Why Do Some Readers Give Writers Such Harsh Feedback?

Okay but did you have to say it like THAT?

There isn’t a writer I know who isn’t even just a little curious about what others think of their work.

Most writers don’t do it exclusively for the feedback, but it’s sure a nice perk. Especially when you’re lucky enough to get compliments on something you’ve written.

But if you’ve been part of any online community for any extent of time, you already know compliments aren’t the only thing you’re subject to when you publish something on the internet. In fact, it’s almost certain that if something you create gets noticed by many people, it will receive criticism.

And sometimes that criticism … just isn’t nice.

Some people can give feedback in a gentle and well-meaning way, and that’s often much appreciated. But others just skip the advice and go straight for saying hurtful things. But there’s a reason for that.

To be clear: There are different kinds of feedback. I tend to separate “negative” feedback into two categories: constructive feedback and harsh criticism. Constructive feedback is the “I liked it, but I think you could have done something in a different way” type of comment. What’s harsh criticism, then? Something along the lines of: “I didn’t like this and so I’m going to call you a bad writer and make this a personal attack because it’s the internet and I do what I want.” Yeah. That kind.

There is absolutely no reason why you should be falling apart over constructive feedback. Does it sometimes appear when you weren’t expecting it? Of course. Does it have the potential to bruise your ego, shake your confidence, and make you look more closely at your work or even yourself? Absolutely. But it’s no cause for what I call “rage quitting.”

Just because someone calls out an imperfection in your work doesn’t mean your entire career is a lost cause. There are flaws in every piece of writing and there’s always a chance the writer hasn’t noticed them. That’s fair. I’m not here to say people aren’t free to offer their suggestions if they want to.

When I mention “harsh criticism,” I’m really talking about the kind of feedback that really isn’t necessary. The kind that doesn’t offer any sort of logical help or guidance to a writer or another reader in any form. The kind that, most of the time, people are just throwing out there specifically to get a reaction out of people.

I’ve had plenty of people tweet at me that “I don’t know what I’m talking about” in response to articles. I’ve had people mention me directly (so I get the notification) and speak indirectly about how “this writer must be xyz” as if they don’t know I’m reading it because they purposely tagged me.

Hey man. It happens. More frequently than we’d all like. But WHY?

Why do people say mean things? Because they feel like it. That’s really all there is to it. As much as we’d all love to believe that everyone is out to help us in some way, the reality is that some people go looking for others to put down. It’s not right, but it happens, and it happens often to many different individuals.

Some people need very desperately to validate their own worth, especially those with low self-esteem (NOT that everyone with low self-esteem is going to be mean.) Tearing apart your work makes them feel better because it makes them feel like they’re “better” than you and can talk down to you.

It’s very sad, and very difficult not to take personally, but this is the reality of the world we live in. People don’t always aim to respond kindly or constructively. They aim for the sensational, and it usually goes to the negative extreme.

Thankfully, it’s almost never personal. It can be meant to hit you where it hurts, but a stranger doesn’t always attack a random person in the internet because they have a grudge against that individual specifically. It’s safe to assume they’re just looking for someone to pick on because they feel insecure or inadequate or lonely, I guess.

You’re going to get ‘feedback’ even when you don’t ask for it. The general rule is that if it’s available for purchase and/or accessible on the internet or off, it’s open to commentary from anyone who feels the need to give it.

We all want nothing but positive or even constructive feedback and for the harsh criticisms to go unsaid (or unwritten). But that’s just not how the real world works. It’s a fantasy, nothing more. You can ignore the negativity, but you can’t stop it from reaching you.

People are going to pick apart your prose. They’re going to tell you all the things you did “wrong.” They’re going to do whatever it takes to make themselves feel better without your consent. There are people out there who mean well and don’t know they’re crossing lines, absolutely. But much of the time, this unsolicited criticism isn’t coming from a good place and you sort of just have to learn to live with it.

Does it ever get easier or hurt less? In my experience, no. I’m awful at accepting all types of feedback, constructive or otherwise. My first instinct is to react defensively and take everything personally. But I’ve learned that unless I’m defending someone else who I feel could benefit from support, I’m probably better off not responding at all. I’m not going to give people the fuel they need to feel validated. I’m not going to be responsible for training them to believe that this behavior will get them what they want every time.

It’s possible to be hurt by something and not publicly react the way a certain someone wants you to. If you want to take the passive aggressive approach, that’s up to you, but from experience, I personally wouldn’t recommend it.

TL;DR: Don’t let the trolls see you react. It’s not worth the energy.

I can’t speak for everyone who has ever given harsh criticism when it wasn’t warranted. But I can speak to how it feels to be on the receiving end of it.

Just remember that one person’s comments can’t define who you are, who you want to be, what you make or put out into the world. Only you can do that.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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4 thoughts on “Why Do Some Readers Give Writers Such Harsh Feedback?

  1. Hurtful comments help no one. I remember that when I read comments about my work and when I comment on someone’s work. I try to take any good from hurtful comments and disregard the rest. Yeah, easier said than done, but I try to follow that.

  2. Sometimes I think people mean well, but more often I think it really is a matter of “too much anger has built up inside them, and now they’re letting it out.”
    I also think you’re right. Some need to prove their own worth and they do so by declaring that “I am so much better than you and this is how I prove it.”
    Of course, the fact that someone felt so strongly that they chose to post something is still a statement, and personally, I don’t put much stock in a product’s unless at least a few are negative. Granted, many negative reviews are still too brief and vague to offer any real insight, but the fact that “not everyone loves it” grants the whole thing a certain legitimacy, I feel.

  3. I’m heaving a huge sigh here. This post reminds me of a writer’s group I facilitated for over ten years. I had to ask a woman to leave because of what she called ‘critiques’ but what were actually cruel, nasty comments that were not helpful or beneficial, and were devastating to beginning writers. I told her to leave after she said this to a bi-racial poet: ‘no one will read a mulatto’s work’. Now, with the internet, it’s like the screen gives a degree of separation so people feel ‘safe’ saying things they would never say to another’s face. I get so weary at the cruelty in the world now. I find myself searching for the moments of kindness and avoiding those places on social media where I know trolls will be found. I’ve also developed thicker skin over the years, where I have learned to walk away from reviews and critiques that are simply said to make the speaker feel important, or are ones that have nothing in them I can learn from. It also makes me hugely appreciative of the constructive criticisms that I can learn and grow from. I don’t mind negative reviews because it’s not realistic to expect everyone to like your work. But there’s a difference between a negative review where the person simply doesn’t like what they’ve read, and a negative review that’s just a troll stirring people up by blasting cruel things from the safety of their keyboard.

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