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Criticism: It Doesn’t Always Mean What You Think

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He’s the kind of editor your mother warned you about.

When I first inquired about writing for him, plenty of people tried to talk me out of it…He’s tough. He’s only used one writer more than once. He doesn’t like anything. He makes everyone cry.

I admit there was a small part of me– a very small, overly confident part–that thought I might have a different experience. After all, I’d been a journalist for over twenty years. I’d tracked down a sniper, had doors slammed in my face, and held a grieving mother who’d just lost her child. How tough could this guy be?

My first experience working with him was benign. So benign that I wondered what in the heck everyone had been warning me about.

Not only did he print my article exactly as I’d written it, he gave me the cover story. I held my breath–maybe those other writers were right, and he wouldn’t use me again. But he did. He gave me two assignments for the very next issue.

And then the troubles began. This editor definitely had his own style, and it wasn’t mine. Whenever he assigned an article, it was already written in his head. It didn’t seem to matter how many questions I asked, or how often I re-read the assignment description–I couldn’t make the final product match up with his vision.

My stories were shredded, again and again and again. The very thing I took the most pride in–being able to craft a great opening sentence and take my readers on a journey–was usually the primary target of his deadly red pen.

I’d always been blessed with editors who loved my work and who never uttered even the tiniest bit of criticism. All I’d heard for the past twenty years was how clean my copy was and what a joy I was to work with. I was woefully unprepared for having story after story ripped to bits.

I stopped looking at the copies the editor sent me, because I didn’t want to see the sad remains of my work. I kept thinking each time I wrote for him would be the last, because who on earth would want a writer that required so much editing? But he kept calling me, and I kept writing for him, even though I nearly had an anxiety attack every time.

He recently assigned another cover story, and that’s when it finally dawned on me.

His criticism had nothing to do with the value of my work.

Of course my stories would never match the ones in his head, but he obviously liked my writing enough to keep hiring me. This is a tough, tough editor–if he didn’t value my work, he’d move on to someone else.

Criticism doesn’t always mean what we think. You haven’t necessarily done something wrong–you just haven’t done it the way someone else would.

It’s not personal. It’s not an attack. It’s not a grand, sweeping statement about your worth as a writer.

Sometimes it’s just a difference of opinion.

Do you handle criticism well? Have you ever found it valuable? What was the most valuable criticism you ever received?

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32 Comments

  1. Javier

    Criticism is hard to receive and very hard to give. My rule of thumb is to try as much as possible to explain the “why”. Why I am changing something, why I do not support an idea or decision… You owe to each person the reasons of your changes. And you owe it to yourself to listen and to understand where the other person is coming from.
    Great post, Holli!

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      You’re a good man, Javier. In my experience, very few people take the time to explain. If you’re a writer, many people will reject your work without any explanation at all.

      It’s definitely hard to take, but in some cases, it can make our work better. Not in this particular situation, but in some.

      Reply
  2. Chris

    Great post, Holli. It’s hard not to take criticism personally sometimes. Even the supposedly neutral terms “criticism” has negative connotations. I remember being proud of the essays I wrote for English class, until I started Grade 11 and my English teacher tore them apart. It wasn’t easy to hear that my brilliant “In this essay I will discuss…” opening line wasn’t as brilliant as I’d thought, but it helped me take my writing up a notch. I’m not sure how far I’ve progressed since then, though. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      It is really hard. I had a similar experience…once I hit Grade 11, I had an English teacher who used to rip everything I wrote apart. And man, did I argue with him! It was only years later that I realized how much he’d done to make my writing better.

      Can I steal that opening line? “In this journalism story, I will discuss…” ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Reply
  3. Chrys Fey

    You’re a lot braver than I am. If I had heard those rumors, I think I would hid. But good for you for sending your article to him. It’s awesome that you got the cover story, too!

    Criticism isn’t always mean, and it’s not always meant to be hurtful. Most criticism is given to be nice, to help us grow and learn. I think it’s “critic” in that word that makes us fear it, and not like it, even more.

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Maybe I should mention that he pays three times what my other editors do. That definitely helped inspire me!

      I hate having my novels critiqued. I’m always nervous to hear what my editors are going to say, and I loathe rewrites. But I continue to send my work to editors, and I continue to respect their opinions. Ultimately, the quality of my work is more important than protecting my fragile little ego. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Reply
  4. VYC

    I agree criticism is difficult to handle. I prefer to ask for feedback. When I am asked to provide feedback I will ask the person specifically what they are looking for. I also feel that collaboration is key.

    How you present feedback is also key. Asking what the person’s objective is and also asking them to consider an alternitive or how else information could be presented is helpful.

    I am the toughest critic when it comes to my own work and find that most of the people I work with are the same way. This is why when I have to ask for change when unsolicited I have to do it delicately. In the end, our collaborative effort makes everyone (including the audience )happy.

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Good suggestions, VYC, and very true! Thanks so much for your comment.

      I can definitely relate with being the toughest critic of one’s own work. Except for this editor…I’d say he trumps me in that regard!

      Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Thanks, Mary. I just decided, early on, not to take his edits personally–to just keep my head down and do the work. I’m really glad I stuck with it. I think it was a valuable lesson for me.

      Reply
  5. Donna B. McNicol

    Great post, Holli, although I cringed throughout much of it. I am glad I am a late-in-life writer and if everyone stops reading what I write, I’ll stop writing. There’s too much joy in the world and I want to be a participant. But for now, everyone is still reading my writing… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    D.B. McNicol
    Romance & Mystery…writing my life

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Thanks for the comment, Donna, but it really concerns me that you’ll stop writing if people aren’t reading. Why, if it’s something you love to do? Who cares what other people think?

      If you love to write, do it like no one’s watching. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply
  6. Lucinda W.

    That is a good view on criticism. TFS!

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      You’re very welcome, Lucinda. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Reply
  7. M.J. Fifield

    I don’t know if I handle it well, exactly, but I know I could be worse. Whenever I do receive criticism, I take days going through it all, and I seriously consider each and every note. There’s almost always something to be learned.

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Definitely, in some cases there’s a lot to be learned. It’s up to the writer to decide what. In this case, I never could figure out how to have written the story in a way that would have resulted in fewer edits. Sometimes I hit it out of the park with this editor, and other times he changes everything. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason to it.

      Reply
  8. VR Barkowski

    Great post! I appreciate constructive criticism. I learn nothing from compliments as lovely as they are. I’m not certain how I would feel about criticism coming from an editor, however. That’s very different than peer feedback. Much of the criticism I receive focuses on what I write rather than how I write—my subject matter is usually on the darker side. I don’t feel anyone has the right to tell me what to write, but I try to smile and let it slide off.

    VR Barkowski

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      I’m on the darker side too, VR. Glad to have you over here in the shadows with me.

      If this editor said to me, “here’s why I keep changing your stories,” or if his changes were consistent enough that I could figure it out myself, then maybe I could get something valuable from it. But in this case, the best thing I can do is not take it personally…kind of like rejection letters.

      I agree, though, that compliments do nothing except make you feel good at the time.

      Reply
  9. Michelle Wallace

    I’m sure there are times in every writers journey, when criticism can be a bitter pill to swallow…
    I welcome constructive crit, as long as it’s given in the right spirit.
    Writer In Transit

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      And sometimes, it just makes no sense at all.

      I agree, Michelle–I welcome the constructive kind as well. I don’t mind brutal editing as long as there’s a reason for it.

      Reply
  10. Steven

    Interesting, because I’ve had similar experiences. Writers need to learn that they are not nor ever will be immune to criticism.

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Sad but true, Steven. And if we ever feel we’re above it, someone will let us know otherwise pretty darn fast!

      Reply
  11. Shannon Lawrence

    I handle constructive criticism well unless there’s a ton, at which point it feels less constructive and more “you suck.” If something is just being shredded and the meaning of what I’ve written is changed, I’m not happy.

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      I don’t blame you, Shannon. Can’t say it makes me happy, either. The worst is seeing your byline on something you never would have written.

      Reply
  12. Stephanie Faris

    I have my own freelance writing business, so I can definitely relate. I have many moments where I question my refusal to work with difficult clients more than once. I don’t mind making a few changes, but some people are impossible to please. However, I worked for one editor who was a nightmare. It was one of the highest-profile assignments I’ve had and it was my first really high-paying gig…I found out why he had such turnover. He didn’t just pick everything you write apart with “track changes” on every sentence, practically, he’d send harsh, insulting comments. One time he wrote, “This article doesn’t work at all. I don’t think you even know what you’re talking about. I’m going to pass on publishing this one.” I had one article where I’d written, “It goes without saying” and he replied to never use that term again. Then, a few minutes later, he sent an email out to the team, saying, “If any of you use the sentence, ‘It goes without saying’ in one of your articles again, you’re immediately fired.”

    Alrighty then…

    Soon after all that, he started firing off emails complaining that people had stopped pitching him ideas and just vanished on him. He said they needed to let him know if they weren’t interested in working with him again. I wrote a few days later to say that I would no longer be writing for him. “This isn’t the right work environment for me,” I wrote. He didn’t respond. You have to wonder if people like that ever realize it might be them, not us…

    Reply
  13. Holli Moncrieff

    Thanks for sharing your story, Stephanie. That editor sounds horrible! Makes me feel good about the one I’m working with–he just changes everything, but I have had two editors who would fly off the handle and scream obscenities from time to time. One I quit working for early on, but the other was a freelance gig, and I stuck it out for years!

    I don’t think they ever consider that there’s anything wrong with them. Their thought process is probably, “Why can’t I find a decent writer who will do what I want?”

    Reply
  14. Kyla Roma

    I’m not a writer, but I know that as a designer having your work critiqued (and often times, significantly re-worked) by clients can be really difficult. I understand why people in any field want someone who can just do what they have in their head, but I feel like most of the time coming into that relationship with a collaborative spirit and respect for someone else’s processes and ways of expressing themselves makes for a more successful relationship.

    As someone who manages people in my business, I always remember my first marketing job where my manager would just shred my work and give feedback that was hard for me to learn from. I work hard to be the kind of supervisor I would want to have, because the alternative is just painful!

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Thanks for commenting, Kyla. Our situations are actually quite similar–both of us are often asked to do things without being given a clear picture of what the client wants.

      I’m glad you’re setting a better example for your employees and other managers. The alternative is painful (and anxiety-provoking)!

      Reply
  15. Elle

    My responses to criticism usually go like this:
    1. What is all this red ink? Every word I write is gold! You’re an idiot.
    2. Okay, you may have a point on that one particular comment but you are wrong for the rest of it.
    3. C’mon, everybody’s allowed to have one typo. Or twelve.
    4. Oops, yeah, that was my bad.
    5. So was that.
    6. Nice catch. You’re not bad for an editor type person.
    7. What the hell was I thinking? Yeah, that definitely needed changing.
    8. So did that.
    9. Okay, here’s the new version. Thanks for the notes. They were very helpful.

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Ha, I love this! It’s perfect. I go through something similar with edits of my novels. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply
  16. Susan Scott

    Thanks for this Holli. I guess the writer can figure whether the critic is being constructive or destructive or whether, as you say, wishes to have the piece written in the form in which s/he anticipated it. But grief, it can be hard to have one’s work trashed. The comments are great too …

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Thanks for commenting, Susan. It’s definitely difficult. I would procrastinate like mad when it came time to write for this guy, and my anxiety level was off the charts. Finally realizing that it wasn’t personal–he did this to everyone–allowed me to feel better about it, and separate myself from my work.

      Reply

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