How Do I Tell Them Their Writing Sucks?

IMG_2074How do we support fellow authors when we feel their writing is not of a standard that we would be proud to share?

Today’s question is a lot more sensitive than usual as none of us wants to hurt the feelings of fellow tribe members. But the reality is, we come up against this problem all the time, and we need to put it on the table fully and purposefully if it isn’t going to become the elephant in the room very quickly! Ultimately it will only going to get bigger, and we need to clean up all that poop! So let’s sort it out now before it settles in.

I am no expert on this subject and I find it extremely difficult to tackle. So I’m just going to throw out some thoughts on this one, and hopefully, you can all build on it?

First and foremost I want to stress that being given the opportunity to read and review and critique the work of another author is a huge honour and one that we need to be very very careful with. This is sacred space we are treading on, and no matter what we do, feel or say, we need to tread with a massive dose of humility and an even bigger dose of grace! Anything short of that is always going to go badly!

Here are some real-life examples:

I once read an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of a book which from page one was filled with errors. I would have put down the book immediately but I had offered to read it for a friend and didn’t want to let her down. So I read a few pages more to see what was going on and soon realized that there was a beautiful story underneath there and that without the errors, it could be a success. So I put on the most humble hat I could find, wrote her a carefully worded message which was the least accusatory or judgemental that I could possibly write, and apologized profusely for being the bearer of bad news.

But I told her straight out, that I saw great potential in her story, and that I also saw some quite bad mistakes. I shared with her that in my own personal, totally subjective opinion, the mistakes appeared to me to be simply a translation issue (the book had been written first in a European language) and I gave her some advice on how to fix them.

I went to bed worried, but needn’t have. I woke the next morning to a beautiful thank you message, and over the next few weeks we put our heads together to come up with a solution. She sacked her translator, postponed her launch by a few weeks, and we combed through that manuscript over and over again. She ran it through Grammarly time and again, and I cheered her on from the sidelines every step of the way.

It was a great honour for me to be a small part in that and loved watching her beautiful story emerge!

Here is another real-life story:

I bought a book that looked great, and while it was a much heavier story, with all the things that I am passionate about (abuse, survival, tribes and so on), there too was an amazing story in there. The author wrote in a way that I felt brilliantly walked that very fine line between laying bare the truth of unspeakable abuse without having to go overboard and become gory or voyeuristic. She somehow kept the integrity of the abused child and later adult, without shying away from the horror that she endured.

But I also found the story a little jarring. Instead of building through to crescendoes and solutions and resolutions which built slowly and unpacked over time, the story moved from beautifully written tragedy to beautifully written tragedy with very fast solutions in between which came out of nowhere. I wanted to know how those solutions evolved and came into being, how trust was built and I wanted to live with the main character through her fear of failure with so much on the line. I wanted to rejoice with her triumph but it was a triumph that I couldn’t connect to as the reader was not taken on that particular journey.

Again it was my personal perspective opinion on the story and it was very subjective, but I wanted to share my thoughts with the author in the hope that they could take her writing to the next level. I still believe that she has huge potential as a world-class author, but that this potential blind spot could hold her back for some readers.

Her response was not as welcomed as the other author and she told me I was wrong. I have no doubt that I am wrong, who am I anyway, and it was just my opinion. But it laid out for me the question of how do we navigate this space of sharing our opinions and helping? I was honest with both of them and had completely different results.

And in both cases I believed in the authors and would read ALL of their books and be a huge Brand Ambassadors for them for the rest of their careers if they would learn from what I see as their potential blind spots.. I am not the boss of how successful anyone is, but I do follow authors I can get behind totally, but don’t want to read books that leave me feeling as though it could have been so much more.

Then again what would have happened in each of these 2 cases if behind their meagre blind spots, there wasn’t an amazing author there? What if those stories were boring or badly written, or mechanical or going nowhere no matter what efforts and “fixes” were thrown at them?

I invested in those stories and those authors because I LOVE their work. But there have been others where I simply don’t. Is it me? Is it them? Who am I to say. But I simply don’t have the time, energy, or know how to help them in any way that I can see will make a difference, and it’s best to walk away. Isn’t it?

So my only thoughts and experiences come to these conclusions:

  1. If I have the honour of reading anything for review or critique, then I do so remembering that this is sacred ground I have been given the honour of walking on. I need to treat it as such.
  2. If I LOVE it and it is perfect (how often does that ever happen LOL), then fabulous for me and fabulous for them! Woohoo!! I become their number one fan, write a great review, and become a brand ambassador for them FOREVER!  ….YAY!
  3. More likely, however, is that especially for a relatively new author (less than 5 full books under their belt) there will be a few blind spots that they would hopefully want to be aware of. Most authors want to be better and to know how to improve. But again, we are on sacred group here, so all feedback should be given with as much grace and humility as possible.
  4. How the author responds is about them not me. If I have been constructive, humble and gracious, that is all I can do. If they don’t want anything more then that’s fine and I honestly do feel for them as no one likes “constructive feedback” so they are entitled to feel a bit yuck. But whether they use that feedback as a stepping stone or not is up to them.
  5. If I can’t find the fluent, flowing author and his or her magic in there anywhere, regardless of mistakes big or small, then this is where I struggle the most. It doesn’t mean a fabulous, incredible author isn’t in there, or that their work is not magnificent, but some writing styles don’t speak to me, some stories I cannot relate to, some language grates on me rather than sings to me, and sometimes I can’t even unpack it that succinctly that I can put my finger on the “problem”. It’s just for me and that’s the end of that.

What are your experiences and solutions to this dilemma?

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