Toughen up!

September 3, 2015

Tough love forI was 16 when I had my first professional editor, on a weekly column about my high school in my town’s weekly newspaper. I was paid $2 for each column, probably about the hourly rate for freelance writing today, thanks to the glut of writers who will take slave wages. But this post isn’t about pay. It’s about editing.

Two years later at college, I was edited by my professors in J-school. It was my introduction to taking criticism. But that wasn’t the end of it. Feedback and editing were my constant companions during a long career in corporate communications and freelance writing.  I chose to be critiqued and edited in my personal writing, too, as I took workshops and hired freelance editors to hone my work.

It paid off.

I’m in my 60s and I still hire freelance editors to help me improve essays I want to submit for publication. Hey, listen, after all these years at the keyboard, it isn’t a cakewalk to see my writing coach’s feedback on personal essays. Usually, her feedback shows me that I don’t have distance on my writing, that the long view is missing, the one that will make my piece universal instead of simply a personal rant or celebration.  When you write first-person essays, you can’t hide behind a character. It’s you, front and center.

writeMy blog may be hurting my essays

As much as I love my blog for personal expression, I suspect it’s hurt my real writing.  On my blog I can write unfettered by the need to be universal or less personal.  Blogs, you see, are the writer’s ultimate personal expression because we can write whatever we want. We can rail, dump and say things that an editor would reject in a heartbeat.

Blogs are everywhere and that’s okay with me. I’m all for self-expression. But today, it goes a step further. Just about anyone with a keyboard can say they’re a writer today and even get “published.”  Some of the things I see published on websites that don’t get edited seriously (or at all), such as HuffPo, make my writer’s soul cringe. It’s clear that HuffPo is just filling a daily content hole with…whatever. Well, ok. But here’s the thing: without editing, these content-providers have no distance on their writing and if it’s a deeply personal piece, the writer can seem tone deaf. In fact, they ARE tone deaf because they can’t see past what they meant. And often what they meant isn’t what’s on the screen.

I’m a personal essayist who writes about myself and my experiences and I KNOW I can be tone deaf. And if I don’t see it? My editor does. Because I write memoir, I can’t hide my too-human failings and flaws in the guise of a fictional character. In fiction, a reader can have a poor opinion of a character but in first-person writing, the opinion is about the writer herself. The worst thing in the world is to have an “unlikeable narrator,” something that I’ve been accused of a time or two by my writing coaches. That’s right–even now, I can be tone deaf to how things come across.

Thanks to self-publishing, just about anyone can publish a book, too. Sometimes I can’t believe what I see in print and have to pick up a volume by a great writer, such as, for example, Gore Vidal, to reassure myself that good writing did once exist and is still there.

penWheat vs. chaff, men vs. boys, writers vs. hobbyists

But it’s a funny thing about those who self-publish or publish online: one bad review or a single nasty commenter can throw them. It’s always surprising when I see a blogger/writer complain about a single bad review, as if they were entitled to only good reviews. Or when they freak out about an isolated troll comment. Or even a piling on.  They freak out because they haven’t developed the thick skin grown by those of us who have been edited for decades. They’re incapable of taking the feedback, evaluating it, using what’s valid to improve the next piece and moving on.

Not too long ago I had a discussion about this with Kathleen O’Donnell, a writer-friend of mine. She writes well-regarded fiction that I like. I like her, too.  (Here’s her website and want to say I loved her first novel. She’s working on her second. )

“I’ve had my ass handed to me a bunch of times by editors, publishers, other writers,” she told me. “One nasty comment would be a cake walk for me!”

I told her that I saw a definite distinction between those of us who came up being edited, either starting in J-school or thereafter,  and bloggers who get published and become “writers.”  If after a bad review or comment,  they bemoan it online and ask for support, they usually are new to the game. Because those of us who have been in the game awhile don’t need to say anything. We ‘take the note’ as they say in Hollywood, and move on.

“Indeed,” she said. “Nobody gets criticized like writers. We even pay to get criticized! That’s how badass we are.”

I laughed, but it’s true. I pay to get criticized, too. So I’m going to call myself “badass” from now on!  And while I wouldn’t like getting a bad review or troll comments, it’s part of writing.

So, we have some advice for writers. If you’re brave enough to put a piece out there, then it behooves you to toughen up. Not everyone will like every pearl of wisdom that flows from a keyboard. Some critics may even have valid points.


Help yourself–we’ve got plenty to spare!

My best writing advice is this: do as we longtime writers do. Grow a pair. If you need some, help yourself from this bowl!

And if you’d like to read more on handling bad reviews, look right here.




31 comments on “Toughen up!
  1. Mellie says:

    This may be my favorite post from you yet. As usual you put things in perspective and manage to toss in some helpful infor and some humor to boot!

  2. Quin B says:

    This post made me LOL because what you say is absolute truth! “Grow a pair.” Tell it like it T. I. tizzz with your “badass” self! 🙂

  3. Beth Havey says:

    Great post. I’ve been writing and have had my work published now and again. The net changed that forever–there is more competition and it requires that your every word is excellent and well-placed, but that you toughen up. Adaptation is the word. I don’t turn out a blog a day–I post once a week. Some of my posts are better than others–because I am also writing a novel and trying to get an agent and running a household and living my life. But writing will always be part of my soul and as things proceed, humor like yours will help tons!

  4. pia says:

    I think what you said about blogging hurting writing is very true. When I first began blogging years ago I was enamored with being able to post my unedited words.
    Then I realized how horrible that was.
    I would never be hurt (well I might be but that’s life) by negative comments or helpful comments about my writing itself.
    What I hated was when I was a political blogger people would tell me to die, that I wanted to kill little kids, that I was completely crazy for thinking Muslims aren’t the only people capable of committing horrific crimes. I told the people who were supposed to be backing me that I would like some support but they loved the traffic these comments generated and told me: “as a writer you have to get used to negative comments.” I would answer: “about my writing yes but not because I’m prochoice, etc.” And these comments were just plain nasty. Some people write to generate them. I don’t.
    They never got what I was saying and I left the blog though it had formed around my writing.
    I think people have to make that giant distinction between writing criticism and criticism of beliefs. I might despise Bill O’Reilly but he’s a damn good writer. If he wrote political books I might write counter arguments—but they wouldn’t be in the spirit of hate.
    And it gets to me when bloggers complain about one measly comment that would have felt like mother’s milk to me compared to “you are an idiot who lacks a moral compass and doesn’t deserve to live.” That one was actually funny in its complete sickness.
    Thanks Carol. As usual you made me think.

    • But see, that’s the whole thing. Writers don’t require support. They put their words out there and what comes, comes. If crazy people comment, well, that says more about them than the writer.

  5. Love this Carol, and not just because you mention my ass! I’m in a writers group still (something many writers won’t do, especially if they’re PUBLISHED) and they ream me on a weekly basis. They are usually spot on. It’s called criticism and not praise for a reason. I can promise you that my work wouldn’t be fit for print if I didn’t get edited. It hurts. I don’t care what anyone says. It’s not fun, it can piss you off, but it’s essential. I work hard every day to write the best novel I can. Why would I toss it out without the appropriate accessories? That’s what good editing is – the statement accessories on your little black dress. Or a great haircut. And we all know how much those can hurt! Great post. Well said. Truth.

  6. J.M. Brown says:

    Does anyone who writes anything really expect that what you say will be liked by everyone? If I thought that I wouldn’t get criticism for my first novel, I wouldn’t have published it. I’ve gotten five-star reviews and a few 3-stars. On the average I have a 4.5 star rating. Having said that, there were some criticizing remarks in a few of the five star reviews. I welcome any comments, good or bad, because it lets me know what the public sees that I may be blind to. How else can you grow as a writer. I can read well-known author’s books and find typos or rambling babble in them. I could give some of them a three-star rating.

  7. Since I’m a food blogger I’ve never received criticism for my writings. But ever once in a while I get a nasty comment about my photos!

  8. Mary says:

    Another great post, Carol! You always have me thinking and learning. Thanks.

  9. I totally agree with the ‘grow a set’ advice. I’m a hobbyist writer and I welcome the criticism. Jesus- if you put it out there- you need to own it.

  10. Hi Carol! I agree with what you say here on many levels…We writers do need to be tougher. It sounds like you have a lot more editorial experience than I do and that probably shows in my writing. But one difference—my mom or dad didn’t “love” everything I wrote. In fact when I asked them what they thought of my first book all they said was, “we didn’t like the ending.” That helps you get of certain people’s reactions pretty quickly. You can definitely tell the writers who haven’t been doing it for long when they complain about the critics or trolls. Of course I never did get a review on Amazon for my novel “Finding Grace” from you either–and now I’m worried!!!! ~Kathy

  11. Lisa Froman says:

    You are a badass! Lol. Loved!

  12. Best post of yours I’ve read yet! My best friend is a playwright…a contraversial one too…she doesn’t even get the luxury of hiding behind a computer…she’s gotta take the criticisms face to face from her audience, the directors, the producers – whether they be reasonable or whacky. Of course, a lot of praise comes to her too.

  13. Good suggestion! I will have to do that.

  14. This is hands down, no question about it, THE best post of yours I’ve ever read. Hear, hear, one and all!

    • Thank you! And I know you have read so many of mine, so this is high praise. Yes, writers must lose the idea that all readers are going to poop only unicorns and rainbows on their stuff!

  15. Great article and applicable to me right now as I foray into the online world of Op-Eds, memoir pieces, and essays. Thank you for writing this.

  16. Sandy Nelson says:

    I have absolutely no writing experience at all. Nada. So when I do write, I realize that it could be compared to the early education reader Dick and Jane. “See Dick run. Run Dick run. Run, run, run.” I’m aware that my writing is on a primary level. I critique myself harshly for it. But I’m motivated to improve. And at least I’m trying.

    People are loyal to the authors that prompt a reaction or connection within them through their words. I think it’s personal taste. For years, I read every book written by Dr. Robin Cook. Stephen King has a certain audience. Even bad writers sell their books. How? I don’t know, but they do.

    Carol, your words move me and I thank you for them! And I thank you for the high standard and ethics you place on your writing! You inspire me!

  17. Wow, this is spot on, Carol. If I’m going to be honest, I’d have to say my blog has hurt my writing, too. Kind of a sobering thought.

  18. Carolann says:

    Such solid truth to what you have said in this post. I see so many folks get highly insulted when they see a negative comment or criticism. You hit the nail right on the head with this one Carol.

  19. I wish I had had my ass handed to me more often. I could’ve been something great by now! My experience with bloggers and bloggers forums has been a good and happy one. Bloggers are very social and like to give feedback, but very rarely do I ever receive constructive criticism. That’s one thing I would love to receive more of.

  20. Joan Stommen says:

    I know this about you….but reading this is the strong, clear, in-my-face message I needed! Always having an editor, and then not…..I considered myself confident and capable because of my training in education and experience in journalism. But I forget the most important fact……audience! Thank you, Carol….and Kim…for sharing it here for ever-evolving writers!

  21. Diane says:

    A must-read for any wanna-be writer!
    My blog has been devastating to my writing! In it, I use short, choppy sentences. Punchy, maybe, but leaves one rather breathless in long prose. I’m so grateful for my editors (plural) who keep me real.

  22. I started to leave a comment here, but when it became the length of a blog post I erased it!
    You have touched on a subject I have been thinking of for a while. Most of us write for two reasons – to provide information, but also to improve our writing craft. Without feedback, it is hard to know the areas of writing that we need to work on. I loved this post – and you have reinforced some thoughts I have been having about some changes I need to make. First on the list is to find a writer’s group to which I can belong! Thanks Carol, for the insight you have offered here.

  23. Joy says:

    The sad thing is that bad writing has become so popular and is so much easier to read that those are the posts that get the most audience! How crazy is that? Thicker skin is indeed needed if one is serious about growing and perfecting one’s craft. This is a good reminder. Thanks, Carol!

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