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A Hard-won Lesson: what I learned from a harsh review

Thursday, June 5, 2014 by Marianne Elliott

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This month I’ll be sharing some of the hard-won lessons I learned in the process of writing, publishing and promoting Zen Under Fire as a Guest Contributor in the online Conscious Booksmith workshop. A book doesn’t come to life in a vacuum — mine certainly didn’t. A book is made real in the midst of life and that’s what the Conscious Booksmith is all about: managing the details of writing and creating a book within the flow of the day-to-day. 

A recent conversation with Christine Mason Miller, creator and facilitator of the Conscious Booksmith, reminded me of just how much self-compassion has supported my writing over the years. I’ve found it’s actually one of the keys to sticking with it over the long haul.

A few years back, a reviewer of Zen Under Fire wrote:

”I am disturbed by the lack of dramatic emphasis which a more experienced writer may have been able to create.”

Anyone who puts their writing out into the world will understand the particular agony I felt when I read a review in which the critic says exactly what my own inner critic has been telling me. In this case, that a more experienced writer would have done a better job of telling this story.

For a while, I let my inner critic get hold of that one sentence from that one review and use it to convince me that I really am not a good enough writer.

Eventually, I saw what was happening. I understood that this particular line in this particular review was paralysing me because it echoed my own fears about my writing. Just seeing that helped ease it’s grip on me.

You can’t please everyone, any more than you can write for everyone.

This reviewer, for example, found the sections of Zen Under Fire that told the story of my relationship with Joel to be unnecessary and unwelcome intrusions into an otherwise interesting book. Many other readers have told me those same passages were essential to their enjoyment of Zen Under Fire, because they allowed readers to identify with me.

I decided to use this as a motivation to keep writing, rather than to give up. Although I don’t believe the little voice that tells me I’m not good enough, never will be good enough and might as well give up, I do want to be a better writer and the only way to become a better writer is to keep practicing.

Don’t give up, lovely.

When a criticism of your work echoes your own worst doubts and fears, your inner critic will try to use that ‘evidence’ to convince you to give up completely. We have a tendency to look for evidence to support our own fears, and overlook evidence that disproves them.

What helps me is to remember that everyone (with the possible exception of psychopaths) harbours doubts and fears about their work. What distinguishes great writers is not that they don’t have doubts, but that they keep writing despite those doubts. And because they keep writing, they get better.

In ‘On Writing Well‘ William Zinsser writes this:

First, hammer the nails — and if what you build is sturdy and serviceable, take satisfaction in its plain strength.

And, to my surprise, I am satisfied. Zen Under Fire may not be perfect. It may even be true that a more experienced writer would have been able to do more with the story.

But I hammered the nails of that story pretty straight.

What I built is sturdy and serviceable. And I take satisfaction in that.

Maybe you’re not a writer. Maybe your craft is cooking, or coaching, or website design. Whatever your craft, it’s so easy to compare yourself to people who have been at it for so much longer. In yoga class we compare ourselves to the teacher. As writers we compare ourselves to our favorite authors.

This kind of comparison gets in the way of our ability to recognise, and celebrate — of our ability to hammer the nails straight.

First, hammer the nails.

Then take time to stand back and enjoy the plain beauty of your straight nails.

If you have a book in you, waiting and wanting to get out and into the world – no matter how scared or uncertain you may be about your ability to get it out, or it’s worthiness – then I recommend this program to you. I can think of few better guides and companions on that journey than Christine.

She is a rare combination, bringing together as she does a deep commitment to truth & courage in writing, a respect for the ritual and soul of the practice of writing, and an utterly practical and no-nonsense understanding of the business and process of getting a book written, published and out into the world.


The Conscious Booksmith runs 9 June – 18 July. Get more info or sign up here:



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5 Responses to "A Hard-won Lesson: what I learned from a harsh review"

  1. Kimberley says:

    Very timely to read this as I embark on some creative writing to balance the corporate writing I spend my days doing. Thank you.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this story – it is SO important for ALL of us to hear stories like these. Your contributions to the course are so spot on and valuable, and I am grateful to learn more about your experiences with the entire process of bringing your book to life.

  3. Helen says:

    I have read your book and unlike the reviewer thought that the Joel story was pivotal!. It created an important parallel story that was very private despite the background of a very public war. You dared to tell it (the Joel story) which was incredibly courageous. And I thought that at the time when I was reading it. For me, and I’m your age, Joel came to symbolise a turning point, a last grasp of an identity that doesn’t fit that needs to be left behind. Combined with the journey of your career it was an excellent read. The honesty in your blogs are well received.

  4. Art Rosch says:

    Marianne, once I got “the letter from Hell” from an editor.
    He began by saying that I clearly did not take my material seriously, that my characters were cartoons, that my premise was unbelievable and that my science lacked rigor. This letter gave me two years’ writer’s block. I haven’t read your book but you can’t take the world’s critical opinion upon your shoulders. You would go insane.

    You do a lot of work and it’s gooooood!

    I have never failed to take my material seriously unless I was writing comedy and this book was not comedy, no sir.

  5. You hammered those nails so well, Marianne! Thanks for your comments–encouraging to all of us who write . . . and doubt ourselves.

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