our brain’s way of helping us learn.

* Apply the changes

If you’re still in the writing process, you get to apply beta feedback before the world sees the book. Yay, crisis averted.

If you’ve already published the book and are getting poor reviews, you can either unpublish and revise (if you’re in the position to do that) or apply what you’ve learned to the next book you write.

BUT, friends, either way, you’ll probably still get a bad review. No matter what you do, no matter how you polish than manuscript, someone somewhere will dislike it.

All you can do is the best you can do, keep learning, and keep going. Don’t let bad feedback get you down, rather use it as motivation to slay.

Yolandie

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