If there is one universal truth to being an online author who can receive submitted reviews, you will at some point or another in your career receive hate reviews. They do not discriminate with fandom and experience spectrums. They travel across fanfiction lengths, tropes, genres, pairings, and plots. You will no doubt gather your fair share of praise, as is rightly deserved for all your hard work, and yet you will find that like the fated Hindenburg your floating palace can come crashing to the ground with just one poor spark of cruel words. Why is it that poor reviews can taunt us so, despite the glowing praise we likewise receive? Where do such diatribes come from, and how are we, as online authors, to deal with them without ‘setting loose the dogs’? The answer, as is so often the case in discourse, relies on neither end of the emotional spectrum. It comes from balance, awareness, and a knack for diplomacy.
Of course, this can be rather hard to wrangle when someone writes you a review that insults your intelligence over a pairing or a trope.
Allow me to shed some experience on the situation.
As a writer that has been active in online communities for about fifteen years now, I have seen a great deal of back-and-forths that originate from poor reviews and angry receptions. It’s difficult not to take offense when you spend a great deal of your time (unpaid time I might add) working day and night on an original work. You foster it up like one might their own child, doting on it endlessly if only to give your readers a pleasant experience. You have a story, you want to tell it, and by god you have the skill-set to write it better than the next John Doe.
Or so you think.
photo by ollyy via Shutterstock
It turns out that someone else doesn’t think so, though that hasn’t stopped them from reading a 300k work 20 chapters long. You’d think if they truly hated your work, they’d just stop reading. Perhaps that’s just too easy a solution for the human subconscious to bear. We want our Oreos and our 18” waists. We want our social services without having to pay taxes. By god, we want our fanfiction to be exactly the way we imagine it… we just don’t want to have to take the time and energy to write it. And here you come, with your original story, but why wasn’t it exactly like I’d envisioned it in my head? How dare you put this online, where I might just stumble across it. Oh mercy me, it’s too much for me to bear. I just have to write a review to tell you how pitiful this is. Lord have mercy on your soul.
Now, here you come from a hard days work in a thankless job, booting up your little laptop to sit on your hand-me-down couch with a bowl of your favorite chips to edit your newest chapter and see if you have any new reviews. And you do!
And it’s… scathing.
That’s enough to set your hair on fire. Why are some people so damn determined to be ugly and spiteful?
Well, I can’t answer that question for you, nor could anyone if you ask my personal opinion. I’ve got a therapist for a best friend who is still getting her masters in the subject. She’d probably have a darn good insight into why people post hate reviews, so I’ll leave that dialogue to her. Instead, all I can do is help you as the author with how to deal and how to continue to enjoy writing.
Quote me on this: Every emotion you feel is valid, even if it’s not particularly logical or helpful.
It is valid to feel anger, hurt, bitterness, and a need for malicious revenge. It is valid to want to reply something absolutely ugly in return, just to get a bit of your own back. It is valid to cry, if you need to. It is valid to do some self-care.
Now, I am by no means insisting that you ought to post something ugly and scathing to start a flame war. Take it from a fandom veteran: no one will thank you for that. No one looks back on the Harry/Hermione vs. Ron/Hermione wars of Harry Potter and thinks ‘wow that was a swell time had by all’. As far as I’m aware, everyone just wants to forget about it and move on. You’d be amazed how hard that is to do when the evidence is still on the dark corners of the internet.
The first thing that I think you need to do is step back, almost immediately. Close the review page, and head over to a fresh internet browser to do some self-care. Par example, when I’m in a foul mood my two favorite things to do are to go and look at websites like Bed Bath and Beyond or Do-It-Yourself ideas. I love watching people take a hot mess and fix it with a toilet paper roll and a glue gun. I even enjoy watching pressure washer videos on Youtube, just to see how colors can change on cement or wood when you pressure wash them. I watch episodes of Frasier. I clean out my purse. I get a frappuccino (venti, coffee with toffee nut syrup and whip cream). Point being that I do something to get my mind off of the nastiness that I read.
It is pivotal that when you come back (as you must) that you approach it with a sober and level state of mind. The valid rage and hurt that you felt has no place in your reply, at least, not in the way you might initially imagine. We’ll get to that later, but what matters is that when you do come back that you do so ready to address the situation without creating another situation.
Twenty youtube videos, three episodes of Frasier, and one frappuccino later… here we are. Browser back up, and scathing review present. What do we do next?
The first thing that you must do is look at the blurb in an objective and critical way. Does it offer up any type of critique that you can structurally use in your writing? Much like you might pick something out of the garbage that you didn’t mean to throw away, carefully detract those tiny nuggets of info and wash them off. Set them aside to dry on an old dish towel, we’ll get to them later.
What I’m going to guess you’ll find is a great deal of emotional writing and anger in the blurb. Not particularly a review so much as a flame, but we’ll forgive the writer for that. Sometimes there aren’t enough youtube videos and Frasier episodes to take your rage away. It might be tempting to let that rage inch over into your own writing, but I urge you to refrain. Rage is very much like a hot potato being tossed about without oven mitts. Everyone’s getting burned, no one gets to eat the potato, common sense has been forgotten… set the potato down. Let it go. Wash your hands and put back on the oven mitts.
Head on over to the dish towel where your little nuggets of constructive criticism lay (if any exist). Turn them about in your hands (oven mitts not required) and hold them up next to your writing. Can these be utilized? Par example, does your writing need more editing for spelling and grammar? There’s nothing wrong with having a Beta reader be another set of eyes. Maybe the reviewer feels your characterization is off. Take a look at the original works you’re writing from. Is your characterization truly off? Maybe there’s a few things you’ve overlooked. It’s hardly a cardinal sin. Sometimes it’s nice to jot things down on a blank page. Just little tid-bits that you can use for later. I certainly do it from time to time. Sometimes you’d be amazed the sorts of advice you find hiding underneath a flaming garbage pile of anonymous hate. They have their worth, all they need is a good wash in the sink. Dawn soap is a gift to mankind.
Now, on the other hand, you might find that the review had absolutely no nuggets of constructive criticism. This isn’t uncommon. Often times when you’re writing and you’re full of rage, you have what I like to call ‘verbal diarrhea’. Sometimes the only thing you can do is flush it and spray some Febreeze.
You’ll note that there are things commonly targeted in flame reviews, and they usually have to do with pairings. Some people just genuinely hate a pairing, and there’s nothing you can do to get normal dialogue through. I know it’s painful, and I know that you want to try… but you have to let that go. There is nothing you can say that will dispel whatever is in the reviewer’s mind. They’re on a journey, just like you, and right now that journey involves not liking the pairing you love. Put down the hot potato.
With the review firmly put in its proper box, should it have constructive criticism or not, and your mind clear of valid but blocking emotions, it’s time to reply.
This is an art form that I have perfected, after so many works and bitter reviews from disappointed readers. Please, enjoy what I have put together, and feel to emulate it in your own works. You don’t even have to refer back to me. I give it to you freely, as a gift, and hope that you can use it to amend the pains you feel on your journey.
The first thing you must say is “I’m sorry”. Your work has caused this person anger, irritation, or emotional upset. Whether or not it was intended is not the point. At times we must set aside our own pride and the vision for our works to acknowledge what has been done to another. An apology is an ancient creed. It reaches out to the other party in a hand of understanding. You’d be amazed what an offered apology can do to diffuse flames. It’s an ice bath for a hot potato, an oven mitt for a burned hand.
The second thing that you must say is what needs to be said. A tactful, diplomatic voice works best: “If this work upsets you, I urge you to stop reading. I cannot change the plot or the pairing. I must finish this work, as an author and a creative member of this community.” The fact of the matter is that this person, for whatever reason, kept on reading. They’re on chapter twenty… why did they hang on that long? Were they hoping for something else? Were they waiting to see if you followed a particular thread in your dialogue or plot? You disappointed them, and while you can apologize, you cannot change. If it’s upsetting this person so much… it may be time to let go. Your work is not worth their emotional ease, and their emotional ease is not your main concern when you write. You must focus on your art, and push your skill set to develop. They must engage in works that they enjoy. It may be that the pair of you can never reach a bridge of common understanding. There is nothing wrong with this.
In closing, you must impart the final solution, and one that they ultimately will have to respect. You can block the user if they continue to flame you, or turn off anonymous comments. Delete the flames, and move on.
That is all you can do.
That does sound rather… small… doesn’t it? You feel as if you’d thrown a pebble into the Rio Grande. Will a reply as tiny and dry as that be able to diffuse the flames? Well, much like cutting off the gas till the stove grows cold, the simple act of negating the heat and offering the tactical solution is truly the best thing you can do. Petty arguments only fan the flames hotter and extend their life. Debating and diving the facts just sprouts up more flames, all of them burning and demanding attention. They simply cannot be sated, and whatever you’re looking for… you’re not going to find it. Understanding does not lay in the heart of someone who seeks a war. Patience is not to be found in the eyes of man who is eager to start a fire. You’re not dealing with someone who wants to be your friend. They’re angry, they’re hurt, and they want your attention… not your friendship.
Give it, tactfully, and turn off the gas.
If you refuse to hit the tennis ball back, the match is over.
You cannot play a game by yourself…except for solitaire.