Last week thousands of parents will have dropped their young child off at school for the first time. I can only imagine their anxiety and their fervent hope that their little one will be accepted and make friends, escaping the torments of isolation and bullying that perhaps the parents suffered themselves.
Meanwhile I’m preparing to launch my first book in a few weeks’ time. It’s doubtless trite of me as a non-parent to compare writing a story to bringing a new life into the world. Nevertheless it’s something I’ve nurtured, protected and loved deeply for the past few years, and soon other people are going to tell me what they think of it.
Throughout my writing life I’ve found it incredibly challenging to receive harsh or blunt criticism. Sometimes it’s made me feel physically sick to read it. For years it was so painful, I concluded I wasn’t thick-skinned enough to be an author. Because everyone knows you have to be able to deal with people hating your writing. I mean, look at the one- and two-star reviews below every single book on Amazon or Goodreads. This business isn’t for the faint-hearted, right?
However, I’ve come to believe that the term ‘thick skin’ is misleading. The imagery suggests that this impenetrable hide we’re supposed to grow (and no one ever explains how) will prevent us experiencing the sting of criticism in future. Yet from conversations I’ve had with multi-published authors, that doesn’t seem to be the case. For most of us, the bad reviews always hurt.
I much prefer the idea of resilience. It allows you to remain human, to still care about the story you’ve put so much of your true self into, to feel upset when people attack or misunderstand it, but also to appreciate that what you’re going through is an emotional state that will pass, and that a bad day or week doesn’t have to lead to permanent discouragement.
The resilience I’ve developed so far doesn’t stop me from freaking out and having periods of intense self-doubt. But I recognise now that these things come and go like the weather. I also have better coping skills in place: reaching out to trusted friends to restore my confidence, practising self-compassion, and allowing space for my emotions to settle before making significant editorial changes. I’ve also learned that in the earlier stages of a draft, I need to completely trust my first readers to give me constructive criticism.
The balance of compassion and honesty that makes up constructive criticism is difficult to achieve and requires sensitivity to nuances of tone and language. Even the addition of an exclamation mark can make a comment sound condescending when it would have been fine without. Some people question why they need to be so tactful when they could just say what they think. The writer has got to get used to negative opinions when they’re published. Aren’t you helping them by toughening them up in advance?
To answer that, I find it helpful to separate the concepts of review and critique. Reviews, to my mind, aren’t there for the author at all. They’re for readers to communicate with each other and express opinions freely: what they loved or hated about the story and characters, how they rate or recommend the product they paid for. Malicious trolls and personal revenge narratives aside, I don’t think most reviewers set out to hurt the author. They just don’t concern themselves with the author’s feelings in that context. In the same way when I review a perfume or an item of clothing, my focus isn’t on being kind to the person who designed it, and nor do I think it should be.
Our book isn’t a bullied child that needs us to step in and defend it, even if it sometimes feels that way. It’s a work of art that stands independently, and once we’ve published it, we have to surrender control of how others perceive it. But we do have a choice in whether we read our reviews or engage with critics on social media. If we’re conscious of our own fragility, then the one- and two-star reviews come with an inbuilt trigger warning and may be best avoided for the sake of our wellbeing.
While reviews are for readers, critique is for the benefit of the author. Its intention should always be to help them improve their writing, not to serve the ego of the critiquer in any way. That doesn’t mean telling the writer what you think they want to hear. Dishonest praise does us no favours, since it leads to false expectations and denies us the opportunity to grow. But if your critique crushes someone’s creative spirit to the point where they give up writing, then it was destructive and failed in its purpose.
Experienced authors with robust self-belief may be better equipped to handle a no-holds-barred evaluation of their work; some even welcome it. For a new or more sensitive writer, it’s almost impossible to develop the necessary resilience without first building a foundation of confidence and recognition of one’s strengths.
I was only able to begin that process thanks to the support and encouragement of a mentor, and finding one is something I’d recommend to anyone who struggles with criticism.