Coping with a crappy review

Criticism is something one can avoid by saying nothing and doing nothing.” — Aristotle

Seven years after its publication, my collection of essays on home and family topics scored its first negative review on Amazon.

The reviewer, who identified herself as a copywriter and was brave enough to include her full name and city of residence, found my writing style “rather bland” and my topics “so-so” or uninteresting. Ouch.

Making its abrupt appearance in my “Most Recent Reviews” column, the two-star review splashed a small but indelible stain on my Amazon page. Never mind that the other reviews, many of which were written by fans of my long-running newspaper columns, were five-star praise fests. Never mind that the book had already won several press awards.

And never mind than Ive been writing professionally since 1984 and should be accustomed to criticism (not to mention rejection letters) by now.

That one crummy review from a copywriter in Atlanta threw me into a ridiculous dark-blue funk that lasted a couple of days. In a fit of self-doubt, I even grabbed a copy of my book and scanned several pages for incriminating evidence of “blandness” and boring topics.

In any event, the review provided a much-needed lesson in humility. But before I could cool off — and yes, I did cool off — I had to Google the reviewers name. I had to figure out how she’d managed to stumble on my seven-year-old book — and why she felt compelled to knock it down a few stars. I was half tempted to email her after discovering we had a loose connection through a professional writing group.

Instead, I did what most writers do when they realize theyve been spending too much time alone with their computers: I turned to a few trusted colleagues who always know how to set me straight.

“Bad reviews are part of the risk of getting our work published,” one of my editor-pals reminded me. “And thats why we all need to keep growing thicker skin.” In other words, if were going to put our stuff out there, we must learn to accept a few hurled tomatoes along with the roses and the press awards. Furthermore, if were willing to listen up, one piece of honest criticism can do more to improve our game than a dozen accolades.

Mean-spirited criticism is more about the critic and less about the work under fire.”

The crappy review also led to an online discussion about how to take (and give) criticism — an invaluable skill, no matter what your profession. To master this skill, you must know the difference between constructive criticism and mean-spirited criticism.

For starters, constructive criticism is always very specific. It includes concrete examples of what didn’t work along with reasons why the reviewer thinks your writing fell short. Even if it’s unsolicited and painful, constructive criticism can be a terrific learning tool.

On the other hand, mean-spirited criticism (or “sniping”) is more about the critic and less about the work under fire. Dead giveaway: The word “I” appears too often throughout the review or critique. “I don’t like Hemingway’s writing,” for example, isnt nearly as specific and informative as “Hemingway overplays the declarative sentence.”

Mean-spirited criticism might be the product of a foul mood or professional envy. Or maybe the critic doesnt share your passion, in which case your work doesn’t necessarily fall short, or stink.

The reviewer who dissed my book didnt cite examples of what irked her, nor did she suggest what I could have done to meet her standards. But she got me thinking about why I failed to engage or entertain her.

And that’s why a bad review can be an unexpected gift or a wake-up call. If we’ve been writing and publishing for a while, especially, a negative review challenges us to keep improving and refining our craft. Or, at the very least, to stop being so complacent.

William Faulkner once said that real writers and artists “don’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, and the ones who want to write dont have the time to read reviews.” And I suppose there’s some truth in that.

Still, its perfectly normal to feel bruised after getting hit with a rotten review. Scores of authors who are far more prolific than I am still wince when they get negative press. Or, as Danielle Steel once put it, “A bad review is like baking a cake with all the best ingredients and having someone sit on it.”

All said and done, serious writers get over it, then gather their new “ingredients” and get back to work. — Cindy La Ferle

— Detail from an altered book collage by Cindy La Ferle —

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11 thoughts on “Coping with a crappy review

  1. Hi there,

    I had to chuckle when I read your post because I did the same thing that you did. I received a three star review and I thought, Great. Then I read it and it ended with the line “I would not buy from this author again.” Ouch! I searched for this reviewer immediately. She reviews a lot of books and from her previous Amazon reviews, I could see that she is quite hard to please.

    She also said my writing was bland too. I realise that you can’t please everyone. It is just a shame that she felt compelled to leave her negativity on the site for all to see.

    Oh well, onwards and upwards.

    Victoria 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Victoria! Anyone who’s been writing and publishing for years is bound to face this issue at some point. Nobody escapes a “job review” — not even book critics and copywriters 😉

  2. A very good post and one that convinced me that I can’t even begin to measure up to ‘real’ writers. But at least I can learn from what they write!

  3. LOL @ Betty!

    Cindy, another well-written essay. I often wonder, though, why does anyone feel the need to leave a negative comment on someone’s work? Why not praise the book/movie/art if you like it, and if you don’t, say nothing. Why spread negativity, or sway others in a negative direction?

    • Good questions, Lynne. As a longtime opinion columnist, I have to admit that it’s every person’s god-given right to express opposing viewpoints. That would include critics.

      However, if I don’t like a book, I just leave it alone. I rarely feel compelled to spread ill will or negative energy. As an author, I know it takes courage and a lot of work to put a book out there, so I respect fellow authors. The way I see it, other people love books I haven’t enjoyed, and that’s just a matter of taste. (I am often “underwhelmed” by popular best-sellers.) But then again, I am a believer in karma. What goes ’round, comes ’round — often when we don’t see it coming — so I try to focus on the positive, like you do.

  4. I think this says it clearly: “Mean-spirited criticism is more about the critic and less about the work under fire.”

    Having worked as a compulsive volunteer for years, I remember fabulously successful events that were marred by one critical comment. Somehow, the criticism seemed much louder than the compliments. I chose not to let the one negative outweigh the many positives.

    It’s always easier to criticize someone else’s work than to do something of your own.

  5. Cindy, you write from the heart. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and spirit. Sadly, people hardened their hearts with biting comments
    In the words of Dr, Seuss
    “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

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