The Review from Hell . . . or Heaven?

by Ed Davis on January 25, 2016

“Exposition forced, heavy-handed . . . theme difficult to pin down . . . language workmanlike but not evocative . . . never drawn in by the style [which] . . . on several occasions felt awkward, careless.”

Yikes!! Was the above a review of a novice writer in an introductory creative writing course? Alas, the phrases are excerpted from a letter written by the anonymous reviewer of my current novel-in-progress to an editor of a press considering it for publication. (At least he liked the plot, which, he said, is “going to keep readers  interested.”) So how does one respond to such a critique, which, let’s face it, could come at any point in a writer’s career? Humbly and as egolessly as possible, I’d argue—that is, if a writer hopes to grow, and make his work as good as it can be.

But I was irritated for about a minute and a half before recalling that I’d been almost as tough on work by a local writers’ group submitted for the anthology I’m guest-editing. Oh, I didn’t label any of their work “careless,” although I didn’t hesitate to say when they were performing at less than full steam. While “careless” was the hardest criticism to hear, it became easier when I decided that the reviewer’s not saying I’m a careless writer; he’s saying some of the writing felt careless to him. Or at least that’s the way I needed to interpret it in order to get down to work.

And get down to work I did. But first I considered submitting the novel to more commercial presses, which generally tend to prefer story over style. Then the reviewer’s voice got into my head and began haunting me, challenging me to return to the book I’d thought 90-95% complete and blow the mother up.* But changing my style, my language?! “Hey, Mr./Ms. Reviewer,” I imagined myself saying in my weakest moments, “my style can’t be changed without damaging my soul!”

Soul or ego?

Scrolling to a random spot in my manuscript, I began to read. It didn’t take long to realize the writing is “workmanlike.” I wondered why, since I usually strive for poetic prose. However, in constructing this novel, I did something I’d never done before by first composing an elaborate outline. Maybe that’s the reason my plotting turned out better than my style. At any rate, the fact that I could agree with the reviewer that my style needed work allowed me to focus on his/her other suggestions.

I’m now happily revising the book, more or less following the anonymous reviewer’s critique. I’ve eliminated one entire chapter and added a new one; rewritten scenes of highest emotion, adding color as an artist would to a basic painting; deepened characters, making them more consistent; and killed numerous darlings. Soon I’ll begin the read-through that will, I hope, produce the final version. Will it pass muster with another reviewer? I have no idea. But I have faith it will be a better book, which is, for me, the bottom line.

While receiving Mr./Ms. Anonymous’s review was ultimately productive, I confess it wasn’t the highlight of that particular day. Therefore, any angst it caused was tempered by this generous, good-hearted review of Israel Jones from novelist Michel Sauret a few days later:

This discipline called “creative writing,” while at times disappointing, often teaches me what I didn’t know I even needed to know—and usually right when I need to know it. I’m endlessly grateful for the path it set me on nearly four decades ago.

*Highly technical literary term (ha) meaning “radically alter,” which can mean salvaging from the wreckage rather than tweaking or polishing.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cathy Essinger January 26, 2016 at 1:23 am

Sometimes when one of my poems takes a drubbing at the Greenville table, I think “What?! Don’t they understand what I’m doing here,” but in my heart of hearts, I know they are right. Sometimes they touch on things that I myself know need some work, or places where I let myself get sloppy, but sometimes I just need to let it rest a week or two before I can re-see a piece the way I want to. AND sometimes I discover that something is actually better than I thought it was–I just didn’t believe their critique until much later. Let’s hope I get smart before I get old.


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