My editing client Saranyan landed a literary agent last week and he posted a really great thread about persevering in the face of negative feedback, starting with this post:
About ten years ago, an editor told him something along the lines of “If you have to try to write #kidlit, then at least learn to be good at it…”
There are some editors out there, even well-credentialed ones, who are overly harsh in their feedback and overly confident in their opinions.
I always try to be direct and honest with my edits, but I also try to be humble about my views. I recognize that I’m just one viewpoint, and it’s one that’s inevitably a product of my background and experiences.
But it’s also because I’ve seen plenty of writers grow through time. Including, well, myself.
I did not start off as a promising writer. I wasn’t accepted to advanced creative writing courses, and my professors probably would have tabbed me as one of the least likely to eventually have their novels published. But I persevered, I internalized every bit of feedback I received, and gradually I got better.
I work with writers of all ability levels, and some manuscripts I see are in pretty rough shape. But that doesn’t mean that author isn’t going to grow! I’ve seen manuscripts that started in a really weak spot and transform into a professional, polished work with just a single edit. Sometimes people just need the right guidance.
If you receive harsh, overly confident, and condescending feedback: just ignore it. No one possesses a crystal ball about your writing career. No one knows everything about the industry.
If you receive feedback like Saranyan did, you’re learning more about the person delivering it than your own work. It’s hard not to let it get to you, but try your best to shut it out and just keep writing.
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Art: Daniel’s Answer to the King by Briton Riviére
Ken Hughes says
Too true. “Consider the source” is too important a rule for dealing with so-called editors, and any editor who’s that unprofessional has just branded themselves either a novice or having such a bad day that they can’t be trusted.
And even if it’s someone with strong credentials and what seems like a damningly good point under the attitude… is it worth the headache to try separating them? I’d say if you *have* to try, “get a second opinion” you trust, plus read up on “resistance” and other ways we artists can sabotage ourselves by being too open to doubt.
If someone on the street insults us, it says more about them than us. An editor who can’t even even sound helpful is no better.
Emma Borghesi Adam says
Great advice and timely for me (I’ve been on both sides of the fence). I particularly like ‘I always try to be direct and honest with my edits, but I also try to be humble about my views.’
Lady J says
You grow as you write. When you put the time and work in, you grow. You grow in the writing process, you grow in your voice, you’ll even grow in your use of whatever language you’re writing in – even if it’s your first language. I cringe when I look at stuff I wrote way back when. I smile too, because it was fun and I have fond memories. But I cringe, because I did not have the experience and skills then that I do now. I didn’t have the ability then that I do now. I’ve grown.
You have to be careful with feedback. It can be useful, but it can also be a disservice. Even positive feedback doesn’t always help. You have to use what’s useful, put aside what doesn’t work for you or this particular project, and try to look objectively at negative feedback. Is there something there that maybe can be useful if you don’t take it personally? Easier said than done, but still possible. If the negative feedback is too negative and it makes you feel uncomfortable, you know not to go to that person again.
Neil Larkins says
It’s why your blog is my favorite, Nathan. Always even-handed, practical advice, given with a just right touch of true humility. We sure could use a lot more of that in today’s world.
JOHN T. SHEA says
Congratulations to Saranyan and thanks to Nathan and all commenters for their wisdom!
M E Marino says
Your critique of my work saved my story and, moving forward, will be the “voice in my editing head” for all my future writing. In all criticism, if it doesn’t move you forward, if it doesn’t make you better, then it’s only spiteful chatter. Thank you, Nathan, for your blog and all your work.
I know what you mean, Nathan. Completely agree.
I’m at the stage now, where having written for all my adult life, I’ve some confidence in what I do. So when I get over-the-top criticism, without any positive input at all, I suspect that, perhaps, something else is behind it.
I was excited to join a self-help writer’s group a few years ago that was even located on the island where I live. At the first meeting, I read out a synopsis of the story to give an idea of its surreal nature before sharing the story, itself. This intimidating lady–in size and personality–immediately attacked the premise. ‘Not another story of a young woman wandering through a cemetery trying to find love!’
I say what? What others are there? Must have missed them. 0.0
She followed this up with more ferocious diatribe. The rule is that when critiquing someone’s work, especially in a writer’s group setting, the person critiquing should wrap critical advice between a sandwich of praise which precedes and follows the criticism.
The only thing I could take away from her words was that I must have inadvertently offended her by my presence.
I don’t mind criticism if it helps the work, but to totally dis the premise is is a touch insensitive. Where does one go from there?
I find it hard to critique people’s writing. I try to be polite, but I always worry that I’m being overly critical. I never mean to be.
I appreciate the way Nathan gives critiques. He gives positives, and instead of just pointing out the areas that need work, he gives direction for improving it. It’s the information around the direction that helps improve the piece being critiqued, but also future work.
I used to be part of a sales team (I wasn’t a sales person, but sat through the trainings). We did a lot of roleplaying. At the end, the team gave feedback. We always had to start with ‘what I liked’ and then went on to ‘what I would have liked to have seen.’ The idea is to point out areas of growth rather than just pointing out flaws. This softens the wording and the lesson is better received.
Also, in past critiques of my own work by friends, some of the most helpful are when they ask questions. It helps me to see what’s missing.