Picture a writer. What do you imagine? The stereotype is usually someone with big dreams but who turns out to be extremely sensitive when it comes to criticism. And has a caffeine addiction to boot.
It’s true that a degree of sensitivity and introspection can aid the creative process. But this ends up in tension with the fact that sharing your writing opens you up to some pretty ruthless critiquing. And most writers learn to become thick skinned very quickly as a result. Because while you might think that the stereotype of the insecure writer would lead the world at large to tread carefully and offer only well-thought-out feedback to authors and poets, preferably accompanied by a slice of cake and a kitten as a distraction, the reality is a long way from this.
I’m generally quicker to laugh than cry at criticism (where it deserves to be laughed at – constructive criticism is an exception because it actually helps!), but even I find it reassuring to know I’m not alone in my bewilderment at some of the genuinely daft things people have said to me about my writing.
So, here are some highlights I’d like to share with you.
That’s not a poem. It doesn’t rhyme.
This insightful gem came from a very intelligent academic, who had been shown a piece of free verse I wrote as a teenager. He was a science professor at a university, and his feedback was that what I had written was a very nice piece of prose. But apparently it did not count as a poem, because all poems have to rhyme.
I would express my own views on this, but I’d rather refer you to Milton’s introduction to Paradise Lost:
“Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse… though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers”
In short, I still write poems and most of them don’t rhyme.
But you haven’t really got a book deal, have you?
Reader, if someone tells you their book is going to be published, I admit it’s possible that they are such an optimist that what they mean is that they plan on writing a book and sincerely hope to see it in print one day.
However, one should always entertain the possibility that they are telling you a publisher has drawn up a contract and is even offering to pay Actual Money for this person’s words. And if you find that implausible, maybe keep your incredulity on the down low, eh? It’s OK not to like their writing, but you never know if someone else might enjoy it.
So your book is autobiographical, right?
I suspect I could write a space opera about a 300 year old ferret falsely incarcerated for shoplifting unicorns on the moon, and I would still hear this one. If your protagonist is even just the same gender as you, there’s not a whole lot you can do to prevent everyone from assuming that you’ve based them on yourself. I bet you wish you hadn’t made your main character quite so flawed now, right? Too late!
You could be the next J.K.Rowling!
OK, this one is meant to be nice, and I don’t want to discourage genuine compliments. But it’s also a bit silly.
Being compared to someone who has sold billions of books and given so much of her earnings away to charity is a lovely thing. But there’s a reason why she is the benchmark of success that everyone goes to. And that’s because it’s hard to think of many famous millionaire authors. There aren’t that many of them. Most writers are not rich, or celebrities. And I think that needs to be OK.
If I’m honest, I’m a little wary of the writer who tells me that their goal is to be as famous and wealthy as Rowling. That’s not even why she got into writing! Most authors write because it’s what they love to do, not because they want to compete with a name who has become synonymous with insane levels of success.
I know a lot of you are writers or otherwise creatively-inclined, so I’d love to hear your experiences of daft feedback in the comments.
And if all this has made you feel like you no longer know what to say to a wordsmith, I’m here to help you with that too! Have a read of 10 Great Things to Say to a Writer, and you’ll be armed with supportive and sensible conversation starters.