A Sticky Situation

checklist-310092_150Sometimes, as fellow writers, we are asked to participate in groups and events that have the potential to result in hard feelings or damaged relationships.  We authors can be a sensitive bunch, for all that we are told to develop thick skins.  I ought to know. Yet, without the feedback from our fellows how are we to know when we are missing the grade?

There are two conflicting urges we must deal with concurrently when offering our opinions on the work of others. This is especially so when we are in personal contact (as opposed to writing a review where we are not known to the author). Our first impulse is to be helpful, supportive and encouraging. But if we are to meet that goal it is imperative that we also be honest. If our honest feedback has to be less than glowing it puts us in a bind. This is even more so if the situation involves more people than yourself and the author on the hot seat.

I recently found myself in one of these sticky situations. I agreed to participate in a group forum to discuss a book I had heard good things about but had not read. At first I had no idea how many would be participating. The author specifically requested that the discussion be open, saying that it might generate interest in the book beyond the participants.

Upon reading the book I was pleased that I had some good things to say about it. The story was engaging and the characters well-developed. On the other hand, it was in need of major editing. There were many grammatical errors, a misquoted idiom, and inconsistencies in the plot.

I was in a pickle. How was I to participate honestly and maintain my own integrity without crushing the author and/or creating hard feelings, not only from the author but among her other supporters? Our work is our baby. We all know better than to criticize another’s child. Defensiveness is a natural reaction.

In a way, I was a chicken. I decided to play it safe and wait to see what others said. As it turned out we were a small group. The remarks were all positive, but also honest – as far as it went. We talked about plot points, characters and general aspects of the story. No one, including me, (I did say I was chicken) brought up anything negative. So, while we were honest in our praise, we missed the boat on communicating the other side of the story, on saying what the author really needed to hear.

I wonder how often we do an author a disservice in this way, how many times we fail to be  helpful because we fear the reaction if we offer constructive, honest critiques. I suspect it is far more than we care to admit.

As I saw how the discussion was going I made a decision. The author had a good story that deserved to be told. In its present form it would not go far (IMHO). I wrote an email to the author outlining, with as much tact as I could muster, the problems I saw with the book. I also made certain to include the aspects I liked about it, making my feedback as balanced as possible. I mentioned the target audience and how I believed the improvements I felt the book needed, if made, would enable the author to reach that audience with more success.

I waited in trepidation for the reaction. When it came it was mixed. The author thanked me, told me she had been told the same things by someone else, and basically brushed it off. It became clear that very little would be done with the feedback I had given.

On the one hand I was relieved I did not receive an angry reply. On the other I was disappointed my input had been so easily dismissed – even more disappointed that this potentially good book will not get the attention it could potentially deserve.

My job, as I see it, was to deal with my own feelings, in essence, to let it go. Have I done that? Hmmmm, remember I’m one of those sensitive ones. But I have let it go enough that I will not shrink from attempting to help another author in the future. And I am willing to put my own work, and my ego, on the line in similar ways. If it hurts, so be it. I want to know what I can do better.

We all find ourselves in sticky situations from time to time. Navigating them is a learned skill. The results will not always be to our liking. In retrospect, I think I handled this one well. For me, the key was to attempt to find the best balance between wanting to be supportive and doing what was necessary. What do you think? How would you have done things differently?

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

41 thoughts on “A Sticky Situation”

  1. Yvonne, I know how generous you are with your feedback and help. That alone shows your kindness. I think you handled the situation in a thoughtful and professional manner. If this person brushed off a personal communication, can you imagine the reaction had it been presented in the group? Maybe that is the reason everyone sat on the fence. I would want to know everything that could possibly keep my work from being accepted in a better light. Egos need to be left on the doorstep. A negative can always, well most always, be turned into a positive. You are a class act!

  2. Yvonne, many writers would value the advice and support you have given this particular person. I know I have always appreciated your comments on my blog. Providing the feedback via email as oppossed to the group setting was very considerate. I wonder if what she was actually seeking was an Praise Gathering and not a Critique Group? Unless we are willing to accept honest feedback then we don’t develop to our true potential.
    Now stop beating yourself up!

    1. Thank you, Karen. It was billed as a ‘discussion group, which left it kind of vague. You could be right.

      I know i a;ways appreciate any feedback I get, and consider it carefully, whether I use it or not.

  3. Maybe men are more blunt by nature, but if someone can’t handle criticism, that’s their problem. I’ve always preferred honest criticism to false praise. As a writer, the most useless thing I can hear from anyone is, “It’s great, I loved it.” It’s not always fun telling someone the truth, but in the long run you don’t do anyone a favor by sugar coating their lack of skill, finesse and/or attention to detail.

    1. I don’t know if there are gender differences here. Possibly. But I do know I appreciate honest feedback, even if it’s not what I want to hear. Thank you for your input.

  4. Great post Yvonne. I have been in similar situations a couple of times. In one, they dealt with my information the same way they did you. In a second one, they blew up and said there was nothing wrong with the way they wrote it, everyone else liked it so I’m not changing anything, especially the grammar, which was the worst. When that happens it makes you wonder if those ‘everyone else liked it’ people read the same book, or were they just the author’s close friends who couldn’t tell the author the truth about his/her book. It just makes you shake your head in amazement. And because of those situations, I rarely offer my advice or constructive criticism. When I read a book and put a brief review up, I never mention anymore that the book needs editing/grammar/spelling fixes. I highlight stuff in my kindle to remind me not to do those things in my writing, but doubt I will ever again offer my advice.

    1. I was wondering the same thing, Jacque. Not about the group so much as about the earlier things I had heard about the book. I want my book to be the best it can be so I WANT to hear the so-so or not so good things as well as the good. The whole “I loved it” thing really is not helpful to me.

    2. Jacqueline, I think Yvonne’s situation is much different from what you’re describing. Not the first part (where you give the author a critique directly – or you don’t), but when you get to the “put a brief review up” part. I’ll try to explain my thinking.

      In Yvonne’s situation, first the group discussion was among people who had already read the book. The primary reason for the discussion might be best described as comparing notes on what they got out of reading it and, by discussing it, perhaps get more out of it. (If this was a critique group of a WIP, it would be different story.) Giving the negative parts of her critique one on one with the author was, IMO, the right way to go because she felt the author might benefit from it. But I couldn’t fault someone for not passing those critiques on in that situation, much like the situation you’ve discussed.

      A review, even if brief, is another story. There the primary audience is people who haven’t bought or read the book who are trying to decide. *IF* you’re going to express an opinion in a review, I think you’re doing a disservice to everyone who reads it by not mentioning major issues in grammar, etc. That’s when, IMO, you run into the potential integrity problem Yvonne was concerned with. FWIW, I’ve run into the issue a few times where I was a beta reader for a book and their was an assumption that I’d review the book. I chose not to review the book rather than review it and either not mention what I saw as major issues or give an honest review and create problems elsewhere. Sometimes staying silent is the better way to go.

      Also, since I see Marc Brackett didn’t mention it in his comment below and it is somewhat pertinent to this discussion, here’s a link to a short blog post he did last week.


      (And good post, Yvonne. A tough situations that I think you handled well.)

      1. Thank you, Al, for pointing out what could be different here. In the case of reviews i agree. If I can’t post an honest review I don’t post one at all, and have declined to do so on a few occasions. When I have declined there have been two reasons. One is fear of backlash, the other that I didn’t want to hurt a budding new author on a first book.

        1. Sometimes, I find that fewer stars and kinder words are the way to go. IMO, far too many books receive five stars–particularly when the grammar and punctuation are sorely lacking.

      2. Thank you for commenting BigAl. I had a problem Jacqueline Hopkins comment, “When I read a book and put a brief review up, I never mention anymore that the book needs editing/grammar/spelling fixes.”
        It is not easy to write a negative review and one of the biggest Indie stigma’s to overcome is grammar and editing. Not mentioning these issues is a disservice to future readers of the book and reflects badly on the reviewer. I think no review would be better in this situation than a dishonest review, IMHO. Emailing the author privately is an acceptable choice if you are so inclined, otherwise I would just walk away from leaving a review at all.
        Interesting post, Ms. Hertzberger. Offering opinions and reviewing can often leave a person between a rock and a hard place.

        1. It can, Linda. Without taking that risk, though, we would miss out on a lot of helpful advice. Fortunately this was not for a review, which, in one way, made it less ‘public’ and so easier for me.

      3. Maybe I should ammend my comment. I realize I shouldn’t have said, “I never mention anymore that the book needs editing/grammar/spelling fixes”. I should have said I don’t review books anymore because I just don’t have the time and when I have left a review mentioning problems, I’ve been contacted by author asking me what those errors were and some were vast and I just don’t have the time now to type up a long doc of what needs to be fixed. Wondering if there is away to share your comments and highlights with the author from my kindle fire. But I have always mentioned when I feel the book needs help with editing, grammar, etc.

        And I fear of reviewing books now because of an earlier incident when I was asked to trade a review. I found a lot wrong with the book, typed up 10 pages or so of what I found and author was not happy and said she couldn’t review my book now. Then there’s the author I mentioned who said he/she wasn’t going to fix it no matter what I found wrong with it. So for those two reasons, I should clarify I rarely leave reviews anymore.

        I agree Yvonne handled it very well and what I would have done if I felt the others in the group were not mentioning anything wrong with the book. When I was a member of RWA back in the 1980s and had started the Aloha Chapter in Hawaii, we met regularly and critiqued each others work and I felt those in-person critique meetings were more valuable. The critiquers more honest than they are online today. I think and feel people are too afraid to mention to an author online what is wrong with their book, afraid of the backlash or afraid of hurting that author’s feelings. I honestly feel people are afraid to tell me what they think of my writing. 🙂

        1. If I tell an author there are editing issues I do not feel obligated to find every error. That’s an editor’s job, not mine. I will point out just a few obvious ones and say there are more. Any author that requests what you are suggesting is getting a free edit. No fair to the reviewer.

  5. I think the sad reality when people ask for advice or feedback what they are really wanting is confirmation of the decision they have already made. If you support the position then a long lengthy discussion ensues that pretty much goes into greater detail of why this action is correct.

    When you disagree, the conversation is much shorter and will usually wrap back around to the items you should have given additional consideration to, that might have led you to change your mind.

    Offering your opinion is just not worth it.

    1. I agree only to a point, Marc. If you get the sense, going in, that your input will not be appreciated or taken seriously then it may be wise to bow out. On the other hand, most of the authors I am familiar with, many of them who frequent this site, would hope that they could get honest feedback and would give it the attention and gratitude it deserves.

  6. I like to think I would have done the same thing you did, Yvonne. Good for you for sending the follow-up email, and not bringing up your reservations in the group.

  7. Thanks for this great post, Yvonne. Reminds me of something funny that happened a few months ago. I committed to reviewing a book by a fellow author and found myself in a pickle when I’d finished reading it. I couldn’t find anything good to say about it. While I was agonizing over what to do, I got this facebook message from him – about my book, “This book is so bad I can’t review it.” Which presented pickle #2 – any honest comment about his book would have sounded like sour grapes. That’s what you call a lose, lose situation. 🙂

  8. Always a tough call. I don’t pull punches in my critique group and they don’t, either–which is exactly what I want/need. And let me tell you, there’ve been some rousing discussions 😀 That being said, I probably wouldn’t be part of a public critique b/c I’m not the most diplomatic sort (although I do try) and sometimes people get their feelings hurt or end up pissed. Meh. If they aren’t yet to the level where they welcome honest critique/suggestions, not to mention being able to take said suggestions with a grain of salt, I won’t bother.

    As for your actions, I think you did exactly the right thing, Yvonne. Tres diplomatique. Her reaction is her problem.

    1. Thanks, Dv. In my critique group we’re the same. Respectful but completely honest. This group wasn’t really a critique group, though, in the usual sense, which made the problem a bit trickier.

      And I don’t think I identified the gender of the author in question, did I? Could have been a ‘he’. 🙂

  9. Voicing an opinion on the work of others is always tricky. It is very kind of you to get involved in a discussion of this sort. There are many authors who would view your feedback as a gift. This author was foolish.
    I am not sure my personality lends itself to a group critique of my work. I value feedback, but one on one works better for me. It sounds to my like the author viewed the discussion as a marketing opportunity. The product was, in his or her eyes, complete. What a shame to waste your and the other writer’s time.

    1. Thank you, Lois. I suspect you may be correct about the intent, which made it even more important that I not be too negative in public. Part of me wonders whether I should have said something anyway. I was quite torn about it.

  10. As a writer, this is the most frustrating situation I can find myself in: having to critique or review a book that is poorly written. A part of me longs to help the author with her technical abilities, while the other part screams, “Be silent.” It astounds me that a lot of writers fail to educate themselves about their craft–that they either don’t care or don’t know the difference. Any constructive criticism I might offer would most likely miss its mark, anyway. No surprise there, Yvonne…

  11. Yvonne, I think you handled the situation as well as you could. I just finished reading a book that is similar in that it was a good story and riveting. I really enjoyed it, however, the editing was horrible. Not the worse I’ve seen but annoyingly bad. I wanted to write a review, but I can’t find myself destroying what is good with the overwhelming editing issues.

    I think I’ll do as you did and email him directly and let it be. We can’t control what others do with feedback. As for your group, it sounds like your author in question may have done it more for ego than for true feedback.

    I, like you, would want to know the truth, good or bad, and grow from it.

  12. Yvonne! You were very kind to handle the situation they way you did. I despise doing reviews. Sometimes a book is so darn good, I write a review. Sometimes a book is so darn bad, I write a review because I’m ticked at the waste of my $$ and time. As an author, I do not ask anybody for affirmation of my craft. I invite reviews of my books with caveat that reviewer give an honest opinion. I’m good with it–whatever it is. I don’t ‘do’ critique groups. IMO–if I have to run around in critique groups asking if my work is satisfactory, I need to find another job. But! That is just me and 35 years in our industry. I know this much. Every article, and book I’ve ever written needed revisions. Editors said do it. I did it. It is part of the process. Ego doesn’t enter into it. Once I hit publish–the book belongs to the reader. If I learn of snags via a review or something didn’t work the way I thought it might, I look at it. If I can improve it, I do. But my feelings are not hurt and I don’t have pity parties. I don’t know of a single successful author who does not accept criticism with grace and professionalism.

    Jackie Weger

    1. That sounds like the voice of many years of experience, Jackie. Good on you.

      I am newer at this game and feel I still have a lot to learn. I enjoy my critique group because they give me the kind of feedback that makes me think about aspects I didn’t before. And I know I need an editor and love mine. She never puts me down, but still tells me what needs to be corrected. I accept 90% of her advice and we agree to disagree about the last 10%. It’s a good arrangement. 🙂

      And I agree with your last sentence. 🙂

  13. I read for three authors. My comments to them come in little boxes with ‘IMHO :)’ and are well received. I am honest with them, as this is what they expect from me.

    With an open discussion I would sit on the fence but find courage to email privately. Having said that, I dislike conflict so tend to air on the side of caution.

Comments are closed.