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Meanest Feedback for Writers–a Worst Ten List

August 24, 2013

index

 Writing criticism is a terribly, terribly hard thing to deal with. There are lots of rules. Never start a piece of writing with a cliché. Never end a sentence with a preposition. Avoid gratuitous adverbs. My first sentence just broke most of them. But while rules abound for the corralling, branding, and slaughtering of bad writing, shouldn’t there be more about what NOT to say to the fragile neophyte writer?

Here is a Top Ten List of some of the worst writing responses that I or someone I know has received (for the ones I may have doled out, mea culpa, and I say that knowing I may do time in Dante’s purgatorio for any poeticides in the second degree that I have inadvertently committed):

1. The Dis and Dismiss. A novelist friend of mine, whose 11 novels as last listed on Wikipedia have received over four prominent awards, told me a chilling tale about his first visit to a writer’s colony. The head honcho was an icon whose most famous novel is named after one of the first villains ever written in English. Anyways, there was to be much coveted face time with this celebrity writer for all the attendees, and when my friend was up to go he was understandably excited. The literary lion was his personal hero. The meeting was scheduled for a half hour. It lasted about two minutes. The VIP was seated at a desk. Newbie walks in. VIP starts reading silently down page one of Newbie’s submitted short story, pen physically tracing the descent until an abrupt stop: Here. Here is where I stop in my tracks every time. A real writer would never write a  line like that. And there, I kid you not, the meeting ended.

2. Questioning Authority. Another young writer at a small liberal arts college tried to get into a very small, very serious (and not a little clubby) creative writing concentration. This was back in the days when there was no payoff for faculty to have asses in seats. The would-be writer grew desperate one year when applying to the overly selective program and ended up writing an eighty page play—an opera written entirely in a then nascent musical phenomenon known as rap music. True story. This sad sophomore was rejected promptly for those efforts. In the margins of the submission were nothing but terse appraisals of failure connected to the same interrogative. Examples: This doesn’t work…know why? Totally off here…know why? [and the one that gave the lifelong singe] Though I’m sure you didn’t intend humor, you had me laughing here, know why?

3. Ego-Razing Amazement. This is a scenario I’m sure you know well. It’s when a writer submits the piece de resistance, the masterwork after great suffering and development, after intensive growing pains in their agon with the heartless constraints of craft. How does the teacher respond? With an amazement that tells you just how terrible your former writing was thought to be. The worst example comes from a close friend whose story received this red remark: I’m astonished you wrote this! That was followed up by an office meeting which seemed more like an interrogation. How was this written? When and where exactly? Under what conditions? Until the dreaded question that made the noir scene utterly complete—it was the filmic equivalent of that uncovered swinging light bulb—Did anyone help you write this? Good cop and bad cop all in one tweed blazer. Book em’ Dante!

4. Hide the Salami. In a freshman year creative writing class that focused on the short story, one young writer I know kept receiving this unhelpful piece of feedback on every single thing she turned in: This is not a story. Sure, there were other nice things said—You’ve clearly got a knack for language. Lyrical line here, and other such bread on the criticism sandwich, but the upshot was always the same. You did not even come close at satisfying my genre expectations. Too bad, because I’m playing Hide the Salami with those expectations for the whole course…know why?

5. Perfunction Junction What’s Your Function. There is a type of response that is not necessarily wicked, while still being a crack shot at sniping budding writers right out of their literary nests. For those engineers of perfunction junction, a favorite tactic is the same one that wicked administrators use when putting off unloved employees. It’s the perfunctory chat. Here’s how it works: You submit a story. They write all over it. They may even meet with you about it. Again, they will spill words all over you. The problem is: nothing they say will be about you, your story, or even about writing at all. They will chatterbox your dreams to dust with their perfunctory conversation, a logorrhea that no diet of bananas, rice, or bread can ever hope to stiffen. Nothing is worse than bad feedback (and you’ll excuse the scatology) except maybe for criticism constipation, and I pity students forced into the impactions that occur during long stayovers at Perfunction Junction.

6. Autobiography Attack. One of the best and worst things about writing is how personal it is. Automatically, without even trying, young writers understand the connection between self and story. One of the worst pieces of feedback we all get from time to time involves this presumption of autobiography. One way it happens is when you stretch beyond the experiential. You finally write a character who is NOT based on your own finite experiences, whose emotional contours are fleshed out by your imagination and observation. This person may even be a manifestation of someone you’d actually hate to be in life, but your professor doesn’t think so. In fact, in front of the whole circle, she looks you right in the face and says with a soul-crushing  smile… “Is this character autobiographical?” The flip side to this is just as bad. It’s when you keep hearing that you ought to write more autobiographically, more from your own experience. To you, the implication is clear and condemning: Your attempt at anything else blows chunks.

7. Stinging Silence. Apologies for the redundancy, but this is a true story. I know a thesis MFA who needed feedback from her primary adviser before turning in her final draft to the whole committee. After unnecessary stalling, the tardy adviser finally returned the draft with nary a mark in the margins. On the last page, only this sepulchral message was written: “My mother always told me if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” True Story! That candidate went on to get the degree and is now happily employed at a university, where she finds it very easy to avoid repeating the failings of her instructors.

8. Habla Espanol. This category could go by many titles. It’s when you experiment so much with language that it is taken for sheer incompetence. In my case, I loved to play with language, especially, as it turned out, when dealing with professors who did not. A writing teacher once asked me, quite sensitively, if English were my native language and then gently suggested that I begin writing with a dictionary close by. It took all I could muster to prevent a stream of profane gibberish from escaping my lips at that moment.

9. The Hack and Slash. I had a writing teacher once who believed so firmly in the virtues of editorial omissions that he would slash his pen through entire pages of writing deemed worthy of cutting. Students in the class did claim to be better writers afterward. But they all seemed to have a different look about them too. A distant stare would overtake them in mid conversation. Their gaze would trail off to some horizon invisible to the rest of us where unwanted words roamed the curvature of the earth in hauntingly bovine silhouettes.

10. Killing Cliché.  Maybe these are appropriate for journals, but no teacher whose aim is education should ever hand one of these hot potatoes back to a student without elaboration: It didn’t flow. More tension. Not authentic. Needs exposition. Pacing is off. Wasn’t emotionally jolting. Etc. etc.  Without explanation, these tiny brands of red-hot platitude will mark a young writer’s spiritual sash of rejection as indelibly as any of the absolute doosies in the trophy case of the Writing Hall of Shame—When it’s good, it’s only by accident; Someone out there might like this, but I can’t imagine such a person; This is more of an anecdote or a skeleton than a story; You’ll never be a great writer; The style is forced, painfully so…and all of them said about Fitzgerald or his indisputable masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.

51 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on The Musings of C.p. Singleton42's mind and commented:
    Sad, true and funny all rolled into one post!!

  2. Great list! I think I’ve been subject to more than a few of those myself. Although my personal favorite (that is to say the one that makes me want to punch through my computer screen just to reach the person who sent the email) is “It’s really good! But it’s not great.” Period. No WHY or HOW CAN I CHANGE IT. I was stuck with that sentence for months before I finally dug out of people what that meant. It was a horrible period, to know your writing is so close and stare at it, KNOWING it’s that close. So please, if anyone else out there ever has the urge to tell a writer that line, I ask that you help them by explaining WHAT they can do to make it better. For myself, it was as simple as “show with physical responses how a person is feeling, don’t just tell the reader how the character feels.” THAT WAS IT! After that, my readers changed to “this is great!” and “this chapter is my new favorite chapter!” almost every time.
    In other words, we as writers are so eager to learn. We just want to tell our stories the best way we can.

  3. Fantastic article and I am so glad I found it. It was humorous at times (I really laughed at the Hide the Salamy), but I think it is because I expirienced almost everything you wrote about here and it is not longer something that scares me when I am showing or submiting my stuff.
    I have to say it once again, this was a fntastic piece of writing!

  4. gergy3 permalink

    Fantastic List! Very funny, yet sadly I got quite a bit of them myself. When I submitted a poem to a writing instructor, I got nine out of 13 lines hacked off and the remainder reassembled into a completely different poem, then told that the previous version “just didn’t flow”.
    Thanks for the post!

  5. Geez – I think the goal with most of those was to kill the writing spirit of the authors. It was heartening to hear that the author in #7 didn’t let her incompetent advisor scare her off.

  6. Though I have written on those very no-nos

    http://aholisticjourney.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-writing-process-ii-let-the-cliches-r-i-p-part-2/

    I think your first sentence is wonderful. Even Strunk & White say you have to go with the music of the words (to paraphrase). Your writing is clear and well crafted, with the mechanics in tune so they stay where they belong, out of readers’ way.

  7. No one can tell anyone else how to write:) Don’t go to places like that or think that anyone knows more than you do about what you want to say and how you want to say it. We are all different and that’s what makes reading other peoples’ work interesting. I’m just sayin’.

  8. Brieuse Bernhard Piers-Gûdmönd permalink

    A great piece of. One of my more memorable rejections was, “I knew I was going to get bored before I even opened the manuscript.” And the one that took the cake: “There’s enough trouble in the world without your play.” Thanks for the list.

  9. Antoinette Clinton permalink

    I like this…retireandread.wordpress.com

  10. I love the extremely vague criticisms that are in no way helpful to the writer when trying to revise like “Oh, well, that was just very didactic.” Or “I was really hoping that would have more substance.”

  11. I loved this. I’ve gotten some pretty vicious responses on my work before, but I appreciate them far more than someone who just can’t quite dip that mean toe in and be honest. Responses that are too nice to be helpful are definitely criticism constipation at it’s worst, because you just know there are little nuggets in that polite brain of theirs you could really benefit from.

  12. I always find the stinging silence to be the worst. It doesn’t even give you something to disregard!

  13. I especially like your description of The Hack and Slash. Somehow I recognize moments in my own life where my gaze has roamed to those far-off pastures where the ghostly steer graze.

  14. Reblogged this on sarahremy and commented:
    In keeping with today’s ‘what not to say to writers’ theme . . .

  15. Or there’s my personal fave from an agent after I pitched him my “fat chick” mystery: he said, “I only do boy books.”

  16. Revealing. Redolent of experience. Irreverent. 🙂

  17. I like your sense of humour. I’m considering enrolling on a writing course but having read your post I’m not sure whether this is a good idea! I guess that it depends on who the tutor is.

  18. I’ve had the “I’m sure you didn’t intend humor but you had me laughing” comment. It stung.

  19. Reblogged this on heatherzhutchinswrites and commented:
    Hey Fiction Fans:

    Here is a funny blog entry about some of the meanest feedback other writers have gotten from the famous and the infamous alike.

    When you are rich and famous writers, please remember the quality of mercy for your fellows.

    Enjoy!

    PS: Michael’s tour-de-force “be more kempt, less sheveled” entry is worth a read!

  20. Reblogged this on heatherzhutchinswrites and commented:
    Hey Fiction Fans:

    Here is a funny blog entry about some of the meanest feedback other writers have gotten from the famous and the infamous alike.

    When you are rich and famous writers, please remember the quality of mercy for your fellows.

    Enjoy!

    PS: Michael’s tour-de-force “be more kempt, less sheveled” entry is worth a read!

  21. How about this one: Pure invisibility. You do not even exist. I do not reply to your email. Maybe I am busy, but I’m not even going to tell you that much. I don’t owe you anything at all. (Perhaps this is #7, but maybe it isn’t. You’ll never know, because I’m silent on all variables.)

    I agree that a good teacher/leader should draw out the maximum amount of talent that resides in a person’s potential. Not every writer is destined to win awards. But, I suspect everyone has the possibility to write a bit better with some genuine feedback, a critique rather than criticism. There are ways to correct and retrain that are not cutting or dismissive.

    Nice blog post. Good Job~!

  22. Ugh. I am dealing with the Stinging Silence right now. I gave my first draft to a couple friends to read and I haven’t heard anything. AND I am afraid to say anything because what if it is that bad. this writing thing is scary business!

  23. Don’t know what Michael will say, but my advice is to ignore it. In my experience, only other writers will get back to you–and understand that crush of waiting for a reply. Sadly, the others just don’t get it.

  24. brilliant.

    seriously, comprehensively, humorously, pathetically, profoundly brilliant.
    sucks to go back and rely on my own wits right now…we could use a man like you right on my front lines, MAC.

  25. Enjoyed your blog! Thanks for creating a list of Don’ts that is handy and witty. Thank you for visiting my blog!

  26. Reblogged this on Family Kadala and commented:
    I’m a writer. I’ve been on vacation for a couple of decades. But that is what I am. And reading this blog reminded me of the heartbreak that accompanies a love affair with your own words should you choose to share them. But hey… no pain, no gain, right?!

  27. I received a piece of writing back from a professor once that had on it not a single comment other than this one scrawled across the back of the final page: “You need a new printer cartridge”.

    Meh, whatever. He had eyebrow dandruff.

  28. Why the NEED for DETAILS on feedback? Isn’t that a co-dependency? The feedback on its own is encouraging. Very encouraging. I would also consider that an exciting challenge, although, it also needs to be considered whether one is wasting their time trying to figure out what it all means anyway. As well, if I were sending out feedback, I wouldn’t want to influence a writer’s writing when the writing is supposed to be the writer’s, therefore, I wouldn’t send details either. I would instead want and hope the writer would thrill at figuring out things on their own. Because that is ownership. The writer just needs to take a step back from their writing for a few days and come back to it with a clear mind or inner eye. They will then see and solve on their own. Better yet, they find something else, or see a new idea come to light. Yes. Yes!

  29. Take all your negative feedback and frame it and hang it on your wall… “know why?” (lol) It is not only an achievement that you hear back, but more (and most) importantly, that you finish writing and actually send it out. So stop feeling insecure… bc there really is no need to feel insecure as it’s all in the head and only in the head right 🙂

  30. I think the worst is when you submit your entire 80,000 word manuscript to a publisher who has asked for it, you wait six months for a verdict, and they return it with a, “Not quite right for us, but keep trying.” Sigh. You have to be tough in this business.

  31. Great post.
    It seems most of these “Rejectors” would not have published Shakespeare (he invented his own words) or Dickens (too much description) or anyone who ever wrote a word ending in “LY” (the latest trend.)

    But then again, Bob Dylan would never make it on American Idol.

    No one laughs at the Wright Brothers anymore either.

  32. Some hum-dingers in there. Good God. I do think most people need to seek out feedback to improve but you also have to develop the instinct to know when feedback is unhelpful, off the mark or just plain BS.

    • That’s absolutely right. Too many novice writers see feedback as something static, to be taken by them for what it is. Feedback is really one end of a circuit. It takes processing and even resistance by the writer for it to properly electrify.

      • Beautifully phrased 🙂 besides, all feedback is just opinion anyway. It’s just that some are more informed than others. But it is still essentially someone just telling you how they would have done it. Often useful but sometimes not.

  33. I tend to enjoy feedback…why else write in an open forum like this? I look forward to the responses of my readers. Without those readers where would we be? People who write, need people who read, if not what is the purpose of our craft?

    I have a difficult time believing in those who say, “I don’t need someone to like or dislike my writing…I write for my own enjoyment and to hell with what anybody else thinks.” To me, that seems a little closed off. Critiques, if we listen to what our readers are saying to us, can be an amazing tool for improvement. Who doesn’t need improvement? For me, to say our writing is perfect the way it is, comes across as a tad arrogant.

    Just my opinion…as a reader, with feedback. 😀
    ~Debbie~

  34. Love number 4!!!

  35. Absolutely spot on. Writing is such a personal thing and for some reason certain people just don’t seem to get that. I have a different response to this blog as a writer on the one hand and as a teacher on the other. I have a career’s worth of giving out criticism which I have always viewed as highly constructive and helpful. Now the shoe is on the other foot, I’m not quite so sure that was true…

    • I sympathize with your ambivalence. I too give as well as receive criticism. I’m also one of those people (rare to confess it) who can dish it out but can’t take criticism, by the way.

      • I’m exactly the same. It may be a generalization but I suspect all teachers secretly find criticism tough. Some feedback is well-meaning and genuinely helpful but a reasonable amount is not, so I think sometimes we are right to be wary of taking it too much to heart.

  36. I always like the critical caveat: ‘in retrospect the work gets better and better…’ I have read that on a bunch on books, the review has been stripped bare to those few words and that is as nice as it gets!

  37. kadelr permalink

    At one magazine, I had an editor who would tell me at the planning stage of each issue “Write what you want to write–it’s your story.” During the editing phase, he’d call me into his office and direct me to sit on the opposite side of his desk. He’d turn his back on me and face his computer, then hit the delete key, erasing all my copy. He would then proceed to re-write my piece while I had to sit there and watch him. Most. Helpful. Editor. Ever.

  38. Most of these examples involve academia. I did attend a “creative writing” thing in college once. Got little out of it. Seemed to me like a bunch of unpublished writers looking for validation at the expense of others (and yes professor included). The text book was common sense.

    • Sounds horrid. I simply can’t imagine a program that would steal money from undergraduates while backing courses taught by unpublished writers. I’d demand a refund if I were you. Or at the very least, some type of adjudication. Clearly, you were hoodwinked into taking this class, led to believe it would be sublimely different than the shithole it turned out to be.

      • Looking for validation, I get it, we all need it. Not at the expense of students, however. But “unpublished?” Why is that so bad?

      • Well, I just can’t imagine a situation where someone who is altogether unpublished should be teaching creative writing to students at a four year college or university. There are simply too many published writers who are talented and well-trained, who are seeking this kind of employment and not always getting it. It’s a matter of labor ethics.

      • That was about 1980. Never took another writing course or read another writing book. Not that I am opposed to them.

  39. Great post Michael. I read it all the way to the end 😉 because it was informative, witty, useful and unreserved. The ‘why’ is so important.

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