Today, I want to talk about bad critiques. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not I should share this, mostly because there’s a die hard community of people who think hatchet jobs are important, and I’d rather escape their radar.

The Dangers of Bad Critiques

Original photo by Ana Tavares
But, ultimately, I’ve decided that my experience could be helpful to some, so I thought I’d go ahead and share with you today.

But first, let’s define “bad critique.”

I’m not talking about getting negative feedback on a story. Negative feedback is important, and if you’ve done something super dumb, it’s best to be called out for it early on so you don’t spend a lot of time trying to sell a terrible story to agents.

When I say bad critique, I mean the unhelpful ones. I mean the ones that are rooted in a place of ignorance. I mean the types of critiques that come from people that don’t know shit about writing. I’m talking garbage like, “well, I only read one book a year, and I don’t like yours because it’s not a love story.” Or, “this isn’t right. I don’t know what’s wrong, but this is not right.”

See? Unhelpful.

So, it’s with that in mind that I share the bad critiques that almost stopped me in my tracks.

My Experience with Bad Critiques

When I finished the Masters of Professional Writing program at OU, there weren’t a lot of career options open to me. Oklahoma is really good about treating people in creative industries like garbage, or giving the best creative job openings to the CEO’s nephew who has a vague understanding of how to open the Photoshop program on his own computer.

(You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m absolutely not.)

So, I knew that pickings would be slim, especially since we were just a couple of years after the recession, and proverbial belts were still tightened.

So with that in mind, I took a job as a ghostwriter at a local vanity press. I won’t go too much into the company, but I will say that it’s since shut down, and the owners have been arrested for their sketchy financial practices. (Fun fact: They billed themselves as a Christian company!)

The workload at this company was intense. Not so much because they were trying to burn the employees out, but because the owners were running it like a Ponzi scheme, and they just didn’t care. Plus, they didn’t deal with customers on the daily like us plebes did, so they were pretty immune from any sort of backlash, at least, for several years.

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As a ghostwriter, I had to outline two books a month, write two books a month, and edit the previous month’s two books. Books were set at 25,000 words, so by writing two, you were functionally doing NaNoWriMo every month, with some other crap on top. It was pretty awful.

My clients weren’t really great. I always felt that if you were using the company I worked for, you weren’t 1.) aware of how the publishing industry actually worked, 2.) incapable of doing a good Google search to find a better option, and 3.) completely unaware that the company was absolutely fleecing you by charging you $10,000 for me to not focus on you 100%.

(Like I said. I really needed a job, and the pickings were slim.)

While I was working there, I burned out hard and fast. There’s a reason NaNoWriMo only comes once a year. But the writing wasn’t even the worst part.

Imagine writing 12,500 words based on a very strong outline you created, only to be told by the client that they want you to start over.

Without fail, each client wanted something different. They never knew specifically what they wanted, but they knew what I had given them wasn’t quite right. And because they were paying an arm and a leg, they demanded it.

I had clients (who were referred to as authors EVEN THOUGH I was the one writing their damn books) tell me that their college Comp I teacher thought they were good writers when they used a lot of alliteration, so I should do the same. I had clients tell my boss that they thought I was mentally disabled because I couldn’t magically create the story they wanted that they had never communicated to me.

It was, without fail, always terrible. And in the rare cases where my clients weren’t being absolute shit weasels, they were being really great people, but making me write some truly terrible things. One example of this is the woman who wanted to write her memoir of childhood sex abuse. So, I’d interview her once a week, listen to her cry over the phone as she rehashed all her childhood trauma, and then I’d go sit at my desk and write about this.

(Most of my clients would miss our weekly calls. They were a whole new level of unprofessional, and it was impossible for me to get anything done.)

I had never been so depressed in my life, and I don’t think I will ever be as depressed again.

(If you know me IRL, feel free to ask me all about my experience there. I’ll give you details on specific clients, and then send you links to their books. Then you can buy me a drink because I’ll definitely need it after that.)

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How I Overcame Bad Critiques

I knew I couldn’t last at that job for a full year, and I didn’t give a fuck. By that time, I had started my second masters, and was ready to get the hell out of there. So, I started looking.

The job I found was at a bank, and I hated it to the same extent I hated my job as a ghostwriter, but for different reasons. This made it tolerable enough for me to take it.

(I’ve written a lot about how most day jobs are garbage. Have you read A Toast to Those Who Hate Their Jobs?)

I knew I had to remove myself from that environment. I had grown to hate writing in a way I didn’t think it was possible. And while I was definitely not in a good state of mind at the time, I knew that it was the job that was making me hate writing.

So, I quit. And for a while, I quit writing.

I couldn’t make myself do it. In the back of my mind, I was always worried about those bad critiques. Even though I knew the people who had given them to me were in no position to critique ANYTHING, it’s still hard not to take it to heart.

You can only take so much before it wears you down.

I finished my second masters, left the bank job, and found a new job as a tech writer. (This job was also terrible, and I believe the CEO of this company will have a similar fate to the owners of the vanity press.) I got this blog up and running, and started taking some time to write things when I felt like it.

I started working on fiction pieces and attending writing conferences. I slowly nursed myself back to a place where I felt like maybe writing wasn’t the worst thing.

And here I am, a mere 7 years later, working on a novel and telling trolls who tell me I suck at writing on Twitter to go kick rocks.

I’ve come a long way, baby.

How You Can Overcome Bad Critiques

So, because you’re reading this blog, I can assume that enjoy writing, or perhaps a creative pursuit of a sort. This makes me assume that you’ve probably encountered a bad critique or two in your day, and you may need some help. So, here’s how you can overcome bad critiques.

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001: Remove yourself from the situation that’s breeding the bad critiques.

If you’re in a writer’s group that’s toxic, step away. Seriously. It’s something I’ve had to do, and it can be hard, but it’s definitely worth it. And it’s doubly worth it if you’re getting bad critiques. If you’re posting your writing online and you’re getting anonymous commenters giving bad critiques, it can be bad. But know that those people are worthless cowards. If someone can only come at you anonymously, it’s because they know what they have to say doesn’t matter.

002: Step away from your writing for a bit.

I know we get super obsessed with word counts and building habits. But sometimes you need to step away. And if the bad critiques are overwhelming you, stepping away is a good choice. It gives you time to breathe and reassess what you’re doing and how you want to continue approaching your writing.

003: Give yourself time and space to fall back in love with writing.

Buy a pretty notebook. Fill it with bits of poems or ideas or pieces of dialog that you want to put in a story. Remember slowly why you like to write, and how good at it you really are.

004: When you’ve gotten your space, look at the bad critiques, and realize they’re trash.

It took me a long time, but maybe it won’t be that way for you. If you can objectively look at those critiques and know that they aren’t worth your time, you’re going to be so much better for it. After you’ve stepped away, take a look at what these people have said. When you see how worthless it really is, you can just let it go.

005: Write a book so good those haters will cry.

I’m not one of those good folks who can turn the other cheek. I’m well aware that my soul grows heavier with the weight of my sins every single day. Even so, I’m mostly motivated by revenge, and seeing those folks eat their words is what I live for. What can I say? I’m more of a laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints sorta girl.

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What’s Your Experience with Bad Critiques?

Have you ever gotten some critiques that really deterred you from writing? Have you dealt with bad critiques? How do you overcome your bad critiques? How heavy is your sould from your over-developed sense of revenge?

2 Responses

  1. I been blessed to be in a couple of good critique groups where people actual wanted you to succeed and made helpful suggestions to improve my writing. They were always careful to say, “This is YOUR story.” They never suggested major changes to the story, just brought up points that I hadn’t considered and helped me fix all my bad grammar.

    I’m not very good at critique. If something causes me to pause in a story, or temporarily throws me off, I’ll point it out to the author. Sometimes a few word changes or simply rearranging a sentence will make it flow better for the reader.

    Your first job sounds like a real drag. I could not be productive in that environment–or sane–for very long.

    Stop by and visit my blog sometime. I promise it won’t bite. http://www.russellgayer.com/

    1. Those critique groups sound amazing! It’s so important to find those types of groups that you can really work with.

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