Dojo Wisdom for Writers Book Club – Lesson #3

Welcome to the Dojo Wisdom for Writers Book Club! Every Wednesday, we meet to discuss one of the lessons in Dojo Wisdom for Writers. We’ll go in order, so it’s easy enough to follow along. Read the lesson, then read the blog post, then comment in the comments! Do feel free to comment on each other’s comments. I’ll answer questions as quickly as I can.

This week’s lesson, Respect the Centerline, is about (among other things) protecting your work and yourself from unhelpful criticism. Whether you’re a beginning writer or have been at it for a while, you’ve probably found that encouragement during the early stages of a project can help you stick with it; you’ve also probably appreciated thoughtful feedback (“That title could be read as a double-entendre, which I don’t think you meant. Maybe rephrase?”) But pointless criticism can damage your ability to move forward with the project.

Just this week I received a perfect example of “unhelpful criticism.” A friend of mine, an artist, spent a few days helping me learn to draw something slightly more sophisticated than stick figures, and I was thrilled to see that I was making progress in a short time. I posted before and after pictures on Facebook, and a few minutes later I got a joking comment: “Don’t quit your day job.”

I wasn’t asking  for advice or feedback and I certainly wasn’t positing that I could start freelancing as a graphic designer by Friday. I was sharing something fun and exciting to me—after years of being unable to produce anything more compelling than draw stick figures, I was finally figuring out how to draw.  There was no need to respond, if you thought it was a stupid endeavor; I wasn’t doing anything that might endanger public safety. And while we all get that a joke is a joke, “It’s just a joke!” is exactly the kind of unhelpful criticism that can leave you second-guessing yourself.

I’m imagining how I would have felt if I had been posting about a new project I was really excited about and got that kind of response. I would have wondered what he meant, and if my idea was really as bad as he seemed to think. I can guarantee you that I would have spent a lot more time trying to deal with my emotional response to the comment than he ever spent thinking before he made it.

Since we can’t expect other people to think before they criticize, we have to think before we open ourselves up for it. Certainly there will be a time when you have to put your work out into the world, and you’ll have to deal with criticism, helpful or not, but as with most things in life, timing is everything.

Have you ever had an experience like the one I mentioned? Tell me about it in the comments.


Dojo Wisdom for Writers, second edition, now available!
Catch a Falling Star (by Jessica Starre) and The Matchmaker Meets Her Match (by Jenny Jacobs), two of my favorite novels.

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  1. So far only once. While I’ve head some ‘iffy’ reviews, I understand not every book is for every reader. I’ve run into books, that though I tried, simply couldn’t get into.

    But there was one, where I even knew the person, who left a DNF. In other comment elsewhere, they spoke of a passage and ended with “Duh.”

    That one snarky little word, left me knowing I will never, submit another story to their site for a review.

    If you don’t like, fine. If you hated something within, fine. But to add snark does no purpose.

    Great post.


  2. I’ve had lots of those experiences, and I always find it a struggle to refocus after getting a slam. I know… I know… I should have a thicker skin, but I’m still working on that.

    Most recently I’ve been posting about my progress on a couple of fiction projects on social media. Because I didn’t want to be boring and thought it might be interesting, I’ve also talked about my writing process in each post. What surprised me were the comments I received (few in number, but still surprising) that critiqued my writing process and how I discussed it. I was told to talk about the fun of writing but not the struggle. Another person wondered why I reported word counts, but never said that they were good words. Reporting on those comments now, I see that they seem mild, but I’m afraid they sounded a little too much like my childhood where I was critiqued for just about everything I did. Every step was wrong. Every breath. All I can say is ouch!

  3. Bobbi, this is a great example. Opinions are so subjective, and what I like someone else may hate and vice versa. A review can explain what the reader did/didn’t like about the book but the snark serves no purpose. It’s just snark intended to make the snarker feel superior. (If snarker isn’t a word, it should be.)

  4. I agree, trying to refocus after a slam can be so difficult and demoralizing. And I’ve never understood how anyone who has been doing this for more than ten minutes can possibly think that “you’re doing it wrong” is legitimate criticism. “The end product doesn’t do x, y, or z,” is potentially useful; “You’re using the wrong process” is one of those WTF? comments.

  5. I have to think about it every time I talk to my father. He’s been like that for as long as I can remember. When I was ten, I wrote a short story about all the little people who lived in the human body to make everything work. Hand written in pencil on lose leaf paper. He pointed out my misspellings and grammar problems. Then he said, “Its cute, but why don’t you write about what really happens in the body.” I explained how it’s supposed to be fun fiction. But because I wasn’t interested in changing the story to suit his tastes he was done talking to me. (This from the man who would lecture me till three in the morning on a school night for not getting good grades)

    I’m a published paranormal romance writer now. When I told him I’d be published he asked me when I was going to write a real novel. It still hurts. Twenty-plus years later and I’ve finally come to terms about sharing my creative endeavors. I paint. I sculpt. I showed him my sculptures when he came for a visit and he said, “I didn’t expect them to be this good.” He meant it as a compliment, I know that.

    But yeah, I always think before I share. It’s very easy to let even one “compliment” pull you into a sea of self-doubt.

    Thankfully, dealing with him has been good practice for dealing with everyone else.

  6. Oh, that’s tough. I hear from a lot of writers that their families are their worst critics. I know that’s painful. I remember being very hurt when I realized (years ago) that one of the people closest to me had never read anything I’d written. That’s not quite the same thing as criticizing, but it goes back to the idea that we want/expect our families to be our biggest cheerleaders and so often they’re not.

    I remember giving a talk once where I mentioned a friend of mine whose only job is to tell me I’m awesome (hi, Linda Formichelli!). She’s still my friend, and her only job is still to tell me I’m awesome. I would never have made it this far without friends like that.


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