Criticism Is an Unhappy Part of the Business

Let me tell you about a rather interesting day. I spent an entire morning going through my unsolicited proposals in-box. I marked them all for my assistant to send fairly standard email rejection letters, since none were anything our agency could/would handle.

Very soon I received three separate responses via email:

(1) Criticized me for sending an impersonal note, saying they spent considerable time with the proposal and the least I could do was give a corresponding critique. Never mind that the writer failed to follow the guidelines on the site he claimed to have read.

(2) Wrote me to say, “I consider it a disgrace that any American would ignore this story, particularly a man with access to our Christian media outlets who calls himself my ‘brother in the Lord.’ You must not be a prayer warrior, Mr. Laube, because if you were, He’d have guided you as He has me in this decision. Therefore, I wouldn’t want you handling this book.”

(3) Wrote a one word, very personal, extremely vulgar adjective in reply to my rejection letter.

All in one afternoon. So you see, even the agent side of the business receives its share of criticism that is ill-founded, ignorant, and inappropriate.

Next time a critic gives you a negative book review or an editor sends you a sixteen-page, single-spaced, scourging of your manuscript. remember that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Your response will determine much about your success as a writer. One of our clients claims that the one thing a writer needs to develop, in order to survive this profession, is a thick skin.

How do you respond to critics?

 

[A previous version of this post ran in early March 2011.]

45 Responses to Criticism Is an Unhappy Part of the Business

  1. Avatar
    Gayle Vanessa March 3, 2011 at 9:07 pm #

    A truthful, unvarnished, uncensored, critique hurts like a bad toothache. Yet, if it is truthful, it can be liberating and can motivate a person to strengthen their writing…that is after the dentist gives you a shot of novocaine, or you suck down a bottle of Anbesol.

  2. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott April 22, 2019 at 4:34 am #

    I’m sad about these responses, Steve, and I hope, in time, their writers regret these words written in angry haste.

    God is giving me a teachable spirit, via critiques of my writing and through unfortunate encounters with other Christians who assume they have heard from God and the rest of us haven’t–lessons in the positive and in the negative.

    God has proved to me that holy inspiration from HIm to me can be improved when I listen to the wise words of other people. His inspiration is perfect, but my delivery needs practice. Lots of practice!

    • Avatar
      Gail Arbogast April 23, 2019 at 10:20 am #

      No big deal. You choose to learn, discern, or ignore. God’s will be done.

  3. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage April 22, 2019 at 6:07 am #

    It blows my mind that any author would respond in this way. Never mind whether they are a Christian … There is common decency. There is also professionalism. Querying is a learning curve, but I would think anyone who had been reading publications for authors or (most) agents’ web sites would know better than to do this.

    I don’t know how serious the breach of guidelines was, but I have more sympathy for that one as every agency seems expect something a little different, they all seem to think that what they expect is standard practice, and in some cases (not yours, Steve) the guidelines aren’t clearly explained.

    I don’t know how I would handle a true filleting, but I do know how I handle damning with faint praise: confusion. Among many “no replies,” I’ve been getting things like “I’m not connecting to your story, but it is intriguing and elegantly written” or (most recently), “despite its many charms.” I can’t figure out if that last one is boilerplate, but it sounds like it.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube April 22, 2019 at 10:00 am #

      Jennifer,

      The thing about guidelines is they are just that “guidelines.” Not rules. They are to help give an incoming person some general direction.

      The problem with that particular person was claiming they had followed the guidlelines when they had not. Their anger at a “no thank you” spilled into an emotional response that made them look foolish.

      Boilerplate responses are a necessity given the volume of proposals we receive.

      This past week I received 56 new unsolicited proposals. 36 via email (which does not include two people who sent multiple emails surrounding their submission explaining and re-explaining what they sent and why. Five of the email submissions arrived on Sunday…Easter Sunday. Another 20 came in the mail.

      That is a very typical influx of proposals. This does not include the proposals I received from clients for their next project.

      There is simply not enough time to give personal, free, critiques to every writer.

      • Avatar
        Jennifer Mugrage April 22, 2019 at 11:30 am #

        Oh, I wasn’t asking for a free personal critique. It’s just that if someone is going to tell me my story has “many charms,” I want them to actually mean it. A phrase like that, in a standardized rejection, strikes me as sort of patronizing. I prefer “not right for us at this time.” 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Nancy Massand April 22, 2019 at 6:13 am #

    First, I listen to them. They might be right. I’ve learned a lot from my critics! If they’re not, I just let it go. Thick skin and all that. In the case you mentioned, I wouldn’t engage in dialogue with them. They’re just frustrated and rude, like spoiled children who don’t get their way the first time they ask. I shake my head, laugh at them and move on.

  5. Avatar
    Sharon K Connell April 22, 2019 at 6:28 am #

    Steve, every one of those replies screams ego. Granted, they are entitled to their opinion just like the rest of us, but there’s no reason for replies like you received.

    Regarding criticisms on my books, I don’t really remember getting any true negative responses so far, but sometimes when I’m working on a story and send it off for critique to my ACFW Scribes, I’ll get them. When I do, I read it carefully and consider. It is not taken lightly. After consideration, I make the decision to either change what I’ve written and thank them for the help, or I then ignore it, and still send a thank you for the time they took to critique the chapter I’ve sent.

    Sometimes, those critics have something very worthwhile to say, and I can learn from them. However, in the case of those you listed above, no.

    You are so right in saying the responses will be a factor in determining one’s success as a writer. Ego has no place in this business.

  6. Avatar
    Maco Stewart April 22, 2019 at 6:46 am #

    After i stifle my carnal irritation at being criticized, with mouth usually firmly closed, I consider the merits of the criticism, despite the bearing of the critic. It helps, of course, if the critic manifests compassion, but all too often, there is something to learn–a course correction to be made–at the heart of the criticism. It’s hardest to do this when the critic is 90% wrong and angry, but I try to sift and find the wheat.

    If there isn’t any validity, as is the case with your rude respondents, I leave it behind. The critic is projecting or misinformed. If there is, I try to integrate the criticism into my view of how I am perceived and maybe, just maybe, into my view of how I am.

    As with a manuscript criticism, it would be foolish for me to ignore such feedback, from another consciousness outside of mine, just because it makes me angry.

    I ain’t perfect at this, it is a work in progress, but when I can do this, it is sometimes very useful.

  7. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver April 22, 2019 at 6:48 am #

    Thanks for sharing with us some of the stupid, rude responses you as agents receive. If it would do any good I would apologize for the thoughtless words these people wrote. And…you are a blessing to the rest of us!

  8. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 22, 2019 at 6:51 am #

    Dear critic, you’ve my appreciation
    for your willingness to write;
    and this note’s no hallucination,
    the shark’s comin’ round to bite.
    You said that you could never see
    that I’d not embrace your work,
    but I took it rather personally
    when you referred to me as ‘jerk’.
    Your topic has been done before
    by writers with more skill,
    and the that way you use metaphor
    would make Bill Shakespeare ill.
    Your MS, though, does have merit
    to line the cage of my dear parrot.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 22, 2019 at 6:52 am #

      Sigh…what a way to start a week…

      line 11 should clearly be ‘and the way that you use metaphor’

    • Avatar
      Damon J. Gray April 22, 2019 at 7:03 am #

      LOL!! One of your best, Andrew.

    • Avatar
      claire o'sullivan April 22, 2019 at 3:04 pm #

      LOLOL

    • Avatar
      Heidi April 25, 2019 at 3:45 pm #

      Andrew,

      Love the way you pen down words
      It’s Inspiring, how you write
      Your funny posts need to be heard
      Help us stay on course despite

      Please keep it up! And show us all
      Through words in wondrous rhyme
      How to steady walk – not fall –
      And trust God’s perfect time.

      🙂

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 25, 2019 at 3:48 pm #

        Heidi, I am so grateful for this. You brought sunshine to a very harsh day, and my heart sang with your rhyme and cadence.

        I’ll be here.

        Hope you will, too.

  9. Avatar
    Barbara Ellin Fox April 22, 2019 at 6:52 am #

    I’m sorry that you receive such hurtful and vile comments. This should never happen anywhere but we live in a fallen world.

    My critiques usually come from 3 categories, my critique partners whom I’m always trying to urge not to be so sweet, contest judges who I view as if they were a reader, and people I admire for their skills. That last category can lay me out to bleed for a while. Negative comments always hurt but after the burn wears off they can hold important direction and make me think about what I’ve written.

    In all cases I try to write a thank you that expresses appreciation for the time the person has spent on my work. Unless I pay for a critique there is nothing that says the person is required to read my work. If I can’t cope with a variety of opinions I may as well trade my computer in for hiking gear and get out in the fresh air.

  10. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver April 22, 2019 at 6:53 am #

    Bwa-ha-ha! Nice poem, Andrew!

  11. Avatar
    Damon J. Gray April 22, 2019 at 6:59 am #

    Such responses serve only to confirm the appropriateness of you declining representation, and emphasize the concept of never burning bridges. A more appropriate response would be one of self-examination, or a closer look at my submitted proposal with a view toward determining why it was rejected.

    That said, I will tell you that of the dozens of proposals I have sent for my most recently completed manuscript, two agents sent me very nice responses explaining what they appreciated about it, and why they were declining representation for that work. One of those came from your agency, and I will be submitting a new proposal for my current work in progress to that very same, thoughtful agent.

    Wide swings of the pendulum are easily remembered, whether those swings be kindness or nastiness. Kindness earns my respect and loyalty, whereas nastiness is difficult to forget and causes me to give a wide berth to them on future encounters.

  12. Avatar
    Andra M April 22, 2019 at 7:03 am #

    I say, “thank you,” and move on.

    Eventually.

    Depending on how harsh the criticism may be, I allow myself to wallow in self-pity for a day or two, then look at the critique again with a less emotional eye. Most times their critiques have merit. If they don’t, I ignore.

  13. Avatar
    Nora April 22, 2019 at 7:32 am #

    The second response was just one of those “God gave me this even though I’m neither Moses nor John”.

    I can only imagine the 3rd response lacked imagination. In that case I do wonder about the book.

    Keep plugging away.

  14. Avatar
    Bryan Mitchell April 22, 2019 at 7:37 am #

    In my early Army years, the commanding officer of my unit ran our Physical Training (PT) one morning. He purposely made the training more rigorous than usual. When he asked for a critique, I told him what I thought, and he verbally reprimanded me for it in front of my peers and his. Then he asked for more criticism and received nothing.

    I’m sure these guys worked really hard on their novel and expected a personal critique that would help them improve the work, but really they may need to pay for that kind of advice. I’ve never been published, but I know that standard rejection letters are likely to come; almost every reference on publishing says “be prepared for rejection”. I think a standard, cold rejection letter says a lot. It’s certainly a downer, but it’s better to take it as it is and move on rather than whining about it. “Says the guy who hasn’t submitted his work yet.” 🙂

  15. Avatar
    Eva Marie Everson April 22, 2019 at 7:38 am #

    I think those of us who deal with rejection letters from “this” side of the desk (the sending side) should write our own book filled with the emails we receive back.

    No, no … that would not be the Christian thing to do.

    Never mind.

    I’m going back to work now … 🙂

    Thank you for making me smile a little Steve, Even though this is a sad type of post (too bad these writers responded in such a way), it helps to know 1) we are not alone; and 2) this is NOT the way to respond.

    Do you think these writers know there is actually a “club” made up of those rejected by you? (grinning)

  16. Avatar
    Janet Ann Collins April 22, 2019 at 8:59 am #

    I’m sorry you get such rude responses. Obviously they confirm that you wouldn’t want to work with those authors no matter how good their writing might become in the future. But this is the CHRISTIAN publishing industry. WWJD is certainly not what they did.

  17. Avatar
    Kay DiBianca April 22, 2019 at 9:50 am #

    “Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
    reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” — Proverbs 9:8

    Even though criticism hurts, it is a gift, and we should learn to be grateful for it.

  18. Avatar
    Steve Laube April 22, 2019 at 9:51 am #

    Eva,

    Thanks for the memory of the recent Mt. Hermon conference where the faculty had some fun at my expense!

    It began at the faculty meeting with one person’s introduction which included a side comment about my rejecting their manuscript. It snowballed from there. At one point there was a show of hands in a room of about 50-60 faculty….over half raised their hands as being a victim of my rejection letters. It was hilarious. We all laughed.

    But there is a huge lesson here for all the readers of these comments. NONE of these consummate professionals gave up. They knew that my rejection letter was not snide or snarky. That writer may have not yet been ready. The publisher I was working for at the time was not a good fit for their work. Or I simply missed it. But none gave up and quit. They kept working on their craft, their platform, their network.

    A rejection by an industry veteran is not a “go away and never come back.” It should be seen as a “not yet” or a “keep working”. You never know, in 10 years you might be in a faculty meeting and be able to raise YOUR hand as one who absorbed a “no thanks” but persevered to the calling that God has placed on your heart.

    Thanks Eva!

    • Avatar
      Ramona Richards April 22, 2019 at 12:39 pm #

      Yes! Especially that “keep working” part. I’ve received more than 350 rejections over my career, and I’ve made every mistake a writer could make in my submissions. But I definitely learned a lot along the way, especially from the critics. Once you stop fuming and take a look at what they’re saying, some wisdom might be found.

  19. Avatar
    Ashley Schaller April 22, 2019 at 11:03 am #

    Oh my!

  20. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D April 22, 2019 at 12:12 pm #

    Steve, I guess that’s the nature of the beast. I have developed more of a thick skin, the longer I teach. I actually have two ladies who read my stories before I send them anywhere, and they know I want “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” because it will be impossible for me to grow as a writer otherwise. (As I went through several re-writes of my dissertation, my skin was not so thick, to be fair!)

    • Avatar
      David Rawlings April 22, 2019 at 6:52 pm #

      That’s good advice Sheri. I tell my beta readers similar things – I need to know the problems now, not later, because it’s now that I have the chance to fix them!

  21. Avatar
    Amy Dohmen April 22, 2019 at 12:36 pm #

    Oh, my word! I can’t believe anyone would write responses like that! Actually, maybe I can, because I work in customer service, and people are pretty surprising. Either way, if my mother would have raised them, they’d be afraid to pop off like that. Working on building a thick skin as I send off my fledgling manuscript to an editor for the first time. Thankfully, I already know it needs professional help.
    Keep following the Lord’s leading as I’m sure you do.

  22. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan April 22, 2019 at 3:17 pm #

    I think these negative replies go into the box of ‘Never Burn Bridges.’ I read that, also.

    I’ve received personal and automated (and several no reports) in the past. Most were good learning tools, even the no response — I know I have said it in the past, all the reviews, good, bad, not there mean ‘keep working.’

    When I no longer got rejections that said, ‘never send us a manuscript ever, ever again,’ I figured I was making progress. When I received a polite hand-written note from Beverly Knight, with blessings included, I spent a good year working on the manuscript to tweak it. My last rejection was even better (from Steve but, like, no names…) and I put it aside, let it stew a month, and have been reworking it since.

    Never burn a bridge. Still, so much to learn. I figure, one more rejection will earn the manuscript at least a 6-month hiatus, and it just may never be a work that would sell. And I’m okay with that.

    Keep praying and plugging along. And Steve, I am so sorry for the cranky and rude folks who send those emails. Writers are prickly people and even I have had a moment or two, but no reason for spite.

  23. Avatar
    David Rawlings April 22, 2019 at 6:51 pm #

    Thanks for your post Steve. It’s disappointing to hear that happens. Put aside the inappropriateness of the responses for a moment, and you realize how short-sighted they are. This industry – like many others – appears to me to be about relationship and the longer-term. Sure it’s disappointing to be given a no, but the authors I respect are long-termers with a perseverance based on getting up from the canvas a number of times.

    When I was starting out, I found this type of rejection to be hard; to not take it personally. I found comfort in reframing my mindset, so instead of hearing my work was “not right” I tried to think of it as “not right now”. It took some time, but once the sting of the rejection had faded, I went back to the comments and realized that most of the time they carried something I could address or improve on. The work was better for it. And it improved my chances of acceptance next time around.

    And now that I’m published, that mindset still holds as the rejection doesn’t stop – whether that’s publishers looking at book two or even a reader posting a tepid two-star review because they didn’t like your story. We are creative people working in an industry without any answers, just shades of gray in terms of what “works”. And developing an understanding of that will only make us better at it.

  24. Avatar
    Janet Ann Collins April 22, 2019 at 7:36 pm #

    When I was in college and told my roommate I wanted to be a writer she said, “Show me your rejection slips. You’re not really a writer until you have some.” Years later when I got my first rejection slip I remembered what she had said and was happy to know that meant I was really a writer. But, today, it’s rare to get any kind of response from publishers and agents if they don’t want what you submitted. How hard could it be to send a standardized rejection form as an e-mail response? I greatly admire you for actually responding to submissions you can’t use.

  25. Avatar
    Mara Kim April 22, 2019 at 10:02 pm #

    If I were rejected, I would move on to the next agent or publisher. I think it’s similar to looking for a job. I’ve been rejected outright for jobs. But I move on and apply for the next one. I’ve had interviews and then been rejected. But each time, I’ve learned and took notes on the process. If I receive a call, I always ask if there is something I could do better. And many times, they tell me. It’s paid off. I’m currently a Finance Manager in a State Library. But that was after many rejections for other jobs. My point is I would never respond in a negative manner to a rejection. Trust me when I say, “It’s a small world.”

    By the way, I’m enjoying the classes through the Christian Writer’s Institute.

  26. Avatar
    Regina Merrick April 23, 2019 at 8:03 am #

    Honestly, I can not imagine the gall a person would have to have in order to respond in ANY of those ways. Criticism is not a personal attack – especially via email. As many rejections as these respondents are probably collecting, I wonder if they spend that much negative energy on each one? As a Christian, it hurts that people are this way, but as a Christian, it also makes sense, because Christ never said we wouldn’t have troubles! Bless you!

  27. Avatar
    Ellen Engbers April 23, 2019 at 8:35 am #

    Yikes!!

  28. Avatar
    Richard New April 23, 2019 at 5:50 pm #

    The problem with the standard rejection letter from your office (which I’ve gotten two or three times now), is there is no direction as to what I need to do to improve the MS.

    Reading between the lines, I’m guessing: everything. But, that’s a guess. Some direction would be more helpful.

  29. Avatar
    Edward Reagan April 30, 2019 at 3:51 pm #

    As a journalist, I’ve had all sorts of comments about my writing. Most of those critical comments have been useless because they came from individuals who clearly did not read what wrote. Rather, they “read” what they wanted to read.

    I find an honest critique of my writing refreshing, rare but refreshing.

  30. Avatar
    Anthony Jones May 12, 2019 at 3:23 pm #

    Whaaaaat?! That second one makes me cringe 🙁

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