Five Ways To Respond To A Negative Review: A Helpful Guide!

1. Do Nothing

Bad reviews happen.

They happen the way snow and rain happens. The way high tide rolls in, or the way mosquitos and herpes and gout and a thousand NCIS iterations exist (my favorite is NCIS: Schenectady, starring Alan Thicke and Johnny-Five from Short Circuit.) That’s not to say a bad review is equivalent in its moral and creative compass as a venereal disease — but that’s not your call to make. For your mileage, bad reviews are a fact of life, and not one that should crawl up under your skin like a botfly worm. (If you don’t know what that is, oh, shit, do not Google it.)

Listen, your favorite author? Your favorite book?

Go look.

That book, that author, will have bad reviews.

At least one of them will look like it was written by a Neanderthal with a head injury.

Did Stephen King slap on astronaut diapers and hunt down his cultural critics? No. Well, I mean, I don’t think so? If he did, he did it quietly, I guess.

So: just relax.

One bad review is them, not you.

(Admittedly, a ton of bad reviews is probably you, not them, but that’s a different conversation.)

Do nothing! Relax. Go write. Write better today than you did yesterday, and write better tomorrow than you did today. Spite them by forever upping your game.

See? So easy.

Are we done?

2. Hey, No, Seriously, Do Nothing

Wait, why are we still here?

What the hell did I just say?

Do. Nothing.

Put down the pen. Why do you have a pen? Were you going to begin an angry letter-writing campaign? A letter of great venom and wit? Who are you, Oscar Wilde?

Okay, I get it, some reviewers — they write reviews that get all up in your marrow. Some blogger slagged your work and it sounds like — okay, it sounds to you like they didn’t “get it.” Or they’re making accusations that you feel are specious at best. They’re getting details wrong. Maybe they’ve suggested that you or your work is racist or sexist or some other kind of -ist. They’re turning people off of your work, you scream and froth and flail about.

That’s their right.

And yes, of course, it’s your right to respond.

But, let’s play this out a little bit.

What exactly do you think is going to happen when you respond? Hm? Do you think they’re going to be enlightened to your ‘corrections?’ That you’re going to engage in a dialogue so productive that not only will the two of you be best friends, but said reviewer will recant his wretched review and apologize publicly and next thing you know: BOOM INSTANT BESTSELLER?

Sure, that might happen.

I also might develop a rare medical condition where I shit buckets of gold Krugerrands.

Here’s what’s probably going to happen.

a) You’re going to draw attention to a review you already don’t want people to see.

b) You’re going to piss off the reviewer, who wrote the review fair and square, and where before they might’ve been willing to chalk up your one book as a single instance, now they’re left to wonder if this is part of a pattern with you, you intrusive jerk.

c) If the reviewer isn’t really fair and square and is instead someone who has the scent of the troll about him, well, you just shoveled food into that troll’s mouth. You fed the beast and now the beast wants more. You probably just became a target.

d) The reviewer’s audience, if one exists, is now like: THAT AUTHOR IS TOTAL JERKPANTS.

You gotta understand: that reviewer is allowed to hold whatever opinion that reviewer wants. It doesn’t make her right. It doesn’t make her wrong. It doesn’t give her authority, and it also doesn’t rob her of it. And here you’re saying, buh-buh-but if she has the right to slag my book then I have the right to slag her slagging of my book.

And yes, yes you jolly well fucking do have that right.

And yet, it would not be wise to execute that right. Can and should are not equal.

There exists a vital cultural exchange between creator and critic. The critic’s job is to exist outside the material — it is the critic’s job to break the work apart and see what the pieces say. It is a kind of divination: guts out of pigeons. It is a kind of anti-repair: breaking a machine apart to see how it works. It is not the creator’s job to be part of that exchange. This exchange radiates outward, one way, from creator to critic and to the audience beyond. Sometimes the audience cares little for the critical response. Sometimes it does. But the radar ping does not sweep back the other way.

Criticism is a conversation.

It’s just not one between the critic and the author.

It is a conversation between the critic and the author’s work.

Your work remains silent. It’s on trial, for better or for worse.

Nobody said the judge or jury has to be fair or right.

Just as nobody said your work has to actually be good.

(This is one of the things that GamerGate gets so woefully wrong: trying to rob reviewers of their ability to be subjective, political, and social is trying to rob the critical conversation of its teeth. Criticism needs its teeth — not to be cruel, not to be mean, but sometimes just to bite deeper into the work than the average audience member would.)

Are there bully reviewers? Troll-types who get off on puncturing your work and popping that balloon? Sure, yes, absolutely. And if it ever becomes harassment, it’s a good idea to address it with the social media administrators or — if it gets that bad — with the authorities. But for the most part, you can smother that fire with a lack of attention. Flames need oxygen to grow, so give them none of yours lest you want to burn up in the bonfire of your own ill-advised response.

3. Goddamnit, I Just Told You — Hey, Where Are You Going?

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Where are you going?

What are you planning on doing?

Slagging right back? Writing a response blog? Or visiting the comments section of the reviewer to be like BUT WAIT A MINUTE I HAVE AN OPINION ON MY OWN WORK TOO because of course every author has such a crucial opinion of his own work — and here hopefully my eyeroll is so tectonic you can feel the ground tremble beneath your feet. Or maybe you were planning on retweeting a bad review and letting your audience sharpen their knives on the reviewer? You’re not gonna pull a Kathleen Hale and go stalk your critic, are you?

Don’t do any of those things! Reviewers have a voice. They deserve the voice in the same way you deserve to have yours in writing your book, or tweeting about it, or blogging things and stuff and other snidbits. No, not every reviewer will use that voice responsibly — just as not every author uses her voice responsibly, just like not every Facebook update is the shining bastion of cultural significance the updater maybe hoped it was, just as every word out of every mouth is not utter perfection. You can’t police this stuff. I’m sorry if you’re in the crossfire.

Best case scenario: read it, consider it, learn from it. Even if what you learned was, “I don’t agree and here’s why,” that’s okay. Worse case scenario: ignore the unholy fuck out of it. If you know that you can’t stomach bad reviews? Turn away. Don’t go into the light, Carol-Anne.

(Super-important to realize that you as the author have power. Responding negatively to criticism is an act of punching down. You have a big voice and you’re using it to shout someone into silence. This is doubly more concerning when you are a male author with a large audience responding to a female reviewer. You may not see the act as misogynistic, but it can create that effect right quick. Your audience is not weaponized — do not point them like a gun at those who don’t like your work. Okay, you can probably weaponize them against like, airlines, because airlines are crappy. If you wanna release the hounds on like, U.S. Airways, more power to you.)

4. Fine, Slake Your Rage In Proper Rage-Slaking Ways

This review is like a seed stuck in your teeth, isn’t it?

Fine. Fine.

Invoke your rage.

Quietly.

Properly.

Go punch a punching bag. Write in your bedside Twilight Sparkle diary. Go fire off an email to an author or artist friend and be all like AHHH DID YOU SEE THIS REVIEW (and if that author is truly a friend that author will say, yeah, yeah, that sucks, the reviewer sucks, but hey don’t get cuckoo bananapants, maybe go have a drink, go for a run, eat a cupcake, something, anything, calm thyself because this shit happens all the time).

Totally okay to feel pissed. Totally okay to feel like, grr, they don’t understand me!

And that’s where it ends, okay?

And maybe, just maybe, you need to ask:

Why didn’t they understand?

Maybe it’s something they’re bringing to the table. Critics have baggage.

Maybe it’s something you brought to the table. Authors have baggage, too.

Or maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s random.

Maybe it’s Mercury in Retrograde, whatever the fuck that means.

Ease off the stick, hoss. Take the saddle off the horse.

Go have a cookie and a nap.

5. Oh, For The Sake Of Sweet Saint Fuck, You’re Gonna Respond, Aren’t You?

No no no no noooooo —

You’re doing it anyway, aren’t you?

You’re going to respond.

*deep breath*

Okay. Fine. Let me talk you through this.

You can respond to a negative review.

You can! I’ve done it. I’ve seen others do it.

It’s dumb! It’s dumb. It’s dopey-dingbat-dipshit bad.

This is ‘camel through the eye of a needle,’ but you’re going to do it anyway, so here’s how:

First, you’re going to remember that they have the right to this opinion and that if anything you say contains even a fucking whisper of trying to rob them of that, then you already fucked up.

Second, you’re going to be super-polite. You’re going to be the best version of yourself where the goal is for this exchange to end with: “Maybe we don’t agree, but we had a good discussion.” Because sometimes, sometimes good discussions can be had — particularly if it involves you giving up some of your egotistical territory to listen and engage.

Third, listening and engaging does not mean some kind of… podium-thumping author-splaining. “LISTEN HERE, LITTLE REVIEWER,” and then a bunch of shitty bluster comes windily from forth your ass. No! No. No. If you’ve stepped into this conversation viewing it as some kind of correction, you’ve just blown off your own foot before you took your second step.

Fourth, understand that if you’re responding to the review directly, it might be seen as you entering the personal airspace of that reviewer. Like I said, the critical conversation doesn’t explicitly contain you, and an author entering that space changes the dynamic. It modifies the conversation. And not frequently in a good way. Understand that you’re not necessarily welcome. Maybe you are! Some bloggers are different. Some reviewers want that exchange. But others don’t. Be cautious. Be respectful.

Fifth, be willing to back away slowly and politely disengage.

Meaning, be willing to see that engaging at all was probably a mistake.

Bad reviews happen.

One-stars? We all get ’em.

Once in a while I think an author can call those out to his audience. I certainly do, in part because sometimes a negative review helps sell the book to the right audience while helping divert it from the wrong one. (Negative reviews are not universally bad, you see.) But always be cautious that folks shouldn’t respond, shouldn’t mob, shouldn’t bully. Always be respectful of the cultural conversation and the role of the critic. When in doubt? Shut your trap and go have wine. Because wine is awesome, and responding to negative reviews isn’t awesome, so which would you rather do? Have wine and be awesome? Or get caught up in some online fracas and not be awesome?

*uncorks a bottle*

Let’s drink to all our bad reviews

*clink*

* * *

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94 comments

  • I have some five stars and some ones too. I really got into writing, because I enjoy it. I didn’t even expect anyone to read my work. It’s one of those things where you just never know when anyone will read your work. I like being an author after all. This is the plan.

  • I’ve been chanting this mantra since I began reviewing: do not respond to reviews. Ever. They rarely turn out well. Sure, sometimes I’ve had conversations with authors that were productive and nice (one actually ending with me helping an author pick out some typos) but the majority were ones that I would not want repeated. They’re just nasty affairs.

    The whole Hale debacle hit way too close to home. I was told to kill myself after rejecting a review request (yes, a REQUEST!) when my submissions had been closed for almost two years. I’ve also seen reviewers go apoplectic about little things authors do.

    In short? The crazy is on both sides and the best thing both sides can do is not engage each other over negative reviews.

  • Coming from the theater world I’ve grown a fairly thick skin to negativity. You just can’t control peoples perceptions – at best, you mitigate them. With regards to bad reviews, you just have to remember (as you state very well) that they have no more value than a good one. Each person will come to whatever conclusion they will come to. In a way, be glad for the response at all – Art is meant to engage (good or bad). You succeeded in making them feel SOMETHING – so your art did what it was supposed to. Revel in that.

    You have no way to manage these things. Best to leave it where it lies and move on.

    Personally? While I like the idea of being a Best Selling Author, I’d rather have a core group of people who truly love my work. I’d rather reach a single gay boy kid (like I was) and have him respond to something I wrote that said, ‘don’t worry kid, it’ll all be better one day…’ It was that way for me and John Rechy – the man saved my young boy life. His words were my bible in so many ways. I am writing for that kid. I am writing to pay it forward. If someone find it disdainful – move on buddy. There’s nothing for you to see here. Like my work in theater – I do it and move on. The chips fall where they may. I can’t get caught up in the whole “do they love me or not routine” that way lies a certain path to 9 bags of wacky crazy. Pasadena…

  • This post is wonderful in explaining the why of not engaging with reviews/reviewers and providing great alternatives. I learned the lesson the hard way, when I responded to a very rude review somewhat passive-aggressively on a fanfiction site at age sixteen… since the unpleasant fallout of that exchange, I have been pretty good at ignoring negative comments on my writing (my art was another story for a bit). I think that I’m ready to deal with not replying to reviews of all sorts when my original works are published.

    This post is also timely because I keep putting off a blog post I have planned, tentative titled “Fanfiction Reviews: The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious”. I plan to include some of the reviews I’ve gotten and what I’ve learned about replying to reviews in an online fanfiction setting, which is somewhat different from a professional setting (example – thanking people for positive comments is often well-received because it’s often a community of writers and readers that interact). But I’m glad I didn’t write that blog yet because I’d love to link to this post in mine.

    If anyone is interested in reading my most hilarious review to one of my most well-received male/male erotic romance stories, here it is, verbatim:

    “Okay, this is the first yaoi story I have read, and it was well written, but I feel like banging my head into a wall because I am not gay, and only read this because a friend said it would be good. I love your writing, but the gay parts made me sick to my stomach. So, the whole thing made me sick to my stomach.”

    It was so tempting to reply and ask why he started reading a gay erotic romance story if he didn’t like gay male relationships, and why he kept reading it if it made him sick to his stomach. But I refrained, and instead talked to friends about it and they thought it was rather amusing.

    And it’s easy enough to not reply to reviews like this one, which is, again, verbatim with formatting intact:

    “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?
    KAKASHI AND IRUKA FUCKED UP
    FUCK YOU”

    Hee hee.

    Thanks again, Chuck!

  • this is excellent advice. Normally what I do, and I just got finished ‘reviewing’ to a bad reviewer actually. For the past handful of chapters all they’ve reviewed was how weak the characters are though they’re usually strong, and how strong the villains are and they don’t want to read anymore until the Heroes are strong again…so I dedicated a short 600 word chapter to her that totally buffed up the heroes…gave them super strength, had them win the fight and walk away with each of their happy endings…all in 600 words because, you know, they needed to be strong. Then, of course, I bid them adieu and welcomed the rest of my readers to continue on with the real story. So far the reviews on the dedicated chapter are quite humorous and welcome hehe. Nothing wrong with being politely sarcastic in the reply =^^=

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