Just a few days ago, I heard someone say something along the lines of, if people’s opinions are important to your self-worth, don’t be a writer. (That’s a butchered paraphrase, but you get the gist.) Those words resonated with me. I’m not particularly sensitive but writing and speaking in public venues for over 30 years has exposed me to a fair amount of rejection and criticism. I can’t remember a single blog post or talk I’ve given in which I wasn’t concerned about how it was received. I wanted–needed–feedback. The problem is, not all feedback is equal. And that’s true whether it’s positive or negative.
You Can’t Trust Praise
There is no doubt that well-meaning people offer false-praise. For many writers, much of the praise they receive comes from the echo chamber. They surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear. But why are friends, family, and acquaintances more likely than not to offer a false-positive? I can think of a few reasons:
- The work is out of their scope of understanding.
- It falls outside of their personal preferences or interests.
- They don’t know how to judge the work in question.
- They don’t want to be a source of discouragement.
The last one more likely than the others. Writing is subjective. People we know generally don’t like being the bringer of bad news. Unfortunately, this means you cannot fully trust their positive responses about your work.
What positive feedback can you trust?
Ratings and reviews from total strangers, and editors you hire to help you make your work better. Strangers have no reason to hold back. They don’t worry about hurting your feelings and simply say what they think, unencumbered. And editors are paid to criticize so when they give you positive feedback about your work, it’s usually legit.
You Can’t Trust (All) Criticism
There’s a reason why people say that you shouldn’t read reviews. Not only does the negativity impact you emotionally, but it can also compromise your work performance. Plus, people are mean.
Above, I said you can only trust positive feedback from strangers. But that doesn’t mean you can trust a stranger’s criticism about your work. In the world of online reviews, many of which are anonymous, people have no compulsion about holding back. Add to that a human tendency to nitpick stupid, silly, and inconsequential things, you have a recipe for a devastating blow to your ego.
But even “informed opinions” can be disregarded, once considered. And we’ll get to the “considered” part later. My first editor told me something that stuck with me. And again I paraphrase. She said, never trust the feedback of just one person. Only act on it if it feels right.
Over the course of our editing journey, she held to that. If she made a suggestion and it didn’t feel right to me she told me to go with my gut. And because I paid her to argue with me, I’ll take it on faith that she wasn’t pulling her punches.
You Can’t Trust Yourself
Writers often fall into two camps. They are their own worst critic or they are their greatest cheerleaders. In many cases, these two opposing camps are present at the same time. Which is actually a good thing. It’s healthy. They keep each other in balance. It’s when they are out of balance that you shouldn’t trust yourself.
I tend to have delusions of grandeur. I think people are going to read my work and then hoist me on a pedestal and make me their Writer King. Sadly, that never happens. Instead, they come back with criticism about my work. After I uncurl myself from the fetal position and pick myself off the floor, I realize the critiques have merit and I have work to do. In the end, their feedback allows me to make my stories better.
At the same time, I’m my own worst critic. I can rewrite a sentence ten times after it’s perfected just to make it more perfecteder. And when I realize my book will never be the mostest perfectest book ever written I want to throw in the towel. Every writer, at one stage or another, thinks their work is crap. We can’t buy into that either.
I firmly believe that nobody writes a great novel. At least not in their own eyes.
Who Can You Trust?
At the end of the day, you’re going to have to decide who you can trust. Your editor, likely. An agent’s rejection letter? Maybe. A random stranger? It depends.
And this is where the consideration comes in. Do not take ANY feedback at face value. Consider it. Weigh it. Dissect it to separate what’s true and what’s not. Anyone who knows the rules of writing will tell you not to break them. Except when you break them with purpose. In other words, break the rules you know you’re breaking and why. Don’t break rules by accident.
So much of writing is subjective. If it wasn’t, every story would be the same. There would be no surprises and certainly no joy. We like some things and hate others. There will always be someone who hates your work. There will always be people who love it. But the people who love it are no more right or wrong than the people who hate it.
As writers, we have to take all praise and criticism with a grain of salt. Find what we can use and discard the rest. Look for opportunities to grow as a writer, but don’t let anything build you up too high or tear you down too low.
Look for patterns. My first editor’s advice continued. She said, if more than one person offers the same feedback, then it’s likely true. Look for these patterns and discard anything that only one person says. Unless you agree with it.
Find Joy in the Process (or the Result)
Over the course of writing my novel, I’ve done several rounds of beta reading. Each time I’d get feedback from someone and think, no, I don’t agree with that. No change made. But if another two or three beta reader’s echoed it, then I knew I couldn’t trust myself.
And now that I’m querying agents, I’m in the same position. Every agent rejection is a criticism of my book, whether they provide specific feedback or not. The “No thank you,” means they didn’t like what they read. You get enough of these (I’m going for the world record) and it can start to sting.
At the time of this writing, I’ve received 190 agent rejections. But remain positive. I’m confident my book will be successful. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Every rejection letter just makes the coming victory that much sweeter.
But what if my book is never a success?
My identity is not in my novel(s). That’s what I do, not who I am. I have a greater identity that matters so much more. In anything I set out to do, there will always be people more successful than me. And even the most successful people only achieved their success through failure.
Embrace your failures. Embrace your lack of success. Use feedback to learn and grow as a writer and as a person. No one defines you but you. No one can tell you you’re something you’re not. You won’t win at everything, but you can find joy in who you are. Damn the rest.