Dealing with negative feedback

In my day job, I write for and edit a large website. I’m fortunate enough to have a manager who’s taught me a lot about both disciplines. Since Charles is a former journalist and an experienced editor, I asked if he could write some tips on how to deal with negative feedback on your writing. (And if you think any feedback you’ve received is harsh, check out these rejection letters.)

Keep in mind that this is the man who regularly covers my stories in red ink, and who has to deal with my demands for gold-star stickers when he hands back a flawless story.

Here’s his advice:

If you want to publish your work, you need to accept you aren’t writing purely for yourself anymore. You’re writing for your readers, which means you’re automatically making other people’s opinions about your work important. If you don’t or can’t accept that early on, you’re going to find it all very upsetting.

But it’s not a free-for-all. Some feedback is unhelpful. It can be vague (“I just didn’t like it”), irrelevant (“This historical fiction would be better with lasers”) or from someone who isn’t your target audience anyway (“I ain’t much for book-larnin'”). I’d also tend to distrust feedback that feels like it’s rewriting your work for you (“it would be better here if, instead of proposing to Juliet, Romeo shacked up with Rosaline, and had a falling out with Benvolio”). You might not like getting feedback like this, but instead of worrying that it’s negative, you should probably just ignore it because it isn’t useful.

Useful feedback can be prosaic and mechanical (“I don’t understand this sentence”, “I don’t think you intend this paragraph to mean what it does”) or about how someone feels about what you’ve written (“I hated the character of Steve, but it felt like I was supposed to like him”, “I didn’t believe it when the ghost turned out to be the old caretaker wearing a mask”). With that second kind of feedback, you need to probe further and find out *why* a reader feels that way so you know what needs fixing.

Criticism helps you tell the story you want, in the way you want to tell it. You need other people to give you that feedback, because it’s really hard, and sometimes impossible, to know how other people will read and respond to something you’ve written.

It might be upsetting and demoralising to hear that someone doesn’t get from your writing what you want them to get from it, but it probably isn’t personal. Your writing is not you. It’s not even your story, your setting or your characters – it’s how well you’ve communicated them. And that can be fixed, by taking on board feedback and communicating them better.

What have been the most important lessons you’ve learned about how to deal with negative feedback on your writing?


  1. (When do you have time to write with all these fabulous posts you keep coming up with?) At any rate, to answer your question: what I’ve learned is that every reader brings his/her own perspective to your work, and you have to take that into consideration when you get his/her feedback. This was especially startling when I started hearing from readers, when suddenly what seemed perfectly logical and in character for my hero, suddenly was percieved as mean or cruel by one reader, and whimpy or indecisive by another. Go figure. However, I’ve learned to enjoy the different reactions, because it tells me my characters are “real” with all the conflicting, confusing behaviors of a real people, and if you like them despite that, then I’ve done my job.

    1. Great attitude, Kaki. (A wimpy Kaki Warner hero? Seriously?)

      If you can distance yourself from your writing enough to look at the feedback somewhat objectively, it can be pretty entertaining. One person told me my baddie was cliché, while another said he was really realistic.

      And that disagreement about characters does make them more real. My sister-in-law once told me that no one ever feels lukewarm about my brother – they love him or hate him because his personality’s so strong (or horrible, according to some, apparently). I want to have just as strong a reaction to the characters I read. No lukewarm characters for me, please.

    1. Glad you liked it, Roni (though I wasn’t the one who wrote it!). It can be tough to read negative things about something you created, but as long as the feedback is constructive I always appreciate it.

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