Reflections on the “R” word

Note: Like Clare, I’m in a topsy-turvy environment this week–a beloved family member has come to live with us (my father-in-law, who is 93 years old). I’m entering a brave new world, trying to make sure we can successfully manage his needs in our hectic household. I’m not sure our rambunctious Lab puppy has gotten the memo–he’s already torn up a pair of Dad’s slippers.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what rejection means to writers. At the writer’s groups I attend, people frequently talk about rejection. Someone will mention that an editor, agent, or magazine has rejected a submission. When this happens, everyone at the table nods in sympathy. They make encouraging comments like, “Keep sending it out. You have to go through a lot of rejection to get published.”

I’ve been sitting silently during some of these morale-boosting sessions. In these cases, I know that the submitted work wasn’t  publishable quality. Yet I’ve watched the writer toil over it in our group  sessions, rewriting and revising the work, sometimes for years. And it just hasn’t gotten to the level it needs to be.

Recently a member came to a meeting in tears. She’s been working on a novel for years. After laboring over the story with us, she showed it to a friend who is a published author. The friend went ballistic in her comments.

“She sounded so angry about the writing,” the woman said at our meeting. “Outraged, like how could I have been so stupid to think this was good?”

This woman felt blind-sided and abused by her friend, but I couldn’t help agreeing with the critique. The novel isn’t ready to submit–it’s nowhere close. And yet in our group sessions, we have this polite way of focusing on the good, while regretfully, almost as a postscript, mentioning things that need  to be fixed.

I think we let each other down by doing that. We have let this writer spend years on her novel,  thinking that it’s getting better, thinking that it’s going to be published, when there’s no chance whatsoever of that happening.

I don’t know what the best approach is in these cases. What do you do when someone’s writing doesn’t improve no matter how hard they work at it? Should you continue to encourage, or hit them over the head with a sledgehammer like this woman’s friend did? In the end, I think it was our group that let her down, not her critical friend (to whom she’s no longer speaking, by the way). We should have been more honest with her all along.  The problem is, you can lose a lot of friends and critique group members that way.

If you’ve made every suggestion you can think of and the writing hasn’t measurably improved, do you simply say, “This needs a page one rewrite–I’m afraid it’s not working at all.” I honestly don’t know what the right approach is.

What do you think?

24 thoughts on “Reflections on the “R” word

  1. This is a tough one. It’s easy for me to sit here and say ‘of course you should be honest’ (although perhaps more diplomatically than it seems this person’s friend was), but I know that – face-to-face – I couldn’t do it. It’s taking me time to learn to critique usefully, and I only do it in small bursts online where people are expecting constructive criticism. It was hard to get over the ‘people-pleasing’ upbringing and learn to be honest, while still remaining kind.

  2. You’re so right about the people-pleasing thing, Sarah. It’s awfully tough to sit across the table from someone and say “This sucks.” I love critique groups because when a reader says to me, “This doesn’t work,” I take it as a huge red flag, and work my butt off to fix it. I also try to make sure the mistake isn’t repeated in future writing. Unfortunately some writers get stuck in a groove–their writing doesn’t seem to change. I think after a while the critiquers simply give up.

  3. There’s a mid-point between the sledgehammer and the velvet glove. Maybe it’s the velvet fist?

    The deal is this: if someone has their heart set on being a writer, it is not my job to tell them they can’t do it. Who am I to make that decision for them?

    I don’t care if they can’t write their way out of a Kleenex. I will deal with their writing. I will tell them what isn’t working and how to fix it. That’s what I’m good at. (Worthless is the “critiquer” who knocks the writing down but doesn’t know how to make it better).

    Then it’s up to the writer to go do the work to improve. If they do that, I admire them.

    What if what they write still doesn’t measure up? I will tell them it needs more work.

    If the writer doesn’t do the work, then I’ll say, Dude, you didn’t do the work. Come back to me when you do.

    What if they ask me, Do I have what it takes to make it? I will say, I can’t answer that. No one can know what you’ll come up with if you keep trying.

    You have to make that cost/benefit analysis for yourself. You want to be a writer? Then write and don’t stop. Figure out what’s not working and fix it. And don’t stop doing that.

    I may have an opinion about that person’s chances, but my opinion means squat. If we listened to other people’s opinions about our dreams, we’d all be window washers in Duluth.

  4. I think constructive criticism comes better from people who are not friends. Sarcastic or mocking criticism doesn’t come well from anyone. With the use of the internet people should find betas who are not friends but are discerning readers.

  5. I resisted signing on with a critique groups for decades because I know that I’m not very good at emphasizing the positive and ignoring the negative. Then I found a group of like minds who understand that critique is not personal attack; that the writing is key (it helps that we’re all fairly well-published), and I really look forward to the sessions now.

    If people start with a level of confidence about their writing, the focus can stay on how to make things better, without fear of hurting eath other’s feelings.

    All too often, people in your friend’s position–concentrating more on the rewards of craftsmanship rather than on the craftsmanship itself–will determine that their road to success lies in self-publishing. They will see the noted successes among the self-published and assume that that success came from a good cover and great marketing, remaining blind to the fact that the talent just isn’t there.

    John Gilstrap

  6. Jim, I guess that’s what I have to say to the person, that they didn’t do the work. Week after week I see the same problems, the same mistakes being made. I’ve become like a broken record, saying, “I know I’ve pointed this out before, but…” And then the next week, the work has the same problems. I’ve suggested books, I’ve pointed to helpful blog posts that deal with specific issues. Short of rewriting the damned thing for people, I don’t see what else I can do. Matching Socks, I have made friends in critique groups, but it’s interesting that they always turn out to be the people who can write. John, I’m always in search of a critique group that has people who are well published. I could probably benefit more from that.

  7. I think one of the hardest things to do as a critique partner is to be the writer’s best advocate. And if that writer has a goal to reach publication, then it is the critique partner’s responsibility to be honest.

    Sometimes the best advice you can give (or get) is to let go of something you’ve been working on for a long time and write something new, using the feedback you have gotten along the way to make the new thing better. Sometimes, we are just too close to the piece we are dragging through the critique process to see it clearly enough to do it justice.

    Perhaps this writer needs to do just that: set this project aside, write something else that he or she isn’t so attached to and can see more objectively.

    I don’t think any of this is easy, however, on either side of the writing relationship.

  8. This is such a very difficult line to figure out. I agree that if we fail be honest we fail to do our job as critique partners, but there is a big difference between honesty and cruelty. In all of the critiques I’ve done, I have yet to find a story that is irredeemable.

  9. In my second group meeting I gave a critique on a story, but I was the newest member of the group so I had no idea of the history on the piece I’d read (4 or 5 chapters out of 20). My comment was, “There are a lot of characters in this novel who you obviously care about, I can tell. They should all have their own story, but in separate novels..I think.”

    Ouch, silence. I had no idea how long it’d been worked on until the author was able to give his own comments when everyone was finished. He said, “This has been a work in progress since 2004.”

  10. Good post, this is such a very tough question to draw substantive conclusions on. Definitely agree that if we fall short of being frank and candid then we don’t do our best as critics – but at the same time we need to be constructive in that criticism.

  11. My first instinct upon reading this post was wondering if someone recommended that she put this project aside and work on another one? I know from personal experience you can get bogged down if you toil over the same manuscript for eons. It becomes counter productive.

    If it’s a matter of the writer not putting in the work, I would have no qualms about telling them not to approach me for help until they’ve done what they need to do. It’s hard enough to find time for my own writing with work and everything else–I’m certainly not going to waste valuable time if the writer isn’t willing to invest time themselves.


  12. I think many people aren’t as interested in improving their work as they are in finding a group of people who will agree with them that their work is great. They want to ruminate on how unfair the publishing industry is or they want someone to assure them that they will eventually become a published author. The hardest kind of criticism to take is the truth. If you know your story is good and someone disagrees, that is easy to take calmly, but if someone says it stinks and you know they are right, you’re more likely to get upset. Unfortunately, too many people know they aren’t very good but they don’t want to admit it.

  13. I have never been part of a critique group directly, although an agent I had once used a critique group she was part for portions of my mss.

    I do use beta readers though and honestly do prefer honesty sans brutality to help me get the story right. I recently enjoyed the flogging of a couple betas whose honest input showed me some gaping holes I otherwise didn’t see. I want to be told what’s wrong so I can make it right.

    On the other hand, I’m not into self flagellation nor do I desire to submit to rants on what I’ve screwed up. Just like in my day job, if a person comes across with strong negative comments they should have an idea what the correct way should be.

    It’s easy destroy something, but takes skill to repair/rebuild. Critiques that help in the building process are only ones that count.

  14. Thanks for all the comments, guys. It points out the difficulty of getting and giving truly constructive criticism. In my critique group, we’re all very positive and polite. The format even requires that something positive to be said before anything negative. It’s interesting that generally, the worse the writing is, the less is said overall. People fall back on giving punctuation and grammar notes. When everything’s truly dreadful there’s not as much to work with, I think.

  15. Kathryn, I have found that when a colleague labors with a work for too long (over a year, let’s say), and doesn’t take or understand the kindly delivered critical advice she/he receives, I usually suggest, as gently as possible: “Hey, why don’t you put that story down for awhile and start a new one. Writing always improves the more your write . . . what other story ideas do you have?”

    I don’t know if I have it in me to tell someone their work isn’t publishable. My hat goes off to the tactful editors out there!

  16. I would never tell someone that their writing isn’t publishable. I’d just say that I think it’s not “ready” yet. Overall, I think people are fine about taking criticism–the only problem I have is when they don’t improve after getting consistent criticism from multiple sources over time.

  17. I was interested to see this because I recently put up a similar question on Absolute Write. The best response I received advised me to think about how I’d like to be treated, and then act accordingly.

    I want the critique to be honest, but I also want suggestions on how to improve.

    And in critiquing others, it’s important to remember that we can be wrong. We’ve all seen published books that are horrible and we wonder, “How did that ever get into print?” But someone thought it would sell.

  18. Mark, for my own writing, I believe in group wisdom. If a majority of the critique group agrees on a criticism, I take it as valid. Or else I better have a darned good reason for ignoring it.

  19. I have found as an attorney that one of the toughest things to do is to give someone bad news. I think you can be honest without being brutal, nasty, or impolite. Sometimes even something like, “It’s an interesting story, but it’s not a book yet” works in all sorts of situations, whether it needs a page one rewrite to something that is, alas, beyond help.

  20. There was a commercial some time ago about auto repair. Basically, it stated, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.” If you don’t let someone know that their work is lacking, you are doing a diservice to that person. And it will hit them much harder later if they ever get the chance to submit their work. The bottom line is that wishing to be a writer does not a writer make.

  21. Having been in your shoes, Kathryn, I know just how hard it is – especially when the writing is technically okay, it just isn’t of a publishable quality. That is very hard to explain. I usually just focus on the positives and highlight the areas that need improvement without dashing anyone’s hopes. After all there are plenty of books out there I cannot believe ever got published – and many wonderful manuscripts that never make it to print.

  22. Kathryn, this is an excellent post, touching on a topic that goes largely ignored, yet is near and dear to my heart.

    Critique groups are vital, IMHO, to a writer’s progress, regardless of his/her skill level. They WILL make you a better writer, if you let them.

    I’m in a couple of critique groups right now, and we have a member in one of them who is somewhat similar to the woman you referenced in your post. He’s not going to make it as a writer, and a couple of us continually point out his shortcomings, which arise in everything he reads. He resents these comments, but you know what? I’m going to keep making them, and I’m not going to leaven it by saying, “But I liked this and such,” or “Your pacing is really good.”

    There’s a train of thought that says if you can “balance” the critique with something positive, there will be an overall positive effect. I believe if you have to reach for the positives, you’re allowing the writer to “cancel out” the negatives. The long term result of this can only be negative.

  23. As a teacher I come across interesting things from time to time with applications for writing. Here’s one:

    The Plus Delta

    In the corner of a sheet of paper / whiteboard / sticky note / whatever, draw a plus symbol (+) and somewhere else draw a delta symbol (small triangle). The plus represents what’s good and Delta means change.

    Then list the good with the plus (or under it in a column format) and what needs to be changed under the delta. It’s a good way to avoid purely negative language and bashing because the focus is purely on improvement. There is no place to mention something that’s not working and really, identifying negative things isn’t helpful without suggestions for improvement.

    It has worked well for me in workshops with other teaching professionals. It may be too late for a critique situation that has already gone bad, but it should work well if agreed upon at the outset.

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