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What to do if 99% of people hate your writing
This comes up in my writing groups on a regular basis… you send your work out for critiques and the overwhelming response is negative. Some people might even go as far as to say that maybe you shouldn’t be writing. You clearly don’t have a talent for it. After all, the last thing the world needs is another bad writer taking up space on the bookshelves. Just go home and do something productive, instead. Take up dog grooming.
Or maybe people don’t say that out loud, but it’s what they’re thinking.
And here’s what say in response, and what I’ve said to staff and freelance writers who’ve worked for me in the past.
There’s no such thing as writing talent
Okay, this is just my opinion, but if you’re worried about what other people think, then clearly you care about other people’s opinions. So why not care about mine, am I right?
There’s writing you don’t like. There’s writing that some particular editor doesn’t like. And there’s writing that some part of the audience doesn’t like.
Some of history’s most-admired novels are also the most hated. No matter how great something is, there are going to be large groups of people who think it’s overrated, a disjointed talentless mess, and just plain bad.
People who think they are good judges of writing talent are not actually good judges. If you submit stories to them for a blind comparison — stories, say, that they haven’t read before by authors they like — they’re going to be as critical as they are of anything else. But when you know the writer’s name, suddenly your opinion of it changes.
If you want to know more about how someone’s prejudices change their opinions about the quality of a product, check out the Judgement of Paris, which set off the move to blind taste-testing in the wine judging industry — and dethroned French wines.
Consider the sale of doodles by Da Vinci and Picasso, or the color block paintings by Mondrian and the splotch paintings by Jackson Pollock. If people didn’t know who painted them, would anyone even give them a second look? They’re important because of their cultural and historical significance, but plenty of people convince themselves that they love them.
In fact, anything expensive but bad generally has its very loyal adherents. Like caviar. Yeah, yeah, it’s got a complex taste. You know what? So do Slim Jims.
My point is, people are idiots. None of us can judge quality. We think we can, but in a blind taste test, it turns out we can’t. We even have a hard time telling red wine from white.
And in literature, which is infinitely more subjective, this is even more the case.
I’d argue that there is no such thing as writing talent at all.
There are writers who are better at self-promotion and writers who are worse at self-promotion.
There’s writing that appeals to a random influential critic and writing that doesn’t appeal to them.
There’s writing that appeals to someone you really admire and writing that doesn’t.
There’s writing that you personally like and writing that you dislike.
Of all of these, I would argue that the most important quality is that last one. Do you like your own writing? If you don’t, then you have a problem.
Write something that you yourself would like and can be proud of. If you do, you’re 99 percent of the way to the finish line.
Because you’re not unique. You’re not some special unicorn. If you like your writing, then there are other people who will also like it.
But how can you sell a book if 99 percent hate it?
Yes, it is much easier to sell a book if 99 percent of people like it than if 99 percent of people hate it.
But let’s just go with it.
Let’s say that 99 percent do actually hate your book. They’re not ambivalent about it. They really dislike it. You have statistically significant surveys conducted by an independent third party and can confirm that this data is accurate with a low margin of error.
And let’s assume that your audience is adults. There are more than 250 million adults in the U.S. If 1 percent of them like your book, that leaves you with only… 2.5 million readers. I don’t know about you, but that should be enough for just about anybody.
Even if only 99.9 percent of people hate you book, you’re still left with a quarter million readers. That’s enough for a career.
Find your 1 percent
You can probably make some guesses about the kind of people who like your writing. If your book is about a vampire with seasonal affective disorder and an unfortunate addiction to puns, you’ve got a few places to start with right there. You can look for your readers in SAD support groups, in vampire fan communities, and in groups sharing dad jokes.
Or you can start out with yourself. What do you like about your book? What other books do you like that have similar elements? Then reach out to the readers of those books. You might buy targeted ads, or try to get your book on “you might also like” lists. You can also write reviews of those other books for us or another publication, and casually mention in your author bio that you, too, write books in this genre. Readers who like your taste in books might give your novels a chance.
Find ways to connect beyond that 1 percent
Odds are the other 99 percent don’t all hate your book. Probably a good number of them are ambivalent about it. If they had nothing else to read, they’d pick it up and enjoy it just fine.
That’s how it goes with most TV shows and movies that I watch. And I’ve read a lot of books simply because they were there, or because they were the next in the series. I may not have loved them loved them, but they were okay, and they helped pass the time, and maybe they taught me something that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise, or exposed me to a new point of view that I wouldn’t normally consider.
I read a lot of books by people I feel a connection with. Maybe I know them personally, or I follow them on Twitter, or I like their blog posts, or liked what they had to say on some podcast I listened to. Sometimes I really love those books. Often, I’m not in the 1 percent who love that book. I’m in the 25 percent or so who think it’s pretty good or the 25 percent who think it’s just okay. But it’s still enjoyable, so I keep reading, and then go on to read other books by the same author.
To take advantage of this tendency, get out in front of your readers. Engage with them on social media, write blog posts, show up on podcasts. Be present. You don’t have to do a hard sell for your book at every appearance. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Just don’t hide the fact that you’re an author, and that you’ve got books on Amazon, and people who are interested in you will follow the links.
I read a lot of books that have a cool hook. There’s something about the cover or title or subtitle that strikes me, or something in a book review that grabs my attention. It could be totally random. I may have just watched an exciting tennis match, and then saw a book about a murder on the tennis court and pick it up.
To take advantage of this tendency, make sure that your titles, subtitles, book descriptions, and marketing materials have catchy hooks. If your subtitle is totally generic and can apply to any book out there, it’s not going to draw people in. Say you’ve got a murder happening on a tennis court on the moon via a poisoned cup of coffee. If your book is titled “Afternoon Murder,” subtitled “A Murder Mystery,” and with a little blurb on the cover that says, “A gripping read!” there is literally nothing there that draws people in. Provide some hooks. Say, for example, “A Serving of Murder,” subtitled “Tennis can be deadly” and “After reading this book, you’ll never order coffee the same way again!” You’ve got hooks — the coffee, the tennis, the bad pun. Any of those could catch someone’s attention and draw them into the book. Not to mention the whole question of how do you play tennis on the moon. Lots of great cover art ideas there!
What about improving your writing?
My personal feeling, after writing and editing for a living for more than two decades, is that just about anyone can become a decent writer. And, in fact, if you work with a good set of editors and have a coherent story to tell, then pretty much anyone is publishable. With practice, the amount of editing your work needs will be reduced, though never completely eliminated. We all have our blind spots.
The more you write, the more you get your work out there, the more feedback you get, the more you learn from that feedback, the more polished your writing will become.
Just remember that the more you read something, the less you like it. So if you’re on your fifth revision, and you can’t stand the sight of your own words, it’s probably not the writing that’s to blame — it’s the fact that you’ve been staring at it too long. The same thing happens to musicians who are forced to play their hit songs over and over again, and some start hating them with a bitter passion.
If it seems to you that the book is getting worse, while your beta readers tell you that it’s getting better, then you’re a bad judge when it comes to your own writing because you’ve become overly familiar with it. Some writers will set the work aside at that point, and hope that the hatred will pass with a little time away. Or you could trust in your editors, send the book off for a final line edit, and hit the publish button.
So get out there
The last thing anyone should worry about is the fear of “inflicting” your horrible writing on other people.
You’re not going around stabbing people in the back or forcing them to eat junk food.
The worst that will happen to people if they don’t like your book is that they’ll put it down and go on to another one. There is literally no downside. If they keep reading your book even after they realize that they don’t like it, they only have themselves to blame. People can usually tell in the first few paragraphs if they’re going to like something or not, and they can usually read the first few pages for free if they’re buying the book online, or right then and there in the bookstore if they’re buying it in person.
Meanwhile, if you don’t put your book out there and let your potential readers know that it exists, then the millions of people who would have enjoyed it wind up missing out. They could have been entertained, educated, or intrigued by your book, and instead they have to settle for something else that they don’t like as much.