Ah, to be alive during the Twitter era. It’s a blessing and a curse, isn’t it? On the one hand, you’ve got the thoughts and opinions of millions of people across the globe right at your fingertips. On the other hand, what if those thoughts and opinions are ones you never asked for on topics you don’t want to discuss, or worse, directly aimed at you and your work?
Authors have always had some form of feedback from readers of their books. But in today’s age, the lines of communication between readers and writers are more open than ever before. Authors are expected to maintain public social media profiles to promote their books and share aspects of their personal lives with their audiences. That opens them up to receiving plenty of kind, heartfelt messages from fans, but it also creates channels to receive unsolicited criticism and harsh feedback from bad faith readers.
The Problem of the Bad Faith Reader
What’s a bad faith reader? It’s someone who, rather than approaching a book openly, looks for things to hate or criticize. A bad faith reader isn’t the intended audience for a book, or at least positions themself mentally as outside the intended audience. They’re coming to the book with a bone to pick, and often bash the text for implied meanings outside the author’s clear intent. You might see them pulling quotes far out of context to show them in a bad light, or criticizing an author based on the actions of a character they created.
Here’s my controversial opinion: It’s not inherently wrong to be a bad faith reader. That’s especially true if it’s something you do on occasion, not looking for a fight in every book you pick up. I’ve been known to “hate read” books by authors I disagree with or on subject matter that clearly isn’t for me. Honestly, reading a book that goes against your personal view can be a useful exercise. The trouble comes in when a bad faith reader takes to public forums to bash a book or, even worse, directly contacts the author with their contrarian comments.
Writing — taking the incredibly personal and intimate thoughts from inside your head and putting them on a page for others to read — is a vulnerable act. It’s opening yourself up for others to criticize not just your work, but the way that you think and see the world. And once the voices of bad faith readers have found their way into your brain, it can be impossible to get them out. It changes the way you write, sometimes permanently. So when the internet makes it impossible to avoid the comments of bad faith readers, what can you do?
Writing for the Bad Faith Reader
Author and writing teacher Melissa Febos broached the topic of bad faith readers in an interview with Teachers & Writers Magazine last September. She discussed how her students let the idea of bad faith readers inhibit their writing process.
“Basically, they’re already thinking, ‘What is that person on Twitter going to say about this when I publish it?’ It is a preoccupation with others’ perceptions,” Febos said.
The solution, according to Febos, is to simply put the bad faith reader out of mind:
“Be conscientious of your reader, of your potential readers, of all of your past selves, but do not write for the bad faith reader,” she advises. “You have to write for the reader of best faith, the reader who most needs your work, and you need to do your absolute best work for that reader. Exile the thoughts of the person who is looking to invalidate the art that you’re making; you can’t make art that way.”
It sounds simple. Do for your readers what you hope they will do for you: assume best intent. Have faith that they will see what you’re trying to do in your work. But can it really be that easy?
I tend to side more with the sentiments of author Ilana Masad. The more access we have — or the more we’re unintentionally exposed to — the opinions of bad faith readers, the harder it is to make them disappear from your brain while writing. And the mental image of an ideal reader who knows exactly what you’re trying to do can be equally difficult to conjure.
Since my debut novel Queerly Beloved was released last year, I’ve received some heartwarming and uplifting messages from complete strangers. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid the vitriol some authors face from readers online. Or at least, if it’s out there, it hasn’t been sent directly to me. Even so, my writing process feels different now that I’ve been published. I’ve interacted with lots of readers and heard how they respond to my book. And I’ve also seen enough negative reviews to have the ghosts of them floating around in my skull. Once you know people are reading what you write, that your work is out in the world starting conversations with and without you, it’s really tough not to bring that into your creative space. And that becomes even harder when you think of the reader out there intentionally looking for ways to tear your work down. Here are some of the ways I avoid writing for the bad faith reader these days.
Avoid Encountering the Bad Faith Reader
The first thing I do to avoid letting the bad faith reader get in my head is… avoid the bad faith reader. I don’t look at reviews of my book on Goodreads. That’s a space for readers to talk with other readers about their thoughts. It’s not meant for authors to collect feedback on their work. If I’m looking for feedback, I seek it from trusted sources, like my agent, editor, and writing buddies. I also don’t follow the hashtags for my book or look for posts about the book on social media. Maybe I’m missing out on some lovely, kind reviews that way. But I see plenty of those when I’m tagged. (Side note: Please don’t tag authors in your reviews on social media unless your comments are entirely positive. We don’t send you notifications about how you could be doing your job better.)
But the thing about bad faith readers is that they often come looking for you. So what do you do when you’ve already seen what they have to say?
Accept That Your Writing Isn’t for Everyone
Not every book is for every reader. Read that again. Let it settle into your bones. Not every book is for every reader. That sentiment changed the way I read other people’s work, it changed the way I review books, and it changed the way I write.
More directly, there is no one book upon which every reader can agree. If you think I’m wrong, go look up whatever book you think is the best story ever written. I can promise you you’ll find negative reviews from bad faith readers. Writing is an intimate act, and so is reading. Everyone experiences a text differently. And if you’re trying to write a book that everyone will love, you’re going to fail.
Readers have all kinds of quirky and bizarre pet peeves. I know people who despise:
- Too much dialogue and not enough of characters’ inner thoughts
- Too much of characters’ inner thoughts and not enough dialogue
- First person narration
- Second person narration
- Third person narration
- Miscommunications between characters
- References to anything considered “pop culture”
- Scenes that open with a character waking up
- The phrase “she released a breath she didn’t know she was holding”
It’s okay for people to have these feelings. You probably have your own extremely specific bookish pet peeves. But that doesn’t mean authors should cater to those preferences. It’s literally impossible to avoid every potential reader’s dislikes.
Who are You Writing For?
There are great lessons that can be learned from reader feedback, whether it comes from a place of good faith or bad. And I do think it’s incredibly important to think about the power your words have to harm others. But trying to think about every possible interpretation of your words is a great way to lose hours staring at a blank page.
Melissa Febos suggests writing your first draft for your best faith reader, someone who will really connect with what you have to say. But to me, that’s still writing to an impossible audience. How do I know what that best faith reader is looking for? How can I intuit what they need to hear?
It sounds trite, but here’s what I offer: Write for yourself. Write the story that you want to read. Write the book that would make you feel seen and understood. This isn’t terribly original advice; I’ve seen it from countless other authors. But that’s because it continues to ring true.
I wrote my first draft of my debut novel entirely for myself. I didn’t have intentions of sharing it with anyone, be it a friend or a literary agent or someone browsing a bookstore’s shelves. It’s when I started editing the book that I considered what it might mean to others. And before it was published, I went through many (many, many) rounds of revisions to make sure it was a book that people besides me might also enjoy. But throughout all the edits, it kept the heart from that first draft I wrote with no one else’s experience in mind but my own.
That’s the energy I’ve tried to keep while writing my next two books, which are already under contract and will inevitably be read by others. When the voices of critics get into my head, making me question every word I put on the page, I step back and choose to write for me. There’s plenty of time in the editing process to consider how my words will be interpreted by someone else. But this trick makes drafting the most magical part of the process: when this book is precisely the story I needed to tell and I also needed to hear.