Bad Reviews Got You Down? Hacking the Negativity Bias

The more success you have with your writing, the more opinions you’ll hear. Even mildly negative criticism and setbacks can pack a punch, including:

  • Bad online reviews
  • Negative comments on a blog post
  • Book returns
  • The stray comment from an acquaintance, like “Why would you write a book on that topic?”

We need constructive criticism and input to improve. When writing with a growth mindset, we must welcome feedback. Yet our brains are wired to dwell on and react strongly to the negative, shutting down our willingness to take risks and learn.

The Negativity Bias

We give undue weight to negative feedback. Think about it: if someone tells you three things they loved about your blog post and one thing they disliked, which do you think you’ll remember? That’s right, the negative one.

Our brains react quickly and strongly to negative stimuli, compared with the positive kinds. In our earliest years on the planet, this bias may have saved our hides by making us more alert to danger. But the tendency to focus on the downside can derail us as writers in the 21stcentury, which is filled with online reviews and Internet trolls.

In his book Focus, Daniel Goleman describes how negative emotions can shut down our ability to think creatively, while “positive emotions widen our span of attention.” Handling criticism well serves our growth as writers.

4 Ways to Counteract Your Negativity Bias

Knowing our instinctual behavior ahead of time, we can plan for it. Here are four ways to counteract the negativity bias.

Plan ahead and stockpile the positive. This advice comes from my wonderful voice teacher, Julia Nielsen: when someone gives you a meaningful compliment, write it down. File those comments away for times when uncertainty saps your motivation or courage. (Singers are often our own worst critics.)

When you refer to the file, resist the temptation to build yourself up:

Wow, I’m great!

Instead, think about the person who made the comment and the work that inspired it:

This person found what I did valuable; I should continue continue and build on that.

Put a marketing spin on it. As part of my long and illustrious marketing career, I would write “talking points” for a worldwide field sales team to respond to market news. When a major acquisition or product announcement threatened the company, the stock response was that the event confirmed the company’s potential in the market. “Microsoft’s entry into this space validates the widget market — and we’re the leader in widgets.”

Marketing spin holds a grain of truth. If you don’t hear any negative feedback, perhaps no one is reading what you write. Or, you’re not taking any strong positions. To paraphrase Guy Kawasaki speaking of social media, if you’re not pissing someone off, you’re not doing it right.

Think like a statistician. For anything you put out into the world, envision a bell curve. A small percentage of people will hate what you have written. Others won’t be interested. Many (we hope) will like it, and a few will love it. It’s a numbers game. As long as the number of haters remain well below everyone else, you’re fine.

Learn from the critics, serve the fans. Ignoring the nasty online trolls, do your critics have legitimate feedback? Can you learn from them? If you can make yourself read negative reviews, you may gain insight for the future. At the same time, don’t lose focus on your ideal reader or target audience; write for them.

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Image: Antoine Beauvillain on

Originally published at on February 25, 2016.

Author, Writing Coach: Writing about Marketing, Technology, and Writing Itself (very meta).

Author, Writing Coach: Writing about Marketing, Technology, and Writing Itself (very meta).