Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Writers: Are We Always Honest With Each Other? Just Curious ...

In an ironic twist of fate, I get most of my harshest critiques from non-writers – they seem to be the only ones without a filter when it comes to telling you what they think of your work. They’ll tell you everything, in a very unflinching manner. The problem is, do I take it seriously, or do the opinions of actual ‘writers’ matter more?

Upon finding out I was writing a book, a work-friend of mine recently declared that he too was a writer, had four or five books written, actually. He offered to bring in a few chapters for me to read – and I reluctantly agreed.

Big mistake.

Every time someone brings me something they wrote, especially someone who announces that they are suddenly a ‘writer’ I start to get this yucky feeling in my stomach. The work they hand me is usually so bad that I suppress the urge to light the thing with a match. And here’s the worst part; they always want an opinion! I used to smile and nod, and give my most upbeat speech, truth being so unruly and all … until I realize that its disingenuous. This poor schmuck wanted some real advice – so I decided that I would start being honest for a change. So I told him:

Your sentences run on too long. You realize there’s half a page without a comma or a period here??

When you write, don’t describe a guy going into the fridge, getting a beer, opening the beer, walking out to his backyard, sitting in his lawn chair, and taking another sip of beer. Shorthand!

Don’t reveal the entire story so soon or you’ll have no place to go with it.  Your book will be over in three chapters.

Plausibility!  Would this character really do this? Or That?

Does  your computer have Spell Check?

Oh, the guy is an alien named Stan? Real name Xartona? 

The basis of gravitas in a novel: Believable characters! 

Do you realize that all your character’s names start with a ‘J’ ?  Sounds like a Dr. Seuss convention.

Something must happen in every scene, otherwise its useless!  Why is your protagonist just sitting there?  Make him do something.

You sent this to a publisher??

Is this a children’s book, or …?

By the time I was finished, he looked like someone had kicked him in the groin. He had that thousand mile stare that writers get when they’ve just been lambasted by the truth. Another thing; unless he really put time and effort into the craft, he’d never be a writer. Writing is not a part time gig: you have to be committed because it’ll show in the work. I can tell when someone just ‘throws’ something together. I’ve been around.

I felt bad afterward of course; the truth was harsh. Is this why writers refrain from telling their peers the truth about their writing?

In all my time writing, only a few people have been honest with me – two are writers, and the rest are friends and family. Family will be honest with you if it suits them; most of them don’t think you’ll amount to much anyway, so they’ll gleefully tell you your story is lame and they’d never buy the book. Friends will generally look out for you and tell you if your story is good – or if it’s embarrassing.  And don't ask your mom, she'll love it no matter what. 

Fellow writers, on the other hand, will just blow smoke up your ass (which has its merits too)

Call it professional courtesy, or politeness, or distance, but getting a writer to give you an honest opinion is like getting a straight answer out of a politician. And the ones who do tell you a thing or two end up sounding a tad arrogant, at least to us sensitive types (I include myself in that).  Maybe we're just too nice ...

But here's a breakthrough - use this line whenever you want an honest opinion of your work from a peer:

Come on, don't bullshit me!

It worked for Schwarzenegger! So folks, let’s have a little honesty among us writers. How can we get better unless we’re straight-up with each other? Not telling me that my story is the biggest hunk of garbage ever written is kinda like letting me walk down the street with a smudge of mustard on my face …

Random Samplings For Your Consideration

Five common traits of good writers: 

(1) They have something to say.
(2) They read widely and have done so since childhood.
(3) They possess what Isaac Asimov calls a "capacity for clear thought," able to go from point to point in an orderly sequence, an A to Z approach.
(4) They're geniuses at putting their emotions into words.
(5) They possess an insatiable curiosity, constantly asking Why and How.

— James J. Kilpatrick

(1) the Muse visits during, not before, the act of composition, and

(2) the writer takes dictation from that place in his mind that knows what he should write next.

- from a review by Roger Ebert

Writer's Resolution

Enough's Enough! No more shall I

Pursue the Muse and scorch the pie

Or dream of Authoring a book

When I (unhappy soul) must cook;

Or burn the steak while I wool-gather,

And stir my spouse into a lather

Invoking words like "Darn!" and such

And others that are worse (Oh, much!)

Concerning culinary knack

Which I (HE says) completely lack.

I'll keep my mind upon my work;

I'll learn each boresome cooking quirk;

This day shall mark a new leaf's turning...

That smell! Oh Hell! The beans are burning!"

— Terry Ryan (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less)

"The imagination doesn’t crop annually like a reliable fruit tree. The writer has to gather whatever’s there: sometimes too much, sometimes too little, sometimes nothing at all. And in the years of glut there is always a slatted wooden tray in some cool, dark attic, which the writer nervously visits from time to time; and yes, oh dear, while he’s been hard at work downstairs, up in the attic there are puckering skins, warning spots, a sudden brown collapse and the sprouting of snowflakes. What can he do about it?" — Julian Barnes (Flaubert's Parrot)

An old racetrack joke reminds you that your program contains all the winners' names. I stare at my typewriter keys with the same thought."
— Mignon McLaughlin

"Man, wow, there's so many things to do, so many things to write! How to even begin to get it all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears..." — Jack Kerouac

"..the writer’s obsession – the desire to know and communicate, or, rather, to know everything so as to communicate with the greatest degree of precision." — Ivan KlĂ­ma

"I enjoy writing, I enjoy my house, my family and, more than anything I enjoy the feeling of seeing each day used to the full to actually produce something. The end." — Michael Palin

"That isn't writing at all, it's typing." — Truman Capote

Thanks for stopping by the Den ... honest opinions of this post will be ignored!

David Hunter >>


  1. My editor / beta reader / critic / echo finder /and everything else is my friend of nearly 60 years - who has always spoken truth to me (not always welcomed!!) she's not a writer but well read (not my type of books) is good at the grammar / spelling / puctuation thingys - of all the people who see my work she's the one I trust the most not to bullshit me

  2. Outstanding post, David. I rarely comment, as you know, but this might be my favorite blog post ever by someone I know.

    Must go to FB and comment over there now.

    I really, really like this.

    And, BTW, I consider myself blessed with folks who'll tell me the truth - for good or ill. You've seen some of my criticism online. I hope you're doing the same for me.

  3. Hi - I saw this on the Fellow Writers FB page and it caught my eye.
    To me as a writer, those honest and sometimes unwelcome comments from my fellow writers were the ones I ultimately found most valuable. But they don't have to be packaged in a brutal way! It's not necessary to be blunt in order to give honest feedback. I also work as a copy-editor and give manuscript critiques, and I'm always very careful not to destroy a writer's confidence. We all know how fragile *that* can be! I find I can be gently honest, steeringly honest, and, I hope, encouraging, while still pointing out flaws and errors. But, in the real world, we know that we're never going to please everyone. Rejection is a constant, even for the successful writer. So the best thing I ever did was grow rhino hide.

  4. I guess I consider myself lucky to be a member of the critique group that I'm in. The feedback is honest & encouraging. If I'm just phoning it in, someone will be sure to tell me, "Hey, you can do better". I haven't had this problem with fellow writers blowing smoke up my ass. (Kicking my ass, sure... but in a supportive, helpful sort of way.)

    The members point out the weaknesses in each others work while also commenting on the strengths. Why is that? Because they'd all like the same thing in return.

    While some are very seasoned writers with published novels & an impressive list of writing credits, others are brand new, "giving this writing thing a shot".

    What I've learned from both the very experienced as well as the newbies who announce that they are suddenly a 'writer' is that there is always room for improvement, no writer has it all figured out & that every writer - regardless of experience or success level - might have something to offer.

    Even reading someone's work that you're not very impressed with has its value - critiquing another writer's work hones the self-editing skills.

    I'm asked from time to time if I wouldn't mind looking over a friend's work. I'll usually do it when asked & I will be honest with them about what I think could use some improvement, but I also make it a point to mention to them where the strength of the piece lies, even if it's just one funny line.

    I have to concur with Cas' comment that the honest comments are the most valuable, but being considerate of a writer's confidence is just as valuable.

    I don't think the opinion of a writer or a non-writer matters more. I mean, they're both readers, right? The only person's opinion that really matters is that of the person writing... then, of the reader. That's it. I've received feedback on my writing that runs the spectrum - from "unreadable trash" to "brilliant". So what. It's how honest I am with myself about my writing that matters, right?

  5. Love this! Well done! I dread when this starts happening for me. I think I'll hand writers a stack of books and say, "after you read all these, come back to me, then we'll talk."

  6. Okay. This post was going well until you started posting quotes from writers. That may work for people, but hiding behind a quote is hiding behind a quote or some rules that writers who wrote in another time period. In my opinion, it doesn't show how talented you are, and you're really talented. Step out from behind the literary tree. It's not doing you any justice.

  7. @Alberta - You're very lucky to have such a friend ...

    Although the critique may sting, at least its honest, and helps us become better writers ...

  8. @Nick - Thanks for the kind words ...

    If someone asked me for a real and unfiltered critique of their work, I would consider it a compliment that they would want my honest opinion. Also, life is too short for giving bullshit commentary on a piece of writing when it would benefit both parties to just be honest. It makes the work better, and the writer better.

    Thanks, man.

  9. @Cas - Thanks for your wonderful comment ...

    The above post was a tad exaggerated - I would never ridicule someone's work; I would gently steer it along, as you say. I know all too well how fragile writers (and artists) are when it comes to criticism. I have learned not to take criticism as an affront, or an insult, or as a sign that I am a bad writer - it's meant to be constructive. It's meant to make our writing better.

    I suppose I could pop over to Wal-Mart and buy some Rhino-hide though ...

  10. @Rasmenia - Right. If someone tells me I have written the greatest masterpiece in the history of literature, I probably have to take my own feelings about the story into account. Same if someone told me I just wrote an unreadable piece of trash. Either way, if the person doing the critique is honest, the better it is for everyone.

    Thanks for the great comments Ras, (which I recommend you all to go back up and read.)

  11. @Katherine - Some people just aren't prepared for honesty when it comes to a critique of their work, it gets too personal for them, but its a necessary step to becoming a better writer, isn't it? We can't keep going along forever, writing stories that people keep spewing platitudes about, and not grow as writers ... how would we know what to do right if no one points out what we do wrong? Or Vice Versa?

    Whew! Lotsa commentary today ... you guys are awesome ...

  12. @Natasha - I hope I haven't given you the impression that I hide behind quotes. I don't feel I do. I just think its interesting to read how other writers approach the craft ... and unfortunately I only have their quotes to go by.

    As far the quotes themselves are concerned, the reason I posted them under the main article is so they would be non-intrusive; they're an addendum, an add-on, something to poke through and peruse at your leisure after you've read the post ...

    Thanks for your comments, Natasha. I will take them into consideration.

  13. I had a typo pointed out once (recently), and that I mentioned the same detail twice on a page - and nothing else but glowing comments. So, yes I'd say writers definately lie to each other. Probably because we don't want anyone telling us that OUR writing stinks, so we tell each other, "I loved it! It was great! Fantastic!"

  14. Maybe saying that you hide behind quotes is completely off. It's just that I want to see your quotes being used on someone else's blog, not the other way around. Since this is an opinion blog, your opinion is what matters. I loved when you were talking about writers being honest because we both know how honest they can be. That is what made this post so great.

  15. I can understand that ...

    Remember, also, that this is a place where I explore writing techniques and different aspects of the craft. I'm trying to learn new things about writing, in other words - and sometimes that falls under the occasional use of quotes about writing.

    Having said that, I can understand your point - using other writer's words to express opinions or strengthen an argument may be a cop-out sometimes, but I prefer to look at it as 'gaining insight' into the profession. If Stephen King, for example, has some words of wisdom he wants to impart, I will post those words because it may help me, or someone else, gain some perspective on some aspect of their work.

    Case in point: I have received over 3000 hits on my Stephen King post containing solely his quotes. People clearly enjoy reading them ...

    Thank you for your comments, and your honesty, Natasha ...

  16. Finding the right critique partners is essential. I have gathered a few over the years that can provide useful feedback as well as do it in a way that isn't soul crushing. Even published authors have feelings, and I don't like it when people are mean. Yes, I've had some mean comments--personal ones about me rather than the book. That's why I cringed a little at your over-the-top examples.

    But I often gauge how harsh to be based on where someone is in their career, and sometimes I ask them--how much truth do you want? Sometimes people really just want encouragement, someone to tell them not to give up.

  17. @India - You are absolutely correct: you have to gauge your critique based on where someone is in their career. The above examples are for comic effect - I would never rip someone apart and try to discourage them if they are just starting out. I want them to get better, encourage them, grow as a writer. Often I'll tell what's bad about their work and what's good.

    But what do you tell a beginning writer when their work is very poor? Any critique will come out harsh. The work-friend that I talked about in my post is a very bad writer - and he needed to know the harsh realities of trying to become a writer; there's too much competition and you need to get really good in a hurry.

    That said, I gave him many tips on how to get better. I told him to invest in writing books, courses, all that good stuff. I told him I did the same things, because I would never tell someone to do something I wouldn't do.


    Wow, so many insightful comments ... thank you India!

  18. The Comment Section is now officially longer than the post itself. Victory!

  19. I'm always honest, but that's because no matter how honest I am with other writers, I am even more so with myself. I tell my editor/agent to be brutal with me, but she knows that I am more hard on myself than she could ever be with me.

    I think it's really a matter of us being honest with our own writing. I know not everything I write is great or even decent, but I tell myself to rewrite it and move on. Just be brutal with yourself and you won't need someone else to do the honesty for you.

  20. @Michelle - You have a point; If a writer is under the illusion that they're writing nothing but masterpieces and they're above being critiqued, or flinch when someone gives them honest reviews or constructive criticism, then it's time for them to take stock.

    Being honest about your own writing can't hurt when it comes to others reviewing it. At best they'll point out things you already suspected ...

    Thanks for your input ...

  21. In my screenwriting group, I'm ALWAYS honest. Brutally even. So much so that the group leader has told me on multiple occassions to be nicer to people. I don't consider it being mean if they asked for my opinion.

  22. True, but you also have to give good points, if there are any. If there are no redeeming qualities in someones work, what can you do? You have to be honest; it's a tough business and there's lots of competition. You won't get better by being coddled, right?

    I would say, critique someones work the way you'd want to be critiqued.

  23. I know I'm a bit late to the party but I'll weigh-in anyway.

    The problem I find when reading another "writer's" work and being brutally honest is this: if I'm too picky or hurtful, most people will be inclined to see my work as proof that I know what I'm talking about. This is straight-up scary to me. If my writing is not up to their par, then my advice is useless. If my writing is way better than theirs (and sometimes, not mostly, it is) then I come off like a snob. That's why I try to remain constructive - even when I feel like giving it to them hard!

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