This is based on a Stephen King article I talked about in “Everything You Need to Know.”
King states to be a successful writer, you should know how to evaluate criticism. On this point he recommends showing your work to several people for feedback. Once you have the feedback from most or all of the readers, compare the comments. Basically, if multiple people are calling out the same issue with your work, you should change it no matter how much you personally like that facet of your story. If the feedback is all over the place with very few similarities, you can probably safely ignore the comment.
Most writers usually have a small group of readers, maybe family and friends, who read those early drafts (not just the first draft, but maybe the first eight drafts) and give feedback. Family and friends are fine as long as they can be objective and give you actionable feedback. I’ve said it before, if people read your draft and love everything you write, you need other readers. With the Internet to bridge geographical gaps, a lot of authors are building beta reader teams to help evaluate how certain aspects of their book are being perceived. Check out some local writing groups or even some online groups.
Joining an online or local writing group can also be a great way to find test readers for your work. I belong to a local writing group and we are preparing to publish our second anthology of short stories. We are holding one workshop a month to read a batch of possible stories and I recently took three of my short stories to the group. The others did a great job of pointing out what worked well and what didn’t in my stories.
While King’s advice on criticism is mostly right, there is merit to paying attention to the one off comments that maybe nobody else picked out. I have a great personal example from my recent editing round with my writing group. For one of my stories, there was a comment that stood out: “I think also-and I mean to be helpful, not mean-you’re lacking plot.” Based on King’s recommendation, I could probably ignore this comment as nobody else who read the piece commented on the lack of plot. Except, whoever made the comment is right…that story is lacking a plot. If I want to include that story in the anthology, it needs some pretty serious work.
Another aspect of criticism that warrants discussion is the criticism that comes after the work is published. Once a piece is published, it’s a done deal. Yes, I know people release new editions or updated versions all the time and sometimes re-title them. Usually this is done because there have been significant changes to the material. Otherwise, once your work is published, it’s out there for the world at large to judge. Not everyone will like your work and those people may leave negative reviews of your work. They may even spend time in their own little Internet circles talking about how bad your work is or invade your Internet circles to voice their opinion. Don’t argue with these people. If the comments get extreme such as threatening you or your family personally, seek legal advice. Don’t argue with them online. Focus your energy and attention on your work and the fans who like it. They are the people who will continue spending time and money on your work. I can tell you that for me, there is nothing more disappointing than watching an author “fight” with a random reader over a bad review.