The Gift of Criticism: Why Writers Should Read Reviews

The other day I was trolling Amazon, looking for an excuse to quit writing and become a janitor. In other words, I was reading my reviews. Yes, it’s a terrible habit. But bear with me for a moment, because I discovered something surprising.

read review

First of all, anytime you start reading reviews of any product on Amazon, you inevitably will find the typical trolls, critics, and people who are mad at you because the USPS never delivered their book to the remote island on which they live — and somehow that’s your fault.

But buried in those pieces of feedback are occasionally some gems worth digesting.

Like I said, I wasn’t looking to be encouraged. I was hoping for an excuse to beat myself up, because I’m a writer and that’s what we do. We’re a pretty masochistic bunch. Of course, I don’t read the positive reviews. I blaze right through the 4- and 5-stars and go straight for the jugular: the much-dreaded one-star review. Which was actually, to my surprise, a place of great inspiration.

Leaning into critique

If you click “critical reviews” on Amazon, they will take you to a series of reviews that range from 1- to 3- stars, and on that page I found something I didn’t expect to see — encouragement. Here’s what one reader, Erin, had to say about my latest book, The Art of Work:

There’s a lot to grab hold of in Goins’ book about discovering “the reason you were born.” (No pressure.) Seven themes anchor his ideas — Awareness, Apprenticeship, Practice, Discovery, Profession, Mastery, and Legacy — and each theme is illustrated with anecdotes from the lives of ordinary people, including Goins himself.

In the chapter on Awareness, a story illustrates how noticing what makes us different from other people can be a source of both pain and purpose. In the chapter on Practice, we see an example of how our love for something, like painting, might be honed into a skill set, like web design, without making us feel like a sell-out. “Your vocation can evolve,” Goins writes in the chapter on Profession, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Much of Goins’ writing seems best suited to our independent selves, the selves that get to manifest their own destiny with the support but not permission of loved ones. His advice to “do what’s required of us,” “push ourselves to the point of exhaustion,” and “keep moving,” does not resonate in my own life where I work part-time in order to pursue the delight of being human with my husband, my friends, my church, and a whole ecosystem of people on whom my choices bear. A book on how two, independent adults discern vocational rhythm together? Now that I’d be clawing to read.

Well, that’s not what I was expecting to read in a three-star reviuew. And then I came across another review that was both encouraging and, well, challenging:

I was dubious about this book. A work about writing by a writer who seems to only write about writing. I didn’t think his angle was legitimate. True, Goins found a niche, and it worked for him, but what about his own writing? I mean, it’s easy to write about writing in the way we can talk about writing: but what have you really produced? Aside from the writing about writing schtick, in other words, where was HIS great novel, masterpiece, his magnum opus?

Other dubious points: like others, I started to listen to his podcasts, follow his blog, receive his emails, etc. I found his relentless marketing tactics to be irksome at times.

But in the end, I’d have to say that Goins deserves a lot of credit. A lot. His book is, in fact, well-written and surprisingly more thoughtful and far-reaching than I thought. He’d quote and cite a number of my favorite and trusted writers (you tend to trust a person who trusts and cites people you trust). And under each of his illustrations and stories, there was an acknowledgement, a practicality, and honesty of suffering and the at times harshness of reality that I felt didn’t whitewash or cover over the sometimes painful process.

One last point: I really underestimated Goins. There are a lot of accompanying videos and resources associated with the book and you’ll probably see his video guides. His boyish voice cracks sometimes; he has a dippity-do haircut and looks like he’s still in high school.

But underneath that is a supremely confident and genuinely likable author who just happens to have found his calling: giving advice, helping others find out what to do. I realized that this was his kind of magnum opus, his Great American Novel, every bit as legitimate as Mark Twain or James Joyce. And he’s quite gifted at it.

Much deeper, more profound than I gave him credit for and I’m glad to say that this is a very, very nice book. And he always gives you the option to opt out of his emails! After reading this book, I decided to stick with his emails!

And lastly, there was this two-star review:

The Art of Work is heavily skewed towards creative fields, extremely self-focused, and lacks coverage of important life and career skills. Though Goins would say that any dream is worth pursuing, and while his examples are somewhat varied, the process outlined in the book would work best for someone like himself: a writer, or an artist, or some other creative. There’s less here about years of education and preparation, and more about forsaking preparation to jump off into the blue and pursue a dream.

A nation of wimps?

Hara Marano, an editor-at-large for Psychology Today and author of the book A Nation of Wimps, points out that we as a culture have taught ourselves to avoid uncomfortable situations, especially ones where our core beliefs may be test.

Core beliefs like, “I’m a good writer”? You bet.

These days, it’s easy to cast aside anyone who critiques your work as a “hater.” But is this always true? I don’t know about you, but I’m interested in mastery, and you don’t master a craft by avoiding criticism. You don’t get good without asking the question, “Is this any good?” And occasionally, as hard as it is, we need to listen to the voices that say “no.”

This isn’t license to turn yourself into a doormat. The more I do this kind of work, the kind in which you bear your soul to the world and wait for people to reject you, the thicker skin I get. And the more I realize that if I’m going to do important work, it can’t be for everyone. Nothing great is ever for everyone.

Nothing great is ever for everyone.

Jeff Goins

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Lessons learned from thoughtful criticism

So let’s return to those reviews. Here are a few lessons worth noting:

  1. The readers gave honest reviews. None of the above were five stars. The lesson? You don’t have to always tell people what they want to hear. This is the essence of an honest review, in my opinion, which is the whole point of the review system in the first place: not to tickle the author’s ears but to help other customers make an informed buying decision.
  2. The feedback is valuable. You don’t have to be mean to say someone could have done better or that it just wasn’t for you. I really appreciate this, both as an author and reader. This is the kind of review I would want to read if I were trying to decide if the book was for me. It also helps me do better with the next book.
  3. I almost missed these, because I was afraid. Of what? Well, being criticized, I guess. But these have to be some of the best reviews I’ve ever received. Why? Because they affirmed the areas in which I want to grow. Each reader shared what didn’t resonate and how I could improve on the next book.

Here’s the takeaway: We need to not insulate ourselves from criticism. If you’re a writer like me, you need to appreciate the fact that you can’t write a book for everyone and that hopefully with each book, you can get a little better.

I’ve been reading my reviews from The Art of Work to see how I can improve on the next book before I start writing it. I’m also learning how to write for a specific audience, so as not to confuse people when I try to do too many things, and that it’s okay to have a “dippity-doo” haircut. 😉

Your turn

So if you’re still on the fence about whether The Art of Work is for you or not, I encourage you to check out some of these reviews. I hope they help you decide if the book is or is not worth your time.

And if you are the kind of person who buys things but doesn’t tend to leave reviews (as I am), I hope you’ll consider doing so next time. It really does help others make better, more informed choices regarding where they spend their money.

Do you think criticism helps or hinders the creative process? Share in the comments.