Lisa Rowe Fraustino

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The Golden Rule of Criticism

The first editorial rejection I ever received was a form letter from Cricket when I was in college. Looking back, I see clearly what the reasons were. The writing was merely a slice-of-life description, not a compelling story—nothing near what Cricket published. At the time, though, I didn’t really understand story structure, much less the concept of analyzing a magazine and writing to its specifications. I thought good magazines simply published good writing, and didn’t I get all A’s for my efforts in school? Surely the editors would agree with my teachers! Oops.

The form rejection I got instead of the anticipated check showed me a hard truth about my writing, without so much as a “Dear Lisa” or a reason. It embarrassed me that I had sent such naïve work out into the world. I jammed the manuscript behind the books on my shelf and didn’t send out another one for several years.

The next time I submitted work, I made sure I knew what I was doing, but I nevertheless received more rejections, and they’re still coming. Since the 1980’s I’ve received hundreds. Some of them, like the first, temporarily blocked my writing. Others didn’t. In fact, some rejection letters with helpful editorial suggestions have even spurred me on, not only to enthusiastic revision but also to entirely new work.

The same can be said of critiques from other writers. Some inspire, some don’t, and some stop the writing spirit like a hairball clogging a drain.

We all know we shouldn’t take literary criticism personally; it’s that particular piece of work being rejected or torn apart, not our Selves. But separating our Selves from our beloved characters isn’t that easy.

For a professional writer, receiving good criticism is essential to growth and success, yet here’s the paradox: Criticism that makes an author feel stupid, embarrassed, unappreciated, or otherwise inadequate or inferior has the potential to sap her writing confidence and stop her creative flow, at least temporarily. The responsibility for taking criticism professionally—with a grain of salt—belongs to the writer. But the responsibility for doling it out with respect is the critic’s.

Of course, many times critics making valid points aren’t aware that they’re being subtly disrespectful in how they broach their comments, and authors on the receiving end aren’t necessarily aware of why they’re feeling so injured or defensive.

Critic says: I didn’t like the protagonist/parents/best friend/dog. (Rationale: For a book to be good, the reader has to identify with the characters.)

Author feels: I’ll never be a successful writer. (Rationale: I love those characters. They’re based on my family. We must be dysfunctional. How will I ever figure out what normal people want?)

Critic says: The plot/form/story doesn’t work/isn’t working. (Rationale: I see craft weaknesses here that could be fixed; I would handle things differently.)

Author feels: I’ll never be a successful writer. (Rationale: I knew what I wanted to do and tried hard to make it work, but the expert says it doesn’t and I still don’t see it. I did my best and I’m a failure and I don’t know why.)

Critic says: Kids won’t read/editors won’t buy anthropomorphic/rhymed poetry/girl stories/experimental fiction. (Rationale: Writers should know the market and write to it.)

Author feels: I’ll never be a successful writer. (Rationale: The ideas I get are the ideas I get. I write what I like. Nobody likes me the way I am? I have to change to please the market? Why am I doing this?) (And Dr. Seuss did it!)

Editor says: I didn’t love it enough to publish it. (Rationale: To spend all that time acquiring, editing, and promoting a book, I have to love it.)

Author feels: I’ll never get published. (Rationale: I love that book. I put my whole self into it. It’s not worthy of love. I must not be loveable.)

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. It’s fine not to like someone’s characters or someone’s plot or someone’s style or to believe her efforts aren’t working, but the author doesn’t need to hear it that way. Writers who truly want helpful criticism (and not just applause) will respond well to hearing feedback more along these lines: 

Critic thinks: I hate that mean narrator. What an annoying spoiled brat.

Critic says: You’ve done such a great job of showing how spoiled Jennifer is and bringing out her mean side, now I’m wondering if you might want to put her in a situation that will give the reader more sympathy for her? Like Katherine Paterson does with the foster child Gilly Hopkins?

Critic thinks: Man, this may be the most boring thing I ever read. Not working.

Critic says: My favorite part is the scene with the turtle on page 5. Wouldn’t it be fun to do more with that sort of humor?

Critic thinks: Ouch. That is some seriously painful rhymed verse. She’s no poet.

Critic says:  Good story idea!  I found myself getting a distracted from the plot and the characters, though. Wording to fit the rhyme scheme makes their dialogue sound a little too unnatural to me. Have you considered writing this in poetic prose?

You get the idea. A really helpful critic always remembers the Golden Rule and offers honest comments and questions with true empathy for the creative spirit. Then, the writer will want to run out of the room to revise rather than cry.

Author’s Note

Some of this comes from “The Golden Rule and a Grain of Salt,” Once Upon a Time (Summer 1999), and the rest comes from trying not to make my students cry.

©Lisa Rowe Fraustino 1999, 2010

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