What to Do with a Bad Review?
So when the bad review comes in, and it will, what will you do? Whether it comes from a disgruntled Amazon customer who thought they got the beginning of a series, or the professional reviewer who just didn’t get what you were writing, of the beta reader who doesn’t like your genre but had to do something – no matter where the negative review comes from, you can make it a constructive part of the writing process.
Why do Bad Reviews Hurt So Much?
The simple reason is that as a species that has struggled to survive for thousands of years, it is “bad news” that registers more than “good news.” Whatever the bad news is, it might negatively affect our chances of survival, they way we were programmed to do to survive live on the Serengeti when predators that had better weapons such as speed, rows of teeth and claws. Our biggest advantages were walking erect, the opposeable thumb, and a large brain. That was the only “good news” that would pay off thousands of year later. The other good news of the day was “if you were alive, it was “good news;” so even good news is pessimistic to us as a species as it is tied with evolution and survival of the fittest.
Once we’re off the savanna and well into the industrial age and beyond, our underlying program for recognizing bad news is still the “go to” response. That means you could hear several positive things, read even more “happier” emails, and thirty-five snap-chats and thousands of whimsical texts, and it will be the “bad” text, email and visual you experienced that will overshadow everything.
In other words, our neurology for assessing our environment is a binary code of 0’s and 1’s, “on” or “off;” will it kill me or will I live through it. From an evolutionary perspective “bad news” reigns for many reasons over good:
• We are neurological wired to recognize bad news first and foremost
• Your surrounding environment is not deadly
• Bad news means you’re dead
• Good news means you’re not dead
• Is there a safer place
• And it would be good to stock up on “good news” since one piece of bad news, like death, can wipe out all the good news.
But are Bad Reviews like Dying?
Yes and no. When we get bad reviews, we go right into fight, flight or fright; this is a fully adaptive strategy put in place by a series of brain activity engaging the sympathetic nervous system to endure and survive danger. While we might not be fighting for survival on the savanna, our sympathetic nervous sees no difference when it is engaged. A bad review can surely engage fight, flight or fright. (For expert information on the neuroscience of all of this check out Drs. Robert Sapolsky and Louis Cozolino’s mountains of work).
So when you see the “three stars” review (or less) on your book, your instinct to freeze, fight, or run is perfectly natural. You will certainly think or even say out loud “I’ll never write again!” or “Who is this expletive, anyway!” and “I knew I was terrible – I just want to die!” I know. I’ve experienced this more times than I would like to remember.
What to Do?
What should you do when bad reviews come for you – as little as possible at first.
Similar to dying, getting a bad review requires you to go through a process. Based on Kubler-Ross’ Stages of Death and Dying, you will need time to go through the following stages loss:
• Denial and Isolation
Here is where time is your friend. The first response is always disbelief, shock and total surprise that someone just didn’t like you work; it’s a narcissistic injury that is hard to recover. You sequester yourself away from friends, co-workers, peers and anyone who might ask about how things are going. It’s going poorly; someone hates your work. You’re dying an artistic death.
Suddenly, anger arrives in full force. You find the name of the reviewer and do a full data and historical review of them ranging from DNA composites, to retinal scans and fecal matter analysis. It doesn’t take long but you find that your anger is justified: “They’re stupid!” “They can only read monosyllabic words,” or “They don’t even write themselves – grow a pair and join the real authors!” The anger is as belligerent and illogical as it is intense and profound.
Then you wonder, “what if they’re right? What if I’m awful at this?” You start looking for reasons why it might not have been your best work. You start second guessing you’re abilities and you prior work. This bargaining often leads to depression; the full cognitive, negative distortion that all those positive reviews were lies, errors, or misguided acts of people who mistook you for a competent writer.
If you’re lucky, you vacillate through all of these stages, back and forth, until after some time you finally, thankfully, move to acceptance: “This reviewer has an interesting point,” or “The idea they had on point of view was good,” or “I never thought of putting in a list of characters.” It takes time to get to this stage. Having been dealt some pretty harsh reviews myself in the past, the more you get, the better at responding you get (not that I would wish it on anyone, but it’s going to happen.)
When you get a bad review, here are a couple of things that will happen and here’s what you should do:
• It will hurt, and you will be in shock, get angry, depressed and a whole series of other negative emotions before you get to a workable place where you can accept the feedback
• Take your time to process it
• Talk to fellow authors, editors and other reviews to facilitate the steps towards acceptance
• List out the points made and see if they warrant any merit
• If they do, you just hit pay-dirt: you got critical data that could help improve your craft
• Whatever you do, do not contact the reviewer to denigrate, try to change their mind or assess their level of intelligence – nothing good will come from it
• Above all, keep an open mind to all feedback and keep writing.