Bad Reviews

This post isn’t about what you think. I am not going to address how to handle the emotional sting of a bad review. Instead, I am going to talk about those closest to you, showing how your friends and family can hinder your writing career.

If you cannot stand the thought those you love may be undermining your career, stop reading now and go make yourself a smoothie and relax.

For those of you who are still reading:

Every aspiring or experienced author needs a lot of emotional support to sustain the writing process. You need understanding friends and loved ones to give you space so you can create.

But the same people who support you, know you and love you are the worst reviewers you can have if you are looking for input on your writing.

Of course they love what you wrote…they love you.

In the second grade, I painted a picture of Bozo the clown and my mother hung it up in my room. Her reaction led me to believe that I had a long career ahead as an artist.

She was wrong.

Are your friends, family and loved-ones involved in an elaborate conspiracy to undermine your writing career?

Yes…yes they are.

Under the cover of “friends support friends” and “that’s what family does for each other,” they are setting you up to be squashed like a bug by an evil literary agent who spends their off-hours burning ants with a magnifying glass.

Seriously, using only personal connections for reviews is not a good idea if you are interested in establishing yourself as a writer. Friends are terrible gauges of quality because their job description as friends require they support you.

OK, they might tell you have a piece of food caught in your teeth. They helped you avoid embarrassment.

Nothing wrong with a good measure of support, but at some point, you need to cross the Rubicon and do battle with objective judges of writing quality. It can be intoxicating to stay on the safe side of the river with all your supportive friends and family. We get that.

I recognize that sometimes when I decline an author for representation I might have been the first person who said in effect, “This isn’t good enough.”

Seeking out critical reviewers rather than only being around supporters is a complicated and emotional process. There is probably an element of avoiding critique in some indie publishing, as you don’t need to expose your work to agents or publishers who might be discouraging before your book is made available.

But both indie and traditionally published authors still expose themselves to the harshest of critics…the public who doesn’t know you and can hide behind an anonymous screen name to blow up your book online.

Serious writers expose their work to objective review and actually ask for constructive criticism from people who are qualified to give it.

Those people are more often not friends or family.

Some authors use rejection or critical reviews to stoke the flame of bitterness against literary gatekeepers who seemingly conspire to prevent them from succeeding.

Others take criticism and rejection and turn it into a way to improve their craft, the way an athlete accepts coaching.

The great Carl Sandburg once said, “I wrote poems in my corner of the Brooks Street station. I sent them to editors who rejected them right off. I read those letters of rejection years later and I agreed with those editors.”

Listening to the right people will make you a better writer.


28 Responses to Bad Reviews

  1. Avatar
    Richard Mabry August 11, 2015 at 5:14 am #

    Dan, What a fantastic nugget of advice for all writers is in the midst of this post: Serious writers expose their work to objective review and actually ask for constructive criticism from people who are qualified to give it.
    I frequently tell newbie writers to get critique of their work from someone who knows what they’re talking about, not from Aunt Mabel. You’ve said it even better. Thanks for sharing.

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    Pamela Meyers August 11, 2015 at 5:38 am #

    Dan, not only can family and friends be culprits at doing this, but also well-meaning but not very knowledgable instructors. Years ago, I took a correspondence course on novel writing taught by a published author. This was before online courses had made the scene. The lady had been published in Christian Fiction but that didn’t mean she understood the elements of putting a novel together or what makes writing rise above “Just okay” and keeps people turning pages. She told me my story was ready to be pitched to editors. I went off to a popular Christian writers conference and made appointments with editors. That’s when my bubble burst. “I started it too soon, the writing shows promise but you need more time to develop it,” etc. The last editor listened to my pitch and asked for a proposal. So, I thought that maybe those other ones weren’t right after all. I sent the proposal and after six months of not hearing from the editor, I wrote an email asking about it. A few days later I got a form letter rejection.

    That’s when I really started to learn and grow in my writing ability. And it took years before I finally received my first contract. Yes, it would have been nice if I’d published right away, but I’m glad God’s timing took over. I won’t go into all that goes into that statement. But I know that’s where I need to be at all times…within His will.

  3. Avatar
    Jim Rogers August 11, 2015 at 5:52 am #

    Thank you for what you do. It does sting a bit to get a let-down letter. However, I don’t want to have my name on the cover of a book the reader is not happy with. I have wasted my hard earned money on a few of those. Caveat emptor is not cool. I must admit the last rejection letter I received from your agency was the nicest I ever got. Thanks again.

  4. Avatar
    Steve Hooley August 11, 2015 at 5:59 am #


    Great advice. Always a challenge to find knowledgeable beta readers who are objective.

    After a writer has found representation with an agent, how typical is it for the agent to be involved in telling the writer when the story is ready vs. needing more editing?

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow August 11, 2015 at 7:05 am #

      The agent should be the last step before a publisher sees it. Some agents are stronger at this than others, but they are involved.

  5. Avatar
    Ane Mulligan August 11, 2015 at 6:01 am #

    I was lucky when I entered this novel writing gig. I was already a published playwright who knew she knew nothing about novel writing. I got into a critique group, read all the books and grew. I never asked my family to read what I wrote.

    Fast forward a few years and my CPs and I invited a writer to join us. After the first critique, we were told we were mean spirited and the person left.

    We weren’t mean spirited. Our critiques were exactly what we gave each other: tough but honest. If we want to get published, that’s what it takes. This writer had only had family read their work.

    • Avatar
      Pamela Meyers August 11, 2015 at 6:39 am #

      Ane is a dear friend and although I’m not in her crit group, she has blessed me many times with her hard crits. Yeah, sometimes I bristle for a bit, but in the end I realize most times she’s right. That’s when I follow her advice and become a better writer. I’ll take a hard crit over a fuzzy cozy one any day.

    • Avatar
      Jeanne Takenaka August 11, 2015 at 7:31 am #

      Ane, those tough but honest critiques are a gift, in my opinion. I’m sorry that writer didn’t see the gift you guys gave him/her. I don’t like the easy ones because they do nothing to improve my story. 🙂 Just had to throw this into the conversation.

    • Avatar
      Lisa Taylor August 11, 2015 at 7:58 pm #

      I hit a similar experience in a Christian writer’s circle. I’m the only published novelist at the moment, and when I gave one of the better writers some true critiquing (gently put) in one of the meeting (when the exercise asked for critiquing) I was looked at quite askance. Then another woman rose to “defend” her friend. Frankly, with most of the people in the group, I don’t bother to do anything but pat them on the back, because that’s all they want. This woman has more potential though… but how she’s going to reach it if she’s protected from helpful feedback– I’m not sure.

  6. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 11, 2015 at 6:35 am #

    You’ve made some very important points here.

    I’m lucky – neither my wife nor anyone in my family (well, hers, because I have no living relatives) is even remotely interested in what I write, or even THAT I write. Except from the occasional dig from a brother-in-law who every so often asks – not in a nice way – if I’m still writing about necromancy (this because “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart” has a ghostly character who was inspired by the old film “A Guy named Joe”.)

    I do have writers whom I count as friends, but I only ask them to read that which I have written as a status check, to make sure I haven’t let any bad habit creep in. I know how busy they are, and don’t presume upon the obligations of friendship.

    But I think we do have to at least give a nod to the Aunt Mabels of the world, at least those who are willing to be honest. “I don’t know art, but I know what I like” is something I don’t feel I can afford to ignore, because these people for a large part of the readership. They don’t care about the use of adverbs, or head-hopping; they want a story that resonates with the beating of their hearts.

    That doesn’t excuse sloppy writing, or the deliberate use of heart-tugging sentimentality to force a bad story over the top by playing on latent emotion, but it does argue for mindfulness, that professional criticism may be as subjective, in its own way, as unqualified criticism.

  7. Dan Balow
    Dan Balow August 11, 2015 at 7:13 am #

    Good comments.

    A related point to this is from the reverse perspective. Maybe it is just me, but if a friend asks me to review something they wrote, it would be stressful for me to be constructive,

    Maybe best to not put stress on a friendship by doing that?

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 11, 2015 at 8:45 am #

      I think you’re right. I would never risk a friendship for that.

      One also has to be cognizant of where someone’s heart is, when offering a genuine opinion.

      There are times when a gentle “yeah, it’s great” – even when it’s not – will help pull a writer over a rough patch. We all feel like quitting, some days, and we need a pat on the back more than a directive to ‘fix it’. We’ll learn the need for fixing later. For now, it’s just making it through without quitting.

      It’s maybe like newlywed cooking…saying “that’s terrible, and it’s NOT how my mother used to make it!” to someone who’s really taken only a few steps down the culinary concourse can kill the desire to cook stone dead. Best to offer kind encouragement, and save the bald honesty for another time, another place.

      • Avatar
        S. Kim Henson August 11, 2015 at 10:52 am #

        I’m going to jump in at the risk of interrupting. 🙂 I came over to comment and say I’m sharing a link to this post on my blog (I hope that’s okay), but then I got sidetracked reading comments. In my bog post, I’ve shared that I was cautiously honest with a friend and it didn’t go well. I wish y’all had told me! LoL. Okay, I figured that one out on my own, the hard way. I always enjoy reading, but this post really resonated. Thanks for writing it.

    • Avatar
      Jenny Leo August 11, 2015 at 9:39 am #

      This is precisely why I never sent my stuff to any agents or editors who were also my friends. Didn’t want to muddy the waters or put that kind of pressure on a friendship.

      Today I do consider my agent a friend, and a great blessing, but she was my agent first.

  8. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka August 11, 2015 at 7:37 am #

    Great post, Dan. I sometimes show what I’m writing to a couple members of my family, but it’s more so they can get a feel for the story, than for critique.

    I agree that we need to be willing to put our work out for public review, so to speak. I always appreciate honest feedback of my writing. The hard words are the ones that can be most helpful for improving my stories.

    I will say, I have a dear friend who has read bout everything I’ve written (yes, THAT’S true friendship). I’ve trained her to not be easy on me. When she beta-reads my books, she’s honest about what she likes, doesn’t like, what’s working/not working . . . and we’ve established the understanding that I’ve asked her for honest feedback, and I won’t take it personally. She’s been instrumental in improving my stories and helping me spot important aspects I missed, due to being too close to the story.

    That being said, I completely understand that this is not the norm in most friendships, and that there is great value in receiving feedback from people who do NOT feel the pressure to be nice to me. 😉

  9. Avatar
    Susan Mary Malone August 11, 2015 at 7:48 am #

    Thank you for this, Dan. As a developmental editor (who only counts Traditionally published books as successes), I of course hear every day: “My mother/brother/sister/etc. loved this!”
    And I always counsel writers to not let friends and family read a work until it’s published. You hit the thumb tack on the head–they cannot be objective. They just can’t.
    I’m always reminded of Little Miss Sunshine when I think of this. And of course, the family was there to catch her when she fell . . .
    Great post!

  10. Avatar
    Murray Grossan August 11, 2015 at 10:14 am #

    I reviewed a book pre-publication. I found grammatical and other errors on every other page. I reported to the publicist that the book needed to be edited. Of course, I was ignored and the book with errors was published to rave reviews and is still on Amazon with errors such as:

    Becoming a doctor wasn’t not on her parent’s list either,
    I doubt, from what she said no at when he did it was a mockery.

    Yet this book gets rave reviews! That is discouraging to those who want to write!

  11. Avatar
    Heather Day Gilbert August 11, 2015 at 11:52 am #

    Hi, Dan, I’d just respectfully say that many of my indie-author friends do indeed expose their writing to objective critiques–including paying for multiple layers of edits before publication. Also, many use groups of beta readers, early readers, and critiquers/crit groups pre-publication. Included in these readers/crit groups would be other experienced authors who have been professionally edited, etc. So while yes, “There is probably an element of avoiding critique in some indie publishing, as you don’t need to expose your work to agents or publishers who might be discouraging before your book is made available,” there is also an element of indie authors seeking OUT objective critiques as they strive to make their books the best they can be.

    Because bottom line, if your indie book is riddled with errors, it’s going to get bad reviews and it won’t sell well. Indies come at publication as a business, and just like any business, most are seeking to provide the best product possible.

  12. Avatar
    Pamela Meyers August 11, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    I agree, Heather. I want the hardest critiques I can find and if anyone only finds a few punctuation mistakes then they aren’t looking hard enough or they aren’t skilled enough to recognize what can elevate the writing from just okay to strong and excellent.

    A professional edit is a must for all indie published books.

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow August 11, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

      Pamela, you and Heather and so many others who read this agency blog every day are professional writers even if they don’t get paid yet. Professional is a state of mind, not a financial situation. You are doing it right.

      Of the 400,000 books indie-published this year in the US alone, I would be surprised if more than a quarter of them were deeply edited by professional editors. That puts a lot of books on the market that probably needed more work and are not worthy of being published, at least if we use some editorial standard.

      Those 400,000 indie books don’t include the 300,000 new books published every year by traditional US publishers and not all of them are worked and stretched editorially.

      Professionals want to be edited and “pushed” by an editor to improve the work. Unprofessional writers “just want their book published.”

      A little promo for my post next Tuesday the 18th about the difference between someone wanting to get a book published vs. someone wanting to be a serious professional writer. There is a difference!

  13. Avatar
    Heather Day Gilbert August 11, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

    Thank you for those kind words, Dan. What I would love to see is for Christian agencies to report on the myriad Christian indie novel offerings that ARE above and beyond. From my vantage point, I watch as Christian indies raise the bar in mainstream indie circles, from their edits to their cover art. In other words, Christian indies are trailblazing, in many ways (diverse books? Check. Tough topics? Check. Unique settings and other things readers are clamoring for? Check). Would love to see a blogpost on people who are doing it right–aiming to be professional writers, as you mentioned. Thank you.

  14. Avatar
    Jennifer Zarifeh Major August 11, 2015 at 2:44 pm #

    I am one of those rare writers who has a Mom that did NOT leave kiss prints all over my MS.
    She SHREDDED it.
    And I mean, went after it, and my skills, with a Brillo pad and some lemon juice.
    It hurt.
    But when she read the finished product last Spring?
    She finished it in one day and raved like a Disney mom!
    She refused to coddle me.
    And wow, her praise was more important that ANYONE else’s.

  15. Dan Balow
    Dan Balow August 11, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

    Your mom is one in a million.

    No really, the one mom in a million who would do that!


  16. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield August 11, 2015 at 7:10 pm #

    I think the most basic qualification for being a valuable critic is the ability and commitment to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). It seems that folks often have no trouble EITHER telling the truth OR being loving; finding a critic whose truth has professional credibility and will be both truthful and loving is a rare blessing. I aspire to that in working with my book author and dissertation scholar clients, and I have a friend who has certainly been a worthy role model.

    Your post prompted me to analyze why my friend’s critiques are so valuable to me, and to re-appreciate her. A retired senior editor of a major publishing house, she read my latest book and critiqued and discussed it with me, chapter by chapter, even to sometimes challenging my word choice. She cared about the quality of every page, and she also cared about me. I did a tweak rewrite as we went, then she said the book was “wonderful.” Wonderful?! That was extremely high praise, and in another situation, would have been taken “with a grain of salt”; but because it was from her, I knew it was sincere, based on both her honesty and her expertise: truth and love/love and truth. I knew I was finally ready to begin to pitch my book! I completely agree with your post. What a blessing to find a critic like that!

  17. Avatar
    Sarah Bennett August 11, 2015 at 8:22 pm #

    There is so much layered truth to this post. Thank you Dan!

  18. Avatar
    Beverly Brooks August 12, 2015 at 8:59 am #

    Sorry – could someone reach a hand back to the writer in last place? I would appreciate knowing how to find an objective, skilled, trustworthy, professional to critique my work.

    Thank you all. I was informed by the post and the comments.

  19. Avatar
    Ambra October 30, 2015 at 7:00 pm #

    Fortunately, I have a sister who is commited to excellence, and we have a relationship that enables her to critique effectively. I ask her to find gaps and deficiencies. When she finds those areas, she asks me questions like, “What were you trying to get across here?” It may take a day or two for me to process, but typically I understand exactly what she means, and I make adjustments. Because we are family and think so much alike, the collaborative process works. Maybe this familial working relationship is unusual, but it works, and I’m thankful!

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