Op-Ed: Dealing with Detractors

I’m not filing this one under Being a Better Writer for the simple reason that it isn’t as much about improving your own writing as it is a tip for dealing with what may come when you do write. It’s definitely a writing tip, but a guide to make you a better writer? Well, it’ll touch on that, but this article isn’t entirely concerned with it.

So, detractors. For those of you scratching your heads right about now, what am I talking about.

Well, let’s make one thing clear. I’m not talking about critics. At least, not genuine, honest ones. Critics—good ones—are not detractors. Critics are critical, yes, but a good critic is also an individual who balances the good with the bad. They draw the creator’s attention to both the strong and the weak, giving those who view their criticism a balanced, aware presentation of the good and the bad.

A detractor, thusly, is not a real critic. A detractor is an individual who, for whatever reason, will never be satisfied nor happy with anything you create.

And once you put your writing out there, you can rest assured that the detractors will come. You will find them in writing groups. You will find them in comment threads. You’ll find them leaving “reviews” that serve only to savage. You can even find them in conversation about whatever medium their chosen target happens to fall in, bringing it up only to spread venom about it. No matter what your creation is, the detractors will come, and they will despise whatever you work, no matter the cause.

Why? Well, who can say? Some are simply trolls, the kind of individual who enjoys tearing others down for their own enjoyment. It doesn’t matter who, or what, if they sense a target, they’ll be there to tear into something or someone smug in the knowledge that even if the person on the other end of their words is going to have a day less sunny than it was before they spoke. They just enjoy making someone feel lousy.

But there are more types of detractors out there than trolls. There are those who are just power-hungry. To them, the greatest thing they can do is get the target of their vitriol to do exactly what they tell them, to change their story, change their characters, whatever. These detractors are the kind who always, no matter what, will tell and author “Well, it was an okay story, but it would have been better this way.”

The problem is, once the author makes that change, there will be another one. And another one. And another one. And so on and so forth until almost everything that the author has worked on has been torn to shreds. And if the writer does release it, if the story does poorly, the detractor will simply inform the poor author that their work was simply “beyond their help” or something similar. And then they’ll start giving them advice on their next project.

The sad truth is that these detractors don’t give one wit about the story, good or bad. Their criticism, valid or—more often—not, isn’t given with the goal of helping the writer or giving them any meaningful feedback, but rather with the intent of finding someone to boss around. They want someone to listen to them and do what they say because it makes them feel important. Once a novice creator takes the bait and begins relying on this individual for guidance, they’ll have it either until they quit in disgust or the detractor becomes tired of bossing them around. It’s not about helping, but about the detractor being in charge of someone, of exerting power over another individual.

And then there are those that detract in order to lessen their own competition. Generally they act similar to those who want control over someone else, but from a different angle. These are those who have acquired a little bit of power or prestige in a community and will then use it to make certain that whatever happens, they stay on top.

Like all of these, this is quite prevalent regardless of where you are. Online or off, in a writing group or at a publishing house, you’re going to run into this kind of detractor. They’ve reached a high point, a position they don’t want threatened, and they’ll do what they can to make sure that their seat remains steady. Whether it’s offering weighted advice to newcomers (such as being very lenient and complimentary to newcomers with lower-quality work while being overly harsh on those with impressive work to “prune” the competition in their favor), making use of their position to publically decry those who they feel threatened by to try and turn the public against them, or even sending private “advice” that basically amounts to “Everyone’s too nice to say this in public, but you’re terrible and should just quit now before you embarrass yourself further, and since I’m big and important you should trust me on this.”

Sound like a lousy thing to do? Of course it is. It’s downright dishonorable and scummy, not that this stops people from doing it. When you can’t compete, use your position (or better yet, some friends) to make sure that no one does compete, and smear anyone that doesn’t play according to your rules.

All of these have happened to me, some of them within days of putting my work out there. I have had people troll, following my work from place to place, never letting my name or my works be mentioned without reminding everyone how horrible it all was. I’ve had people try to take control of my process too, giving poor advice but swearing it was good advice and that I’d be much better if I’d just do every little thing they told me to do, because they, random internet voice, knew exactly what I needed to do and why-wouldn’t-I-just-shut-up-and-do-as-I-was-told-already!? I’ve seen people “filter” newcomers, discouraging those who were quite good and heaping praises on those who weren’t in order to keep the scales weighted in their own favor. I’ve even been the recipient of private messages and e-mails from “concerned, well-meaning individuals” high up on the totem pole in certain circles telling me how terrible I am and how I should give up, quit, and pull everything I had, or they would be forced to smear me and show the public how terrible my writing was (yeah, that went right into the trash).

Long story short, as a writer, you are going to face detractors. They’ll come crawling out of the woodwork as soon as you put yourself out there, panting for fresh meat to either tear down, control, or put down. And they’ll never stop.

So, you might be wondering, what can you do?

For starters, identify. This isn’t always easy. After all, outside of the classic troll, most detractors can’t perform very well if they’re well-known as detractors. Granted, even those that are known can be a nuisance, as they’ll go after newcomers or—if online—swap accounts from time to time if they make a bad enough name for themselves. But you can still do it. It takes a bit of patience and a discerning eye. It can be worth it to build a mental observation of what someone’s intent seems to be—based on their actions, not their words—in order to determine what sort of commentator, new friend, or “critic” you have coming at you at the moment.

It won’t be the simplest exercise. After all, there are those out there who simply aren’t as well-spoken, or who are just a little callous, but still mean well. And it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes between someone who simply sees a lot of flaws in your work but wants to help and the one who sees those same flaws but wants to tear you down for one reason or another. Be patient, have a little humility, and give a benefit of a doubt. If something seems suspicious, such as a critique or advice, go ahead and check on it. Inquire after your supposed benefactor, too. The trolls or the ones with a vendetta (for example, the fans of someone you upstaged) are going to be easy to identify, but the controller? The well-respected higher-up who got there by “pruining” (pruning plus ruining!) those around them? Those are going to be a bit harder to identify right away.

Be patient and keep your wits about you. As time goes on and you encounter more of these individuals (and you will), it’ll get easier to identify them. And then, once you’ve spotted one? Well, then …

You ignore them.

For the most part. But seriously, this is usually the best solution. Because if you try to do battle with them, be they trolls or individuals/groups in power, you’re basically throwing gas on a flame. It’ll ignite, and sometimes that can catch you on fire as well. If nothing else, a detractor will try their hardest to make sure that if they’re going down, they’re going to take you with them, any way you can.

Now, some detractors can take things to the point where you need to confront them in some way or another. But you know what?

Let them ruin themselves.

You see, the thing about these detractors is that they’re toxic individuals to one degree or another. And one way or another, unless they change, they’ll end up poisoning whatever atmosphere they’re involved in. Eventually, people catch on. It might take years, but eventually, one way or another, time has a way of catching up with those who’ve made their hobby tearing down everyone else and eating away at their own pyramid. And as long as you haven’t let them catch you in their claws, they probably won’t take you with them when they fall. Ignore them, work with those critics and individuals who are concerned with making your work the best it can be, and detractors will remove themselves from the creative pool; exercising a form of social Darwinism.

Of course, sometimes you can give them a little nudge and give them the rope to hang themselves. Once, tired of a few detractors who were quite publically declaring what a terrible writer I was on another author’s thread (an author who I already spoke with and was on good terms with), I privately offered to write the author a guest piece for an ongoing story of theirs, covering some of the same material these detractors always said I was so poor at. And then when it went up, we left my name off of it. Cue those same detractors coming in and praising it … only to learn a few days later that the author they’d so shamelessly despised and swore couldn’t write had written the very thing they were praising.

I haven’t heard from them since.

Inevitably, however, most of the time detractors will simply poison their own wells if left long enough. At one point, a detractor who was trying to pull the “I’m important, so listen to me when I tell you that you need to quit writing” game, when I wouldn’t respond to their messages online, followed me into a public chat box where they apparently forgot that it was, in fact, open to the public, and then tried to play the same cards I’d already ignored. The result was the entire chat recoiling against them and calling them out to the degree that the detractor left cursing everyone and never came back, stung by the reaction of the public once their mask had come off.

The point is, let them burn themselves. More often than not, they’ll do it.

So, in summation, yes, detractors exist. And they’re going to find you eventually, if you put your work out there, and they’re going to tear into it, use it to control you, or put you down … or lift themselves. The point is, they’ll come to do something that isn’t going to do any good for you.

So, learn to identify them. Sort the wheat from the chaff. And once you know that someone is a detractor you can, for the most part, ignore them. Sure, you’ll still see some of what they say, but you can rest assured that you don’t need to worry about them.

And in the end? They’ll cook themselves. Eventually, detractors poison their own well, and reap what they sow.

In the meantime, you’ll be hard at work on your next writing project, listening to the feedback of the critics that matter.

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