Tuesday, 30 June 2009


Apart from death and taxes, one thing is certain in the life of the writer: bad crits.

We all get them.

In some ways, whenever the odd bad review comes my way, I take it as a salutary experience. Having spent much of the past so-many-years reading and reporting on other people's scripts, it's kind of healthy to be reminded of how hurtful and harmful a savage crit can be.

Many reviewers seem to be unacquainted with the 'praise sandwich' principle, which argues that the best way to make a negative remark is to place it between two positives.

Knowing the pit of despair into which it is possible to sink after somebody, somewhere, has given a negative response to your work, I really do try my hardest not to be too cruel in my own script reports. One can be fair without being harsh.

Recently, a piece of my own work was 'assessed' by the moderator of a writers' website. I needn't bother recounting the substance of the crit, because there wasn't any. My effort had been rejected out of hand - which was a minor problem, simply because it seemed to me that the moderator had completely missed the point, treating my chapters as sample material for a novel when in fact it's a work of non-fiction.

Missing the point ... isn't that what we always accuse those who criticise our work of doing?

Ay, there's the rub. Because the fact is, reviewers and reporters are perfectly capable of missing the point.

As recipients of these reports, we writers have to tread a fine line. Sometimes, the reviewers are right: we haven't done as good a job as we thought we had. Other times, the reviewers are plain wrong, or have simply done a dreadful job themselves.

It seems to me that a writer's life is taken up with soliciting reviews and reports now more than ever. One agent I worked with commissioned dozens of them, each from a different reviewer. This, I believe, was a mistake - too many cooks, and all that.

But what are we to do about reviews which are not just unhelpful, they actually undermine our self-confidence?

First of all, every review or script report you receive should be read dispassionately, and scoured for useful tips. Try to get a sense of the overall thrust of the review, and do look out for the positive remarks (it's so easy to be swamped by the negatives).

Then remind yourself that this is only one person's opinion. It doesn't matter if that person is a first-class agent, a renowned editor or a shit-hot publisher. It's just one person's response.

Don't ignore it. Ask yourself, how can I improve what I've written?

But always remember that to err is human. Back in 1998, I wrote a speculative screenplay entitled 'TRISTAN AND ISOLDE'. There was a flurry of excitement at my then agency. Then nothing. The response kept coming back - no one's looking for this sort of thing, nobody wants it. So when, just a few years later, a film entitled 'TRISTAN AND ISOLDE' was released, I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had been right. Someone (Ridley Scott) had indeed been looking for that sort of thing. The doomsayers of the London media village had been wrong. Didn't help my bank balance, but hey - the experts had been talking out of their arses!

So, whatever you do, retain a balance. One bad review does not mean the end of your life's work.

Don't snap, don't answer back. Take whatever's useful from the crit and move on.

After all, there's probably a circle in hell reserved exclusively for those know-it-alls who give out thoughtless crits. It'll be pretty crowded there. I just hope I end up somewhere else altogether.


Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

I'm one of the very few who's actually NOT hurt by negative feedback. I see it as a way of improving my writings.

I only get annoyed when people try to suggest on how to make changes to my story. I will NOT change my story, but I might change a scene around or polish the dialogue.

keep, keep going!

N. Gemini Sasson said...

Having received a gamut of feedback from editors, I've come to realize how much their own personal tastes play into their decisions. I recently received a professional crit as part of a writing contest. It was quite a blow, especially after getting positive reactions by other reviewers, but after awhile I was able to look at it more objectively.

Anonymous said...

You're right. Negative feedbacks can be helpful, indeed. And I wish I could view it disapassionately. But it's hard!!!!!

As for an unhelpful review, I received a few on Authonomy. The ones I find extremely useless are the ones that tell me that my story can't ever get published because it broke away from too many of the "tropes" required in a historical romance.

But I told her I'd try my luck