Constructive criticism is a good thing

As a writer you have to get used to criticism, whether it be from your own critical brain, or from an external comment from friend, family member or professional. I’ve had my fair share along the way and still get criticism and rejections, every so often. But, if you publish your own books, you avoid all this, right?

That’s what somebody on Twitter implied to me the other day – why am I worrying about rejection if I publish myself? I’m sure they assumed I was trying to get something published, but what they may not have realised is, as independent publisher, you still have to go out and try and sell your book to the world, try and persuade the “gatekeepers” who own the bookshops, book buyers, distributors, wholesalers, organisations, why they should take a risk with your book. And, remember, it is a risk taking on an unknown book from a new author or independent publisher, unless it’s an easy sell, preferably, a book that has got the backing of a TV series, film rights sold and from an established author.

And so, like a writer trying to get their book published, trying to sell your self published book is also a struggle, one that is littered with rejections and criticism along the way, but hopefully if your book really is good (it is good isn’t it?), some great feedback and success too.

I write this because recently I’ve stepped up my marketing activities in order to get our books sold in more outlets around the country. I say “outlets” as you have to think further than traditional bookshops (my views on the future of real bookshops, however much I love them, I’ll save for a future blog post). I recently got some feedback on our new book from a senior person in a big organisation that I won’t name. It was confusing as the email was very vague and suggested that certain aspects of our book would not chime well with them. I immediately went into panic mode, flipping through a copy of the book on my desk, checking to see if there was anything contentious contained within.

I started to guess at a few possible things, mind racing. In the end I was bold and politely emailed back to ask for some clarification, asking that their expert feedback would be greatly appreciated. To my delight I got back a quick email with more detail. I took on board the feedback and realised that some elements of the book could be construed in a different way, from their point of view – they were thinking of a managerial point of view, health and safety etc. I could have just thought – no I’m not changing MY BOOK, how dare you, it’s perfect! But, they did have a point, and if a senior person, experienced in their field, noticed things that set off alarm bells, other people might also think the same. This would have been devastating  if we had thousands of stock books piled up, but we use Print On Demand (POD) technologies to only print the books we want at the time. I have now made some changes, which only took a few hours and future books will be improved following detailed constructive criticism. And that’s the point, when you get criticism, ask for more detailed feedback.

This is easier said than done as I know, if we’re talking about getting published, agents and publishers rarely give you specific feedback – a standard form rejection is de-rigour due to the sheer height of most slush piles. Having said all this, years ago I got a hand written rejection from an agent that gave me so much confidence on my writing (the story sucked) that it really helped me push ahead.

And so, I say, to all those that give criticism, please, please, if you can, spare a moment, a few helpful, honest, specific words to the recipient will be appreciated. And to those who have got some recent criticism and rejection, please listen to it then wipe away the tears, make some changes, get back on the horse and make that jump. Although, be prepared to fall off into that muddy ditch again, sorry.

4 Replies to “Constructive criticism is a good thing”

  1. Having tried to pimp out a book I wrote some years ago, I had to stop because the amount of ‘nice’ rejections I got were getting a bit much for my delicate writer’s ego. I say ‘nice’ – it seemed like every agent/publisher I offered it to had their own opinion on how I should extensively edit/rewrite and they weren’t afraid to tell me. None of the changes were small or insignificant – at the risk of sounding precious, quite a lot of their suggestions I just simply didn’t agree with. So yes, getting constructive criticism is a good thing, but, like biscuits and gin, you can have too much of a good thing. In the end, I’ve effectively shelved that particular book until I feel confident enough to look at it again with the benefit of some time off and fresh eyes. Maybe then some of the rewrites put forward will make sense and I’ll have a bit more success! Hope your editing is more fruitful 🙂

  2. Consider yourself lucky to have had some feedback instead of standard rejection letters – it means they thought you had something. Have a biscuit! 😉

  3. Yeah I can appreciate that it’s quite rare to actually get feedback from them – and believe me, the first few times I was absurdly pleased until I started comparing what they actually suggested – I think out of about 9 letters, all wanted me to revise the plot in completely different ways! If I’d chosen one to focus on, I’d worry that it wouldn’t appeal to other, IYSWIM. Anyway – other ‘life’ stuff happened which meant I couldn’t devote as much time as I wanted to writing, so, as I said, it’s shelved. Thank goodness for hard drives.

    Can I have my gingerbread now?

    1. Yes, perhaps I should have said that it’s obviously important to listen to criticism, but whether you then act on it is another thing. I think plot is my worst skill, but I feel these decisions are up to the author – what a good editor should do is advise you on how to improve *your* plot, not suggest a new one – good help often comes with their experience in knowing how to restructure it. Ultimately the decision lies with the author. You need time away from it – seems like you’ve had some – then return to it and you’ll either see it for the turd it was, or find a way to fix it, or decide it was brilliant just how it was.

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