When writers work hard and pursue publication, at some point their words will be on a shelf or webpage for the public to consume. But the downside of our Internet age is that readers can instantaneously share negative opinions with thousands of viewers. We’ve all encountered posts about an author who got “cancelled” because of something their book included or excluded, and that can fill us with anxiety about how our own stories will be received.
Maybe you’re wrestling with this fear right now. Can (and should) you remove potential triggers from your manuscript so that you don’t attract backlash? Or are most critics too touchy and need to lighten up? The answer, as with most sticky issues, lies somewhere in the middle. You can’t completely shield yourself from “haters,” but you should make a conscious effort to care about others’ feelings. Here are a few tips to help you achieve that balance.
1. Write Your Story without Reservation
Before you stress about the outcome, you first have to write the story. If you’re anything like me, you can sense readers watching you during the actual writing process—even though you’re alone with your laptop. You attempt to predict what their reactions will be if you insert character X or scenario Y, growing more and more worried as the moments pass.
Don’t let your focus drift outward during the first draft (unless you enjoy driving yourself crazy).
Turning a raw idea into chapters, paragraphs, and sentences is an incredibly personal experience. Outside influences will throttle your ability to develop a basic structure for your story. When you write with abandon instead, you allow yourself to be truly creative. Often, the heart of your story—the most honest scenes—will only appear in an environment of freedom.
Remember, nobody has seen your story yet. They can’t judge you or get hurt. Take a deep breath and keep typing.
2. Be Mindful Toward Others
The Christian writing community rarely discusses what to do when readers believe that a story is politically incorrect or falsifying information about a cause that matters to them. If offended readers would move on to material they agree with, that’d make this conversation unnecessary, right? No, because the widely varied experiences of others shouldn’t be treated flippantly.
As Christians, we should be characterized by compassion. In writing, that translates to caution. Sensitivity is not part of a “progressive agenda”—it’s part of loving and respecting others, as the second greatest commandment explicitly instructs us to do. Are we “loving our neighbor” when we represent a group of people with simplistic tropes? What about when those people request more diversity, and we continue to ignore them because we think our portrayal is adequate? No, we’re not.
With that in mind, ask hard questions to assess whether aspects of your story are problematic. Are you spreading any unconscious stereotypes about a group of people? Does your premise rely on a clichéd and skewed plot device? These mistakes can creep in because we’re unaware of them, or because the media we grew up with has influenced us. For example, how many times have you read or watched a story where the only African-American character was the protagonist’s peppy best friend? A character with mental illness became the villain? Or an offhand joke about someone’s weight, ethnicity, or religion was deemed acceptable?
Everyone has inherent worth, which means they deserve complex and accurate depictions of their individual joys and struggles. The quickest way to enhance a story is to cultivate a genuine interest in people who are different from you. Understanding who they are and why will help you better represent them. You don’t have to agree with your characters’ worldviews or actions to flesh them out—after all, no one condones murder, but it’s still a common plot device (even for heroes).
If you’re addressing a topic that you’re personally unfamiliar with and/or want to delve into controversial themes, consider running your piece by a “sensitivity reader.” These people are members of the communities you’re writing about and can warn you if you might be causing harm. Look for them in Facebook writing groups, writing forums, or through the #sensitivityreader tag on Instagram and Twitter. You can also enlist friends and family members—essentially, anyone who has experienced the situation you’re trying to describe is a valid candidate. No training necessary.
Of course, you need to analyze less sensitive components during this stage as well, such as the themes you hope to communicate. How will your audience respond? Are your intentions clear? Know your readers so you can both subvert and play to their expectations. This is where good writing becomes great writing—you put yourself in the reader’s mind and build new concepts from the ideas you find there.
3. Move Forward with Courage and Humility
After your story has been published, you’ll have to accept whatever happens. You can make addendums (as J. K. Rowling is now infamous for), but that’s usually unwise. That’s why publishing is such a sobering decision—once your story is accessible to anyone, you can’t retract it. So your best recourse is to relax.
I know. That’s easier said than done, but it is possible.
Remember that you’re not perfect, nor will you ever be. And neither is any other author. Be open to constructive criticism. If you receive a stream of negative reviews, readers may have a point! Or they might be angry for personal reasons. Either way, you’re not a horrible writer who should never pick up a pen again just because someone disagrees with your choices. You can always alter your course next time if you feel like you went in the wrong direction.
Take heart in the fact that you can make unusual decisions and still succeed! Some authors have completely distanced themselves from their fan bases without losing popularity. Anne Rice, once famous for her Vampire Chronicles novels, returned to her Catholic faith for several years and wrote Christian fiction during that time. Back in the early 2000s, she was also a proponent of fan fiction as an illegal act. Both of these choices were controversial, but she’s still sold almost 100 million copies of her novels. That could be you too!
Okay, I’m kidding. But eventually you just need to press the send button and get it over with. You’ll be okay, I promise.
Give Yourself Grace
The truth is that you’ll never please everybody. The background of each individual will influence their interpretation of your story. Themes that you never meant to convey may leap out at them, and characters that are meaningful to you may not resonate with them at all. Plus, people are fickle. Today something excites us; tomorrow it’s boring. Nothing lasts forever, not even a scandal.
So write what you’re passionate about and do it well. Care about people and their experiences. You’ll never know everything, but you can do your best to learn. If you’re kind, open, honest, and true to yourself and your beliefs, the rest will fall into place.
Quinlyn Shaughnessy’s writing journey began at age eleven with her first blog about American Girl dolls. In 2010, she discovered NaNoWriMo and decided that novel writing was her calling (along with giving NaNo free advertising by plastering posters on her walls and discussing it with everyone she met). Since then, she’s forayed into short stories, poetry, and professional blogging. Although she’s made a commitment to try writing every genre at some point, her favorites are historical fiction, biography, sci-fi, and YA lit. She holds a BA in Mass Communication & Media Studies and plans on going back to school for a graduate program. When she’s not working at her media literacy internship, she enjoys watching TV, singing, pretending she’s going to take up painting, and rearranging her desk. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about how to make character playlists on Spotify or just want to say hi.