Responding to Criticism

When someone tells me she’s not sure she wants me to read her manuscript, I know she’s not ready for publication. Such sentiment shows a lack of confidence and a fear of both rejection and criticism. Even though readers usually treat writers with respect, a critical word can puncture the heart.

Imagine the wounds delivered on Internet sites like Amazon from readers who lack that respect. A major complaint I hear from distraught authors is that people download free Christian novels and then post hostile reviews. A cursory bit of research reveals some say they felt duped because they didn’t realize they were downloading a Christian novel. It is likely they just grabbed it because it was free and did not look at other reviews or the book’s description. These readers aren’t victims of duplicity; they were, at the very least, lazy and then blamed others when the book wasn’t to their taste. Unfortunately, the temptation is for the author to strike back with a serrated reply.

My advice is to take a deep breath and think about how to respond to ridicule.  A few years ago, an author self-published a book without the benefit of an editor, resulting in many errors. When someone criticized the book, the author reacted defensively; and the ensuing “flame war” escalated quickly.

If the author had not responded with such vitriol to a tame, if unflattering, review, she wouldn’t have attracted more bile. Instead, her petulance caused her ratings to descend faster than a barrel over Niagara Falls.

In his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23), St. Paul wrote: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” Summoning the discipline not to defend yourself against criticism may mean praying for an extra helping of several fruits.

When faced with disapproval, consider what is being said. Are the reviewers speaking about you personally? Are they critiquing an idea or philosophy in the story? Are they commenting on the craft? Are they making a religious or political statement in contrast to your own? Or can you learn something from the criticism?

Examine your heart as you ponder what has been said. And be sure to read the many compliments your work is certain to receive as well. An open mind and a gentle spirit will only increase your knowledge and worth.

[An earlier version of this post ran in August 2011.]

22 Responses to Responding to Criticism

  1. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott June 18, 2020 at 4:08 am #

    To rephrase Psalm 19:14–May the words of my mouth and the response I type to a critical comment be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

    WWJC: what would Jesus comment?

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    Ariel Masters June 18, 2020 at 5:08 am #

    Wonderful advice!

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    J.D. Wininger June 18, 2020 at 5:12 am #

    Well said ma’am. To paraphrase, “a kind word turns away wrath.” God’s blessings Ms. Tamela. Something I need to tell myself more often than I would prefer.

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    Sarah Hamaker June 18, 2020 at 5:24 am #

    Because writing, like other arts, IS personal, it can be difficult to step back enough to look at criticism in the right manner. I’ve found it helpful to remember that not everyone is going to like my book…in fact, a lot of someones are NOT going to enjoy it. My audience isn’t the entire reading public. My audience is much narrower than that–it has to be! This is a good thing to have a specific reader in mind when we write.

    So, it’s only natural that someone who isn’t our ideal reader will get hold of our book and not like it. And say so publicly on Amazon or Goodreads or Bookbub, etc. And that’s okay. Our ideal reader will recognize that and still buy and enjoy our books.

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    Stacey June 18, 2020 at 5:48 am #

    This is great advice. My first experience with negative feedback came after I released a free short story as promo for an upcoming book release. Even though the write up was clear about it being a short story, several reviewers gave it one or two stars because they were disappointed it was only 5000 words. Their comments about being tricked into reading a short story when they thought they were getting a full-length novel tempted me to react, but the wisdom of Proverbs 21:23 prevailed. Eventually, the positive outweighed the negative, and the star rating balanced at a four-stars. I am so thankful I never responded!

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    Roberta Sarver June 18, 2020 at 5:59 am #

    Excellent advice, Tamela. It always pays eventually to keep a quiet spirit.

  7. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 18, 2020 at 6:06 am #

    Is cancer now a criticism
    of the days I’ve lived,
    with rescued dogs and witticisms
    as that which I would give?
    Did the Lord pass judgement
    on my misspent youth
    for which I boasted good intent;
    was there a deeper truth
    that called me to a higher land
    of service to the many,
    that I claimed not to understand,
    choosing beer and bonhomie?
    Or does a weeping Godhead grieve
    to tell me that it’s time to leave?

    • Avatar
      Colleen Snyder June 18, 2020 at 9:00 am #

      There is no judgment. The man born blind wasn’t being punished. His infirmity was to reveal the glory of God. The cancer you are fighting isn’t a punishment, my brother. God does not strike His children for past discretions, no matter how egregious. He knew you before you knew Him. He loved you while you lived for yourself. He loves you now. In the pain and darkness, He is with you. And yes, He grieves for the loss. He wept at Lazarus’s grave. He knows the pain of separation. Yet if the time has come and He calls you home, know that He will be waiting with arms open wide to welcome you. I’m praying for you, Andrew.

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 18, 2020 at 7:07 pm #

        Colleen, thank you for this. Things have been hard, and I’ve been feeling a bit low.

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    Damon J. Gray June 18, 2020 at 6:45 am #

    Sage advice, my friend.

    If all I receive are glowing compliments, I know I am not getting objective feedback. I’ve long believed that if I am not getting under someone’s skin (meaning everyone agrees with me), I’m not doing my job.

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    Loretta Eidson June 18, 2020 at 7:05 am #

    I agree a soft answer turns away wrath. We can’t please everyone, although we may try. We must think before speaking or before posting a rebuttal on social media or replying to a negative book review. I’ve learned some people thrive on drama, so they open the door for disagreements. Don’t fall into their trap. Focus on the positives and let the negatives fall where they may.

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    Holly June 18, 2020 at 7:08 am #

    I love this advice. NASB Proverbs 10:17 ” He is on the path of life who heeds instruction( and is a way of life for others) But he who ignores reproof goes astray” ( and leads others astray-Amplified addition) I have copied this blog and putting it above my writing station. Thank you so much!

  11. Avatar
    Pamela Harstad June 18, 2020 at 7:14 am #

    Your advice is spot on.
    Thank you, Tamela.

  12. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks June 18, 2020 at 7:39 am #

    That passage of scripture always makes me pause and take a breath. It changes everything doesn’t it! Something funny, I was telling my sons the delightful tradition at ACFW of reading aloud the one star reviews of award-winning and best-selling authors. They were intrigued. So I looked up their favorite author and read a one star review. It was pure vitriol and they gasped in horror that the story that had swept all three of them away had fallen so short in someone’s eyes. Then came a sparkle in their eyes and the request: “Do you have any one star reviews, Momma? Read them! Read them! Read them!” Think of how much your one star reviews might entertain pesky teenage boys and be glad!

  13. Avatar
    Sharon K. Connell June 18, 2020 at 8:48 am #

    Well spoken words, Tamela. Thank you. I’m sharing with my Facebook group forum for writers and readers. We all need to be reminded.

  14. Avatar
    Carlene Havel June 18, 2020 at 9:22 am #

    “…a serrated reply.” What an imaginative turn of phrase. Love it!

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    Theresa Hall June 18, 2020 at 9:44 am #

    Thank you for this article! A similar thing happened to me when someone bought my short story not realizing what type of book it was. The review was harsh and it hurt, but after I had time to let my feelings soothe a bit, I realized that as an author of Christian fiction, God may be putting my books into the hands of people I didn’t target my stories for. That made me smile…because this person could’ve gotten a message they may not have received otherwise. Only God knows! And I’m okay with that. 🙂

  16. Avatar
    Richard New June 18, 2020 at 11:52 am #

    Whenever I’ve mailed in a physical MS for submission, to this office, I do not get any constructive response. So is that disapproval? Is that a review of my work? It is not a critique or any form of craft comment. Nor is it a religious or political statement. It’s not even criticism. I’m not sure what I can learn from a “non” response.

  17. Avatar
    Rebecca LuElla Miller June 18, 2020 at 11:57 am #

    Well said, Tamela. Glad you posted it again.

  18. Avatar
    Audra Sanlyn June 18, 2020 at 12:58 pm #

    We all need this reminder, because unless we leave our stories hidden deep in Scrivener, we’ll eventually receive criticism of some kind, whether constructive or not. It definitely has a lot to do with finding your audience, as well. The nuances in a fantasy novel may seem like a problem with craft to a romance author. And vice versa. Obviously, some writing is just terrible, but knowing your audience and writing in that frame of mind makes a world of difference.

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    Linda Riggs Mayfield June 18, 2020 at 3:47 pm #

    I’m a professional research & writing consultant and editor and have used the sandwich method of critiquing for years. But once in awhile someone just can’t tolerate ANYTHING between the “slices of bread.” After reading a critique of a section of her dissertation that I wrote, one doctoral scholar client announced to her whole online class how “mean” I was, instead of coming to me to talk it over. I learned of it when a member of her class lit into me in a class group email and included me, questioning my attitude, my qualifications, my long friendship with my client, my character, even the legitimacy of the university where I earned my doctorate. It was AWFUL!

    I fully agree, Tamela, that it’s wise not to respond in kind, no matter how tempting that might be. I responded with gentleness and truth, and three of the classmates hired me to consult for them! Privately, I gently challenged my client, a believer, to practice the Matthew 18 Principle and come to ME first if I ever hurt her feelings again. Now the Matthew 18 Principle is in my client contract! ;-D

  20. Avatar
    OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU June 18, 2020 at 11:26 pm #

    God be praised for this! Surely the Holy Spirit is speaking directly to someone. This has blessed me. Thank you Tamela.

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