Honesty: Brutal Is a Relative Term

In open forums such as blogs, I’m not interested in knocking other writers. Their purposes vary–sharing information, expressing themselves, conducting business, digging into a niche, making friends, having fun without the pressure, etc. If I compliment, it’s honest. However, I may offer a different point of view in a polite comment. I do not shower sites with “likes” and meaningless praise to collect followers, though this era of publishing demands them.

Whether writers self-publish or submit to an agent/press, there is a market reality for most. I’ve worked on the other side; publishers need to make a buck. Most have margins that tighten yearly. Even if a writer produces solid work, the chances of turning a profit diminish if the market is slim to none.

Publishing is not for the faint-hearted. Only a handful of writers earn a living from books. Sure, it’s an emotional journey, but “ego can sometimes get in the way.”

I worked in publishing for 20+ years. Nevertheless, that does not guarantee success for my pet projects. A book published in the US is up against 300,000+ pieces of other writers’ passions. A rare exception is Amanda Hocking’s story.

When I analyzed manuscripts, I didn’t sugar coat. It was important to point out what worked without heaping meaningless adjectives. My goal was to provide a thorough, constructive review in a civilized, albeit compact, manner. If anybody found honesty brutal–too bad. There is more empathy in truth than false stroking.

Anyone who is serious about writing does not depend on the kindness of strangers, friends, and family. Okay, I ask a few trusted individuals for their thoughts on my copy. In fact, my niece’s advice just prevented my going down a slippery slope. It’s fine to share on LinkedIn and listen to group members. They often offer useful ideas (e.g., style, tone, voice, structure, pacing). However, criticism that dwells on punctuation, spelling, and mechanics without addressing content falls short.

Feedback from a professional editor, however terse, is a godsend. An editor of longstanding will read my book before I submit.

Self-honesty is a good policy. For example, I like to write poetry but do not kid myself. Only three journals have accepted my work. I studied with two gifted poets but learned just enough to be dangerous, not particularly talented. They maintained strict standards. Engaging in this highly disciplined genre informs me as a writer of prose (e.g., development of imagery, beats). Free verse is not a free-for-all. In fact, it’s difficult to master. I would not claim ownership.

In my mid-twenties, I worked for an exacting manager at an in-house advertising agency. He did not dish out flaky happiness. He forced me to redo my first copywriting assignment multiple times. The seventh was the charm.

A Teflon psyche? Now that’s a good thing. To flip a cliché–if I didn’t stand the heat in a professional kitchen, the flames would have burned me alive. I get up plenty of mornings, look in the mirror, and say, “Get over yourself.” Then I might produce something better than yesterday’s precious copy.

Know thyself? Here’s a writer who does and found his peace: “Competition and Writing” by Eric Sonnenschein.

Look for Eric’s thoughtful posts on LinkedIn. In addition, you’ll find his novels, collected essays (Making Up for Lost Time and All over the Place: Essays from A to Z), and other works on his website and Goodreads. Currently, Eric is finishing Mad Nomad, a novel about the Peace Corps in the Middle East. If you want to learn the art of the essay, read Eric’s collections. His work delivers; his creative nonfiction sings. No fluff. Just smart.

Eric Sonnenschein


  1. Silver in the Barn

    Hello Catherine, that Hemingway quote is such solace to me. The way I write is just to blurt it all out at once and then let it fester for a day or two. When I go back to review, I just cringe. Good lord, did I really write this? As an editor, I’m sure you’ve read the quote about “killing your babies.” That’s helped me a lot too when I get too clever for my own good. This writing stuff is not for sissies, is it? Always appreciative of your sound advice.

      1. Silver in the Barn

        I am swamped at the moment with real life, Catherine, and haven’t had time to really properly absorb this article. I’ve put it on my list however and will read soon. Thanks so much.

  2. exiledprospero

    In respect of writing there are very few places to turn to except the cheval mirror in the attic, and, regrettably, either by dint of crepuscular light or by some strange entropy, it too can distort; therefore, it is generally best to maintain a jocose relationship with mirrors, as they are can be disarmed by a half-smile, allowing you to steal a revelatory glance, now and again.

  3. vanbytheriver

    I edit my stuff quite a bit. Mostly, to eliminate the words, sentences that are not necessary. My posts here, for example, average 300-400 words, but they start out a bit larger. ☺ Hemingway was a rock star.

  4. Cynthia Jobin

    I enjoy your candor and that you are in possession of what Hemingway said is a main quality of a fine writer: a built-in crap detector. Also liked the Eric Sonnenschein piece. Thanks!

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