When a Writer Becomes a Target
Once you’re a published author, you’re going to have a target on your back. You will offer up your words to strangers, and not everyone will like what you write. You’ll be naked and vulnerable in front of the world. You’ll make mistakes, you may offend people. And you may not feel safe.
They will write things publicly about you, on their blogs, on your blog, on book review sites, or on Amazon. One of my friends recently received this review online: “I couldn’t even finish this book… Confusing and in my humble opinion, pointless.” Ouch.
Everyone has a right to their opinion. In fact, diversity of opinions is something that makes book publishing so dynamic and interesting. But sometimes those opinions hit us like flaming arrows.
I’ve had this happen numerous times on the blog. I’ll write something with which some folks disagree, or something that gets peoples’ hackles up. I may be intending to float an idea and solicit input, spur thinking or spark conversation. Whether I succeed or fail is completely up to the reader.
And that’s the point. Your intent doesn’t matter to readers. What matters is what they perceive as your intent, and whether they like what you’ve written, period. If they don’t, their response can be brutal.
Anyone in the “public eye” – and if you have any online presence, that means you – is a target for criticism. People can and will say anything they want. They will misinterpret what you’ve written, they will assign motives, and they’ll make judgments about you as a human being.
So what can we do about this? Here are three things.
(1) Don’t engage with those who criticize you.
There are few good exceptions to this guideline. I’ve rarely seen an author’s public response to criticism turn out well. Your attempts to engage in a conversation with your detractors won’t likely do any more than add fuel to the fire. Let people say what they will.
(2) Listen and learn.
Sometimes there’s helpful criticism wrapped in a harshly worded comment or critique. It’s possible that your interpretation of someone’s apparently hurtful intent may be wrong, too. If the comment is simply mean-spirited or self-serving, let it bounce off, but don’t be so Teflon-coated that even helpful advice can’t get through.
(3) Be careful with your own words.
As you offer your criticism to other writers, bloggers, agents or anyone else in cyberspace, think before you hit “send.” Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Offer grace. Offer constructive criticism intended to build up rather than harsh judgment intended to tear down. Remember there is a real live person behind the written words. If you have a particularly scathing piece of feedback, send it in private (via email?) rather than airing it in public. You may discover you’re reading the person’s motives all wrong and she might (gasp) thank you for pointing out how they could have been misread. You could even find a new friend.
Regardless of who you are or how kindhearted your intent, if you’re a writer in pursuit of publication, eventually you’re going to be judged.
Carry a shield. And treat other authors as if they don’t.
[…] If you’re active on social media, you may value Rachelle Gardner’s thoughts about when a writer becomes a target. […]
Rachel, Kristy Cambron’s FB update led me here. Love the common sense logic you so generously and wisely provide.
Published Thanksgiving day. Glowing reviews far. Am waiting for the hammer to drop.
If and when it does, remember your advice will be the therapy of choice.
Peace and blessings immeasurable to you and everyone you love (and to your dog and Nutella). 🙂
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Sometimes it is these criticisms that make me think I am not cut out to be a blogger! I can’t handle the negative words of others, when others attack me. I’m really not that thick-skinned! Thanks for you advice on handling it. And I’m officially a published author! Wrote an ebook with some other blogging friends called “The Ultimate Holiday Guide”! But, I don’t think it should receive too many hard words!?
Very well said. Reviews can discourage a new writer, or greatly encourage. My own policy is to only write reviews for books I really enjoyed. Two years ago I wrote a memoir, based on my grandmother’s diary and letters written 100 years ago. I have been thankful for the many that have written generous reviews. Of the 252 reviews only 6 have been knife to the heart type of words. I appreciate the 147 that have been 5 star. Those 6 negative reviews have been hard to take, but I am trying to keep them in mind as I write the second book. I loved the quote “Carry a shield and treat other authors as if they don’t.” Thanks Rachalle.
“Carry a shield. And treat other authors as if they don’t.”
This was my favorite part. Thank you for writing this, Rachelle! I’m about to start my first plunge into having a larger online “presence,” and this is helping me prepare my battle armor!
[…] Rachelle Gardner offers solid advice to authors who find themselves under scrutiny for their words. A very, very […]
I learned a lot from this article. I haven’t run into a tremendous amount of criticism over my stories as yet, but when I do, I always try to respond with a sensible and polite response.
Heck, I learned this long before I ever started writing. Now, I don’t critique unless it is very gentle and only when asked. Criticism is, after all, a negative thing. So helpful ideas, gentle given, is all I do.
This is so true. I think I forget this when words are bleeding from my fingers and I fall in love with what I’ve written. Although at this point in my career, any comment is a good comment. That means I’m out there! Being read! If they are bad, I’ll bite my tongue and remind myself to be careful what I wish for. Happy writing. Thanks Rachelle
I have not left comments for awhile. Didn’t know my “fat” aviator was still live. Anyway, Rachelle, I haven’t told you for awhile how much you have blessed my life. Thank you.
WONDERFUL post, Rachelle! I love it so much, I tweeted every one of your tweetables.
Until recently, I allowed my fears of being a target keep me from writing what I really want and need to write. Specifically, I have been afraid that people may not believe my true story. Then a few days ago, Andrew Budek-Schmeisser posted a reply to one of my comments on his terrific blog, Blessed Are the Pure of Heart. What Andrew said encouraged me so much, that I copied it to a sticky note to keep on my computer screen as a reminder Here is his simple but life-changing advice:
“Don’t worry about ‘believable’. There are still people who think that the moon landings were faked, and people like that – you’ll never convince them.”
You know what? I am going to finish my memoir and see it through to publication. (Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, as they say in the Ozarks where I grew up.)
~Lynda Lee, aka Lady Quixote, future author of GOING CRAZY, from Horror to Healing. 😉
It’s important to remember there is a real person on the other side of the writing. Excellent advice, Rachelle. Sadly, people forget there’s anyone “real” on the receiving end. Just the other day I saw a headline on a magazine cover, and it made me sad. If the headline was true (and who knows) I thought to myself how horrible it must be to have people critically speculate about your life-not what you do, but who you are.
Rachael:I think it’s easier to criticize than it is to create. I use this mantra to form the thick skin often needed to be a writer of fiction. As long as my main character is living his/her life to the fullest, then I’m satisfied. Snide comments come from those whose personal lives are in turmoil. Often, for whatever reason, they need an axe to grind. Humor is often our best weapon used against them.
It’s the price one pays for being successful. I have had people say that my book “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” is the worst book they have ever read. (The book has now sold around 200,000 copies and is the best-selling retirement book on Amazon.)
Insofar as the critics of the world, these quotations apply:
“The less people know, the more stubbornly they know it.”
– Osho (Rajneesh)
“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain … and most fools do.”
— Dale Carnegie
A non-doer is very often a critic — that is, someone who sits back and
watches doers, and then waxes philosophically about how the doers are doing. It’s easy to be a critic, but being a doer requires effort, risk, and change.
— Dr. Wayne Dyer
“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambition. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
— Mark Twain
“Trying to blow out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours shine any brighter. In fact, yours is the one that is dimmed the most.”
— Dave Erhard
“Did you know that highly-spirited successful souls are thankful for the critics, the faultfinders, and the nit-pickers of this world for constantly
trying to put them down? This gives these highly spirited souls the inspiration to learn how to fly, to soar even higher with their dreams, to make an even bigger contribution to this world, and to be rewarded even more handsomely with the finer things of life that the Universe has to offer.
— from “Life’s Secret Handbook”
excellent, excellent words. Thank you rachelle!
It helps to remember that often people who attack with harsh words are simply having a bad day or a bad life, and the anonymous internet is an easy place to dump their frustrations. Many times, the comment will really have nothing to do with the author or the book.
It doesn’t matter if ninety-nine people like your book, It’s that one reviewer who deflate’s your heart with a lackluster comment. This exact situation transpired yesterday–and I happened to read her comment just before I started working on my next project.
Mental note. Don’t read reviews before you sit down to write. And, remember book reviews are likened to movie reviews. Varying oppions will surface. Thankfully, some chocolate therapy did the trick.
I needed this reminder today. Thanks, Rachelle.
Dabney, isn’t it funny how it can ruin your day to have ONE negative comment out of dozens of positive ones? The same thing happens to me. I have to go back and read the positive ones again and again to try and counteract the one bad one. Chocolate helps, too. 🙂
Thanks for the heads up!
This post is so perfectly timed Rachelle. My book The Altered I debuted this week. My publisher and I had this very conversation. Such good advice. I especially like your advice when we are tempted to write a review, we need to think of the writer’s feelings and temper our own opinions. I will remember that!
So far I’ve had 31 reviews of all my items on Amazon. All are 5 and 4 stars except for one 3 star and one 2 star. And even those have positive things to say about the book.
I’m sure a 1-star review, probably many, is/are in my future. Fortunately my years of dealing with on-line poetry critique groups has thickened my skin. It’s amazing how mean and nasty poets can be.
I wouldn’t have thought of that, David, but I guess there might be a kind of snobbishness that some poets adopt that leads them to be mean and nasty. Sad!
Great post, Rachelle, and as others have said, your last line sums it up so well. We can extend grace to others in our words and responses.
I’ve watched a few author friends endure the criticisms and harsh words. I’ve seen others in the spotlight respond by not saying anything, and that seems a good way to go. Sometimes the more we say the more we can cause division. Your suggestions are spot on. Thanks for sharing your insights.
Good advice, thank you, especially about ‘doing unto others’. Writing is like putting a part of yourself out in the world and opening yourself up for comment. It’s essential to imagine how the other person will feel before commenting. I once asked a family friend I have known my whole life for a couple of lines of endorsement for my WIP, and instead got back a sniping hostile review, with nothing constructive in it at all. When the dust settled, I realised his review said more about him than about my work, which I subsequently sent for a professional assessment. This came back encouraging, sensitive and full of constructive advice, all of which I followed, and through which I have grown as a writer.
Great example — thanks for sharing the story. It’s helpful to realize that a book is an interaction between author and reader, and the response often says much more about the reader than about the book itself.
I don’t know why hateful people go to the trouble of being hateful, but your advice is perfect. Thanks for sharing!
You know what they say…. “Haters gonna hate.” But I really think people just feel comfortable being critical and judgmental when they are not face to face with someone. It’s just too easy these days.
Great post, Rachelle. I am reminded of one of Jesus’ statements which is so rarely quoted: “Woe to you, when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). If you’re getting criticized, you must be doing something right!
It seems to me that “comments” and social media have gotten out of hand. Writers are being “required” to be involved with both (if we want to be published). Now, with a target on our back, we’re expected to be nice when we’re hit. There really is something wrong with this picture.
Love your last line, Rachelle – “Carry a shield. And treat other authors as if they don’t.” I think this could be applied to every relationship, author or not.
I second your comment, Cheryl, and thanks for an excellent post, Rachelle 🙂
Good post, Rachelle!
My one and only book thus far (a self-pub) is on the topic of God’s heart toward His children who have experienced divorce. I wrote it in a myth-buster style, explaining seven common divorce myths commonly held within Christian circles, and explain how each is unbiblical.
It’s been an interesting journey, with many people writing to tell me how much the book has meant to them…and many detractors who think I’m way off base.
Overall, I think the process has helped me have a healthier attitude toward opposition. Since I wrote the book specifically to address areas where I see things a bit differently from many in the Christian community, I couldn’t very well expect everyone to agree with me.
I’ve had to learn to expect disagreement, even from within my own family. That hasn’t been easy, but I think it has been healthy.
Of course, any time you’re writing about something that is often seen as a controversial theological issue, you’re going to get plenty of debate. One thing I’ve realized is that you’re never going to change most people’s minds on such issues as “God’s view of divorce.” Trying to change their attitude or see it a different way is just too threatening to them. So as I know you have learned, all we can do is accept that they disagree with us, and move on. Glad you have a healthy attitude toward it!
I’ve found it helpful to keep in mind who I wrote the book for.
I didn’t write it with the purpose of convincing theologians by my ‘brilliant’ arguments. Rather, I wrote it for people hurting, emerging through divorce…to provide a new perspective full of hope and God’s grace.
Even the writing style I chose was intended to engage the hurting lay-person rather than to refute each point of potential arguments of the theologian holding a differing viewpoint. So, I just let the rebuttals slide off…while I focus on helping…
Oh boy… I need to read your book, Joseph. My husband, a Vietnam Combat Veteran, and I, a veteran of domestic wars, have both been diagnosed with severe, chronic PTSD. My symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder go all the way back to my childhood in the 1960s. My husband’s PTSD symptoms began in the early 1970s, when he was a very young US Marine fighting a losing war in the name of freedom. But, PTSD was not a known psychiatric label until 1980, and even after that it took many years for it to become widely known and understood. As a result, my husband’s PTSD was not diagnosed until around 1990, and mine wasn’t diagnosed until 2003. And it wasn’t until this year that we found some real help through a new and promising type of trauma therapy.
What, you may ask, does all this have to do with Christians and divorce? Well, you see, severe, untreated PTSD is very hard on relationships. My husband and I did not meet and marry until almost 10 years ago. Prior to that, thanks to our respective misdiagnosed and mistreated “mental illness” problems, we both went through the horrific pain of divorce several times. Think “Woman at the Well.”
There aren’t too many Christian Churches who welcome people like us. I don’t know if they think it’s contagious, or what. Being rejected by fellow Christian Believers is traumatizing in itself. I am just so thankful that God saw fit to include the story of the Samaritan woman in His word. It’s not easy being a wounded Christian with a checkered past. But when I read that story, I am blessed. Oh how He loves us — yes, even ME!
What an amazing story of God’s grace, in action! Isn’t that just like Our Father, to bring two wounded warriors together and let each of you be a part of the healing process for both of you?
Too often, within the Christian church, we act as though God requires a holy Utopia-on-earth in which to work out His plan in individual lives. We hear so many sermons preached on the need to defend the traditional family or on undesirable statistics linked to divorce.
Yet the Bible so clearly illustrates how God works out His perfect plan through the individual lives of imperfect broken people living in a fallen world stained with sin.
I would love to hear your thoughts about my book, and to have you join discussions at my blog. You can find the book here: http://www.amazon.com/You-Believer-been-through-Divorce/dp/1463767161/
And you can find my blog (Redeemed!) here: http://josephjpote.com/
Thank you, Lynda, for sharing a part of God’s amazing story in your life!
Great advice, and in line with another blog by an author friend I’ve met. Her book is about to be published in December and she posted a question to us that asked, “are you prepared to be disliked?” This post was based on two reviews her agent sent her, one positive, and the other (she felt), negative. The funny part of this was, another follower on her blog who happens to be an editor, who evidently has access to be able to look up these reviews came back and said the “bad” one really wasn’t so bad. As writers we can be extraordinarily sensitive. I’ve heard of writers who refuse to read reviews. I think I’d want to know…, I think. 🙂
There’s something I learned in giving presentations at academic conferences – it may help.
There is always someone in the audience whose main ambition is to ask a question that puts the presenter in a bad light, to showcase his own intellect.
These people are easy to spot – they are positively squirming with the anticipation of their moment of glory, through which the world will finally have to recognize and pay homage to their stunning insights.
Remember – no one ever memorialized a critic.
I love how you described this, Andrew! So true!
Yes, most crowds have at least one person who assumes they know more than the speaker…and are just itching to show how smart they are.
They’re usually not all that smart…but you’ll never convince them of that…
Very true, Andrew. I think many critics are just itching to, as you say, “showcase their own intellect.” How fun to poke holes in someone else’s argument! We’d best just shake our heads and move on.
Great point, Andrew!
Spot on: Carry a shield, and act as if others don’t. Beautifully put.
This was an excellent, candid post about
criticism. You serve your readers well by preparing them in advance. I’ve only experienced
extreme criticism twice in my blog, and it was about Jesus. He doesn’t win popularity
votes with some people. God, however, helps us see past the criticism and see the distressed heart. For every flaming arrow, we can send a prayer blessing. These
were great practical tips.
This is an excellent post. I’m off to share.
It’s impossible to please everyone. Many love the Bible; others bristle at its mere presence in a hotel room. Water is a mainstay of life, yet some people simply don’t like to drink it except as coffee, or OJ, or Kool-Aid, etc. So nothing we create will win universal praise. Might as well expect the criticism.
I learned years ago as an athlete to not believe the hype nor take the criticism to heart. Should I make it to the “published world” I’ll employ the same tact.
I truly appreciate what everyone said in response to your post. I received this one star review smack in the middle of several five star reviews: “don’t waste your money! I couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters…” Yeah, that one hurt. In fact, it was a gut shot and it affected me for days. After the sting wore off I was able to look at my book a bit more objectively. I realize that the first couple of chapters actually are hard to get through. Whaddaya know? Live and learn!
The first couple of chapters are, I think, the most difficult.
Regardless of the genre, within the first couple of chapters, the author is attempting to connect with the reader, set the stage for the remainder of the book, and lay the foundations of the paradigm adopted within the book.
It’s a lot to accomplish, all at the same time!
ZING! Your bullet, Rachelle, just shot past me and remains ringing in my ears. I wrote on my blog recently (link below), about the derogatory amazon review of my book. The bad review was written by a family cousin! Fortunately, I’ve cultivated immunity against worthless criticism through two former professions, in which everything I did was subject to public critique. I’ve been accused publicly of plotting murder, being under investigation by the FBI, of being a pedophile, of being a gold digger, con man, and fraud. I’m none of that, but my integrity is much stronger for the potshots. So is my resilience. And my delight in laying waste the foolishness of un-constructed criticism has become welcome entertainment. The bottom line is, neither you nor your writing is worth anything, unless some other engages and responds.
This is one of the great downfalls of the age of internet, isn’t it? Having the ability to spout off a bit of deeply hurtful criticism and then click away without ever seeing its effect on the person you’re criticizing. And it’s also very true that the written word – especially in non-formal contexts – can be very open to interpretation. Even punctuation can make a huge difference. Can’t it? Can’t it???!!! We’ve all gotten email correspondence with those three question marks and/or exclamation points, and it always sounds offensive to me, like the writer thinks I’m an idiot. But some people just write like that. So yes, you shouldn’t be too quick to assume that a critical statement is as terrible as it “sounds” on the printed page. On the other hand, once the sting has worn off, it’s usually advisable to look back at it objectively and see if there was something worthwhile in that criticism, as unfounded as it may have seemed. Because we do write for readers, after all. And although it may not be our fault when our readers misunderstand us, it is our problem. And ulitmately, we can learn to be better writers from both those who love us and hate us.
Great post Rachelle; I love the wisdom in your advice. Steps 1 through 3 are great for life in general. It is impossible to please everyone, still, it’s a shame those flaming arrow-throwers forgot what they learned in Kindergarten. To me, it’s artful to balance criticism with edification. Hopefully the good news is, as long as you stay true to yourself, those who love you will always love you.
Great message, Rachelle. I’m still in the process of getting my novel published so I haven’t yet experienced the Amazon onslaught, but I’m a published journalist with much (too much!) familiarity with the brutality of online response and I completely agree with your advice. The slings and arrows thrown my way – often cruel and pointless – have led me to do exactly as you suggest: consider what I write before I hit send, and respond, even with criticism, in a way that I, myself, would appreciate.
Rachelle, Good advice, emphasizing what I’d heard before and let go over my head until some of those “flaming arrows” were directed at me. Believe me, it’s hard to ignore the comments, to put them aside and move on. And sometimes, hard as we may look for it, there’s no constructive criticism buried within the bomb thrown at us. All in all, I agree with the suggestions you’ve made. Thanks for sharing.
You’re right — easier said than done! And I imagine most harsh criticism is devoid of anything constructive, which was never the point. The point, of course, is to make the critic feel better about themselves because they are so much smarter than you. 🙂
#1 is huge. When it’s on my blog I just delete, when it’s a review I try to learn, and maybe vote down it’s helpfulness 😉
Perhaps, we have become lost to the art of constructive criticism. Given properly and received well, it’s goal is to benefit. Mean-spiritedness has no part in it. But, it’s more difficult to give a good and beneficial critique. You have to communicate what, you believe, would improve the work and/or how better to develop it. Much, much easier to just slam it.
The good news is that you do get thick skin. Thick, leathery crocodile skin. I’m on the reading/writing website. Some of the comments I get are NASTY. The one your friend got about the story being pointless made me think, “That’s bad?” You learn to take the polite crits and use them, and let the nasty ones go. If you don’t, they will bother you for DAYS. And who has the time to get so emotionally invested in a stranger’s opinion?
I’m glad I get nasty comments though, it’s going to make me tough so that I can actually survive getting REAL reviews if I ever get something published.
David Brin once wrote a note on negative feedback, saying “Free criticism! Take notes!” which I thought was a clever bit of reverse psychology 🙂 There is an art to criticism, though, and I think the second things get personal – when the criticism is deeply emotional or is aimed personally at the writer rather than addressing the work – it’s best to step back and disengage. Perhaps the only place I’d feel it necessary to respond would be if facts are misconstrued or misrepresented, and even then it may be worth letting others counter those claims or letting previous comments on the subject stand as evidence. Once it gets personal, you’ve lost control of the discussion in my view. Naturally this applies to Perfect World scenarios. Sometimes, apologies are necessary.
This is very well said. It’s hard not to answer back, but it’s almost never a good idea (at least where book reviews are concerned). I also agree that you can often learn something from criticism – ignoring it all might hurt you in the long run. On a personal note, I want to really thank you for your recent article about rejection. It felt good to have an agent FINALLY say that just because you’re getting rejected, it doesn’t necessarily mean your query or book is bad. Sometimes it’s just a numbers game. I knew that, but I really needed to hear it just then. So thanks 🙂
Good one, Rachelle. I once wrote a column about my 4 year old snitching sips of my Starbucks iced Americanos (3 pumps of vanilla, a shot of cream). One reader responded by sending me a science journal article about the negative effects of caffeine on children. He also inserted commentary, suggesting that I was an unfit parent. I chuckled at it, but was surprised at how seriously some people react.
The reader that did that probably has such a trivial life that his whole week was simply MADE by being able to make that comment – and to quote a science journal, at that! WOW!
Negative effects of caffeine on kids, my…uh, burro. How much Coke did YOU drink as a kid? And you managed to grow up, no?
Ugh, there are few things I detest more than people telling other people what bad parents they are. Honestly, how much more “holier than thou” can they be? Perhaps if you were force-feeding your 4-year-old five or six entire Americanos each day, the science article might have been appropriate (minus the commentary).