WIIAWO Issue #2: What if I get negative reviews?

I like to think of myself as someone who is open to feedback, whether it's discussing areas for improvement during an annual review, getting negative customer reviews, or handling criticism from those in my personal life. But the truth is, I often have a hard time with this.

In 2022, I published my first book, Welcome to the Grief Club, which dives into the hard, complicated, and weird parts of grief.

The book was a true labor of love. I did a deep, difficult examination of my own loss. I sent countless drafts to friends, others who had experienced different types of losses, and even my former therapist. My goal was to ensure the writing was clear, inclusive, validating, and helpful. The book took three years from start to finish, and it's been my most challenging and personal project to date, and the one I'm proudest of. 

And yet, not everyone liked it! 

Some readers found the book useless or unoriginal, and some were offended by my word choice or by the focus on grief specifically related to death.

These 1-star and 2-star reviews stuck with me. And by stuck with me, I mean I sent sad, anxious texts to my friends, ruminated about it all day, and searched around for any new bad reviews late at night.

I felt defensive and misunderstood. I was tempted to respond to explain my choices, or to urge them to read the book more closely. 

I also felt ashamed that I had written something that had negative public reviews. I questioned my choices: Maybe I shouldn't have included any profanity, even though I had advocated to keep them in. Did I completely misjudge everything and end up writing an uninteresting, unhelpful, and— worse—hurtful book? 

It made me want to crawl into bed and not share anything else for fear of opening myself up to more criticism.

1. Not everyone will like you

I expected to get negative reviews. I've been putting myself and my work out into the world long enough to know that nobody and nothing is universally liked.

And still, my gut reaction to the bad reviews was surprise and hurt. I think it's partly because I put so much work and thought into creating the book. It's also because some part of me is still subscribed to the idea that I should be likeable, helpful, and interesting to everyone, otherwise I'm doing something wrong.

I constantly remind myself that getting 100% positive reviews is an unrealistic goal, and that striving for it is setting myself up for failure, existential crises, and late-night doomscrolls.

Not everyone will like you or what you create. And that's OK.

2. Having opposing views doesn't always mean that someone is wrong

Criticisms are sometimes less about who is right or wrong, and more a matter of individual preference.

If someone is offended by the occasional profanity in my book, it doesn't mean that I'm wrong to use it. It means that they prefer not to read books with profanity, which is a valid preference. The F word is not for them. And it is equally valid for me to include it, because it's part of how I express myself.

Whether we're talking about things not working out with a customer, a job, a romantic partner, or a friend, sometimes it just comes down to the fact that they like things this way, and you like things that way. No one always has to be wrong or bad; sometimes, we're just different.* In other words, we can both be right, just not right for each other.

*Unless we're talking about recognizing and honoring fundamental human rights, but that's a whole other newsletter.

3. Treat unhelpful opinions and constructive feedback differently

"Don't read your reviews" is a common piece of advice for authors. But I read them anyways because, aside from morbid curiosity, I wanted to see if there were useful pieces of criticism. I didn't want to disregard every piece of feedback just because it hurt my ego to read it.

Here are questions I use to help determine if feedback is constructive or not:

I also remind myself that universal likeability is the wrong goal to aspire to. The versions of things that are least likely to offend, like vanilla ice cream, tend to be more, well, vanilla. They may not provoke as many negative reactions, but they also may not spark as much delight. I would rather write a book that some people love, than to write one that everyone likes.

I'm hoping to write another book some day. If I do, I know that there will be more criticisms, both constructive and not. Either way, I don't intend for it to stop me from creating or sharing with others, and I hope it doesn't keep you from it either.

Do you have your own story, experience, or advice about negative reviews? I'd love to hear it! Leave a comment below.

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