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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, May 23, 2010


I’ve had a lot of great responses to last week’s post about dealing with less-than-helpful criticism from beta readers and critique groups. I think my favorite was a Steinbeck quote offered by freelance editor (and great blogger) Victoria Mixon:

"I am never shy about it when a professional is doing the reading. But God save me from amateurs. They don't know what they are reading but it is much more serious than that. They immediately start rewriting. I never knew this to fail. It is invariable. They have the authority of ignorance, something you simply cannot combat."

In the spirit of Mr. Steinbeck’s observation, I thought I’d repost a piece I wrote last summer about dealing with the least helpful form of criticism—the unsolicited kind.

Early into our journeys in wordsmithing, most writers discover our chosen art form has a major drawback: everybody’s a f***ing critic.

For some reason, folks who happily offer praise to fledgling musicians, quilters, sculptors, or Star Trek action-figurine painters, feel compelled to launch into scathing critiques of the efforts of the creative writer.

I remember showing an early story to a boyfriend. He returned the manuscript covered with red-penciled “corrections”—changing characters’ names, dialogue, and much of the plot. He’d barely finished High School; I had an Ivy League degree.

      I asked why he felt the need to edit my story.

      He said, “What else would I do with it?”

      I said, “How about saying something nice, the way I do when you show me your woodworking projects.”

      He looked at me as if I were speaking Klingon.

Even my years of professional writing credits don’t deter a compulsive critic. Recently, a visual artist who’s always e-mailing me .jpgs of her latest work—which I dutifully download and praise—asked me about my latest project. I sent her the first chapter. She replied with a 100% negative critique.

Maybe this behavior is perpetrated by those grade-school teachers who had us read aloud our poems about “What Thanksgiving Means to Me,” and invited class comments—which often devolved into verbal spitball attacks. I don’t remember the same free-for-all judging sessions for our construction-paper Pilgrim hats or renditions of “Over the River and Through the Woods.” Maybe some grade-school teacher can tell me why.

Gratuitous criticism is often so clueless, we can laugh and ignore it. It can even be helpful. An untrained eye can sometimes help us look at problems in a new way.

But if it’s derisive, hostile and/or entirely lacking in praise, energize your deflector shields. It has nothing to do with your work and everything to do with the “critic.” An amazing number of people, even decades out of adolescence, still think negativity sounds smart. But it’s good to remember that any Archie Bunker can look at a Picasso and say, “My two-year-old paints better than that!”

Appreciation takes education.

We do need feedback. If you don’t have an editor or trusted beta reader, find a good critique group, preferably writers in your own genre. A good critique is a gift. You know when you hear one. It may sting, but it gives you an “ah-ha” moment that improves your work. Good critiquers know “not my cuppa” shouldn’t be expressed as “your story sux.”

Plus they’ll always give positive comments to balance the negative. Nobody can take undiluted criticism. The brain registers it as an attack, which triggers a fight or flight response.

Here are some suggestions for dealing with self-appointed critics:

1. Avoid showing first drafts to non-writers.

2. Consider the source. If Mr. Judgmental hasn’t read anything but TV Guide since he dropped out of Bounty Hunter school, this is not his field of expertise.

3. If someone asks to see unpublished work, be clear you aren’t inviting critique. Say something like, “My editor prefers that nobody else edit my material. However, I’ll be happy to hear about what you enjoy, and please let me know if you catch any typos.”

4. Give the critic a sweet smile while plotting her murder in your next novel.

5. Think of this as practice for when you’re successful enough to be reviewed by snarky professional critics.

6. If something feels like verbal abuse, consider the possibility that it is. Ask yourself if the critic is:

       a. Feeling neglected. Writers can be selfish with our time. Take him out for coffee and catch up.
       b. A writer-wannabe: she’s dying to write, but too terrified/ blocked/lazy. Envy makes people mean.
       c. A narcissistic bully. Writers are magnets for them. We pay attention, which is what they crave—and we’re solitary, which makes us easy prey. They lure us with praise and fascinating stories; keep us enslaved with threats and/or self pity; then try to erase our personalities and make us mirrors for their reflected glory. They will do or say anything to destroy a victim’s sense of self. Remember NOTHING a verbal abuser says has value. Win a Pulitzer, and you’ll hear, “What, no Nobel?” You’ll never please them by doing better, because nothing pleases them but having power over you.

Good criticism is necessary to any art form, but the unsolicited, negative variety is poison. If comments are unhelpful, ignore them and boldly warp into the next galaxy.

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Blogger Piedmont Writer said...

Thank you thank you thank you!

May 23, 2010 at 11:38 AM  
Blogger Emily Cross said...

again excellent post - anne your a font of information!!

May 23, 2010 at 1:11 PM  
Blogger Donna Hole said...

In getting involved with the writing community - both online and in a ftf crit group - I've learned so much about getting and giving proper feedback. Not that I think I was ever rude or abusive before, but I'm more conscious of how I phrase feedback. Even in my day life.

People hear that a writer needs to be "thick skinned" and take that to mean the writer has to accept graciously anything anyone feels like saying to them.

Not so. Like any other aspiring professional, we just have to be aware not everyone will like us, or think we should succeed in our dreams.

I've found I really enjoy beta reading - God, would I love to be an editor for my real life. Helpful criticism is always my goal, and sometimes I feel my point may get lost, or come across harsh. Not being a very social person, I only offer to read for people who are aware of my commenting personality and writing style. Makes the experience beneficial to both.

Where people botch a critique, like you mentioned, is either in the "envy" syndrome, or just plain forgetting that what they are reading is not their idea. Getting excited about an author's novel is a good thing, but definitely needs moderation.

Good post Anne, especially since I'm in the middle of being a beta right now, and enjoying the heck out of the novel. Thanks for the reminder of what effective critiquing should be.


May 23, 2010 at 3:04 PM  
Blogger Sierra Godfrey said...

Another fab post, Anne. Really enjoyed it.

One frustration I run into in critique groups is people who read to edit. That is, they feel that "critiquing" means "must find errors at all costs." The reader might not have anything large to say about the story, so they find little things that could be changed...because they feel obligated to provide an edit.

Sometimes the edit really is just "That was great!"

May 23, 2010 at 8:24 PM  
Blogger Alison Stevens said...

Great post, Anne.

I find that online critiques can be particularly challenging, since the author can't use facial expressions to figure out how negative (or neutral) a comment really is. As a result, things tend to come across more negative than the critiquer may have intended.

In my experience, the key to successful online critique interactions is to sandwich the feedback: positive - what needs improvement - positive. Cushion the blow at the beginning and the end.

May 24, 2010 at 5:11 AM  
Blogger Churadogs said...

Hmmm, interesting. I wonder why writers even ask to be read/critiqued by friends/family etc. Am thinking of painters (my field, so to speak)and I don't recall ever asking friends to "look at my latest work" with an eye to getting meaningful feedback. Close family, yes, and I'd get reactions and a few comments (mostly helpful) but nothing too technical. Fellow artists, yes, which got into technical comments and aesthetic discussion, all in my experience, nice and helpful, not nasty. Teachers, yes, with lots of technical comments and critiques by classmates, yeah, almost all helpful and non-nasty (students, knowing that turn about's fair play, played nice since they were the next fish in the barrel). But no artist I knew would invite a friend over, for example, for a review of his/her latest round of work.(Inviting a gallery director (me) over to look at work was another matter -- likely the equivalent of a "professional first reader" or "beta reader?")

I don't know why that was. Maybe painting is considered such a technical/specialized activity that "friends" didn't feel qualified to say anything, whereas all of us are readers and so think somehow we know what writing is all about? And we're all used to critiquing books we're reading, as in, "'The Da Vinci Code' really sucked. What a crappy writer he is." Or, "You gotta read 'Devil in the White City!' It's soooo well written. I couldn't put it down." So if a writer friend hands you their book-in-progress, do we somehow knee-jerk criticize it like we know what we're doing?

I don't know. It's an interesting question. Perhaps it's all those red-pencil high-school English classes with the teacher hollering, Rewrite! Rewrite! Rewrite!

May 24, 2010 at 6:30 AM  
Anonymous Victoria Mixon said...

Anne, thanks for taking the ball and running with it. I love that Steinbeck quote.

I wrote a whole chapter on this issue for The Art & Craft of Fiction after I had to ask readers to give only praise, not critiques, on the entries I edited for a Free Edits special last fall. Boy, did some people get snarky with me. One woman withdrew her entry in a huff. But I simply can't afford for bad advice to be proliferated through my blog, where I'm working so hard to create a safe place for writers to come for GOOD advice.

And bad advice is everywhere out there, people. Beware the trolls.

May 24, 2010 at 8:59 AM  
Blogger Lady Glamis said...

This is such a great post. I love Victoria, and her insights are so helpful. Your insights here as incredibly helpful, too, and I agree with you on all of this.

I love to share my work, but I'm not always asking for critiques (someone is always willing to give them though...). I recently opened up a private writing blog where I invited writers and close friends that I know are interested in my work and won't give me negativity that's going to tear me down before I even finish a first draft. One of my friends, though, gave me critiques anyway, and I had to kindly ask her to stop until I specifically ask for them. Her critiques were good, but I'm just not ready for them yet.

Would you mind if I did a post on Lit Lab about this and link to your post?

May 24, 2010 at 9:46 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks everybody for your comments. I think we're all trying to figure out how to share work in progress and still keep safe in the electronic age.

Lady G--I'd be honored by a link from Lit Lab. Yes, do continue the discussion over there! I think this is an important subject that doesn't get addressed enough. The Internet has allowed great opportunities for writers to connect with our peers, but negativity and mob mentality can take over so easily.

May 24, 2010 at 11:40 AM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

Mob mentality. Yes. I think that can definitely be one of the problems in a group situation. It is so much easier to grab onto the last comment, good or bad, and expound on that rather than come up with your own true response.

As for it being easier to critique writing as opposed to, say, painting; words are a medium we all "work" with, all day, every day. We know words. We don’t (most of us anyway) know paint. We might know that we don’t like a painting but most of us can’t identify what we think is “wrong” or how it could be made “right”. But, we all know words. Words are innate to us. So, as Anne said, writers are easy prey for people who want to express their power through criticism.

And, they’re probably jealous because you actually dared to put something on paper and share it! Takes guts.

May 24, 2010 at 3:26 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

Excellent post! Some of my non-writer friends ask to see my writing, and I have to tell them I'm not comfortable showing it to anyone besides my agent and critique partners. But I always wonder what they'd actually do with it if I let them see it. Read and enjoy it? Critique it? Never say a word about it? I'm sure they're just trying to be supportive (and they're probably also curious to see what it is I'm always scribbling) but I don't know if hearing their feedback before the work is published would be terribly helpful.

May 25, 2010 at 6:50 AM  
Blogger Christine H said...

Interestingly enough, I've never had this problem. No one I've known (until recently, when I finally found some critique partners) wanted to say anything negative about anything I showed them. They had no input, which was extremely frustrating. I don't know if they felt unqualified, or just thought it wouldn't be nice to criticize. Or perhaps I'm just so brilliant they had no comment but "I love it!"

In any case, I'd rather have negative comments to ponder and perhaps reject, than none at all. At least I can have the righteous satisfaction of declaring the nasty critic to be a dolt.

May 25, 2010 at 7:45 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Christine H. You bring up an interesting point. I think people can be afraid to comment for fear a positive comment sounds "dumb." But they don't realize silence can feel as negative as overt criticism.

May 25, 2010 at 9:36 AM  
Blogger Dorothy Ann Segovia said...

Churradogs post was interesting. I used to share latest writing to close friends because I was so excited about the writing. But this was when I was first starting out - and I was really selective about who I share with.

As far as critique groups: yes I have been burned because I have exposed my 'baby' too soon.

I've also had some professional editing, including our fab blogger - and I have saved all the notes because I tend to repeat the same mistakes in the first few drafts.

So thanks to Anne, Sil C. and all the other professional, kind and masterful critiquers who have helped my writing journey.

May 25, 2010 at 3:00 PM  
Blogger Bridge Marie said...

Plotting murder in your next novel sounds like a great response to me!

Seriously, though, excessive negatives critiques from unqualified people would depress anyone. Best to super careful about picking readers.

May 26, 2010 at 6:20 AM  
Blogger CKHB said...

Hilarious, and very true!

May 28, 2010 at 6:09 AM  
Blogger irishoma said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking post.

When I first started to read your post I didn't agree because a.) published writers are read by uninformed readers, b.) every reader is entitled to her opinion, and c.) an Ivy league education doesn't necessarily equate a good writer.

Then, the more I read the more I tended to agree with much of what you've written, especially your advice about not showing first drafts to non-writers. The same goes for not bringing a first draft to a critique group.
What I most agree with is your statement that a good critique is a gift.

I've belonged to several critique groups over the years, and giving and receiving critiques is truly an art.

Thanks for a great post.
Donna Volkenannt

May 30, 2010 at 8:40 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks Donna--

It's important to note this post is about UNSOLICITED criticism. Yes, everybody has a right to an opinion. I might have a very strong opinion about the size of my neighbor's posterior--and I have a right to it. But I also have a right to a punch in the nose if I don't keep that opinion to myself.

With solicited criticism--as in a critique group--the situation is different. Criticism is a duty. But it needs to be useful. More on that in today's post.

May 30, 2010 at 2:44 PM  

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