First, Do No Harm

Posted: March 3, 2012 by ajbrown in Writing
Tags: , , ,

Recently I was in a staff meeting at work. Those things are never really meetings—mostly we sit and listen to a speaker. You know how meetings can be when there are speakers. Sometimes you like them, sometimes you don’t. This last meeting was no different. I listened, not only because I was at work, but because every event in my life is a setting for a story, even if I’m not really into the subject.

Close to the end of the speaker’s speech, he said something that caught my attention. It’s the only thing I wrote down.

What did he say?

Simple: First, do no harm.

The rest of the meeting went by and I barely heard another word, because I was thinking about that statement. I think he went on to say something about not harming the workforce or causing harm to the way we do our jobs. I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter, really.

First, do no harm.

I started thinking about how that could be applied to the writing world. It could go a long way in our business.

Have you ever had someone say something about your writing about you in a review? Have you ever had someone say something negative about you in a review? Have you ever had an editor or publisher tell you to stop writing, it’s not your thing? Have you been rejected?

Hmmm…

You ever workshop a story with a group of folks and have them just tear your piece to shreds? I have a rule when it comes to workshopping: If I can’t say something positive to go with the negative, then I don’t comment at all. Some of you are saying, ‘oh, but how can someone learn if you don’t tell them what’s wrong with a manuscript?’ I didn’t say that. I said if I can’t say something positive to go with the negative, I don’t comment at all. That means I want to make sure and give the writer something good to hang their hat on, while also giving them constructive criticism in the process.

You see, all negatives and no positives can be discouraging for anyone, but in writing it can be brutal. Writers tend to think that if people don’t like their work, then as an extension, they don’t like them. It’s not true, but that is the way a lot of new writers think. Negatives can also be the difference between someone continuing the pursuit of a writing career or giving up. Ask any of the writers I’ve worked with over the last couple of years: I can be tough and sometimes an ass (gasps, am I aloud to say this on here). However, I like to give folks something to build on, give them a positive to feel good about. That way I’m not a complete ass. Just half of one.

It’s a building block. Negatives and positives get results. All negatives and all positives don’t–especially the all positives.

I’ve told this story before, but:

A few years ago, I had an editor tell me that I should quit writing. It wasn’t my thing. I was no good at it.

Do you see anything positive in those statements? Me neither.

Were those comments necessary? I don’t think so. I had just started writing and, for a short while, my ego was bruised. You see, the editor said nothing about the story, but about me—I took it as a personal attack. He didn’t say ‘hey kid, keep trying’ or ‘this could be better, maybe you could try this.’ No, he said I should quit writing. I was no good at it.

I was no good at it…

Wow. If I didn’t have a strong personality and good self esteem, that could have been detrimental. It could have led me to giving up. That editor did some harm.

After that short pity-party was over, I got angry and I said I was going to prove him wrong. He pissed me off. What a prick. How could he say those things? How could he crush someone’s dreams without so much as an ounce of compassion? He was my Simon Cowell.

What about book reviews? I see so many people complain about getting bad book reviews or one star reviews. When asked, most of them say that the reviewer didn’t understand or reviewed something they wouldn’t normally read. And?

Listen, as long as the reviews aren’t malicious, aren’t clearly from someone who didn’t read the book and aren’t personal attacks, there is no issue. We have to remember that each reader is different and each reader likes and dislikes different things. It doesn’t necessarily make it a bad review. It just wasn’t their thing. Granted, if someone likes romance and they read horror, there is a good chance they aren’t going to like it, so reviewing that story/work might not be fair for the writer. Unfortunately, that comes with the territory when you put yourself out there. However, when the reviewers attack the writers or assume something about the writers, that’s wrong it could be hurtful.

Remember, first, do no harm.

I read one review on Amazon the other day that said: The author of this book obviously has some very disturbing issues.

Really? Why? Just because someone writes something disturbing doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them.

Another review:

This book was good but not great. I hated the ending I had no idea what happened or what/who was after them. I didn’t like it very much.

It’s a good book, but you didn’t like it very much? Then wouldn’t that make it a bad book, in your opinion? The book received a one star and I have no issues with that, but with the way the review was done, it makes me question if the reader actually read the story.

A friend of mine told me that someone questioned his parenting abilities because he writes horror.

Really? Can we not separate the person from the fiction?

This is going to come off bad, but: People who are too narrow minded to separate the story from the writer cause more harm than good when they post reviews blasting, not the work, but the author.

I think it’s great when a person says to me, ‘where did this dark side of you come from?’ The truth is simple: it’s always been there, but I separate who I am as a writer from who I am as a person. Unless someone knows me well enough to be a friend, then they don’t know I’m a writer and they certainly don’t know that I write horror. I guess that’s why it comes as a shock to a lot of folks.

However, writers, don’t argue with the reviewers. It can make things much worse for you and can lead to a lot of other reviewers doing more harm than you can recover from. A couple of years ago a woman who had received a pretty good review didn’t like something the reviewer had said and instead of thanking him for the review, she blasted the person on his review site.

The reviewer politely explained his thoughts to her and she became irate–and yes, that is the right word–and cussed the reviewer out—no, that’s not an exaggeration. There were F-bombs galore in her rebuttal. Welllllll, the next thing you know this goes viral and what had originally been a book that had about seven reviews, all of which were decent and none of them below four stars, became a book that had about two hundred reviews and most of those reviews attacked the writer, as a person, because of how she responded to the reviewer.

In my opinion, the moment she cussed at the reviewer, she committed literary suicide. She may not have said, ‘hey y’all, come on and rip my story and me a new one,’ but she may as well have by her reactions. Does that make it right for all the people who clearly didn’t read the book to bash her? Not in my opinion.

Harm was done, by both the writer and the reviewers in that instance. Thankfully, those cases are few and far between.

Editors. This is the group of people that us writers try to impress the most. Sure, we want our work to get to the readers, but if editors don’t like our work, then there’s a good chance it’s not happening, at least not in the traditional publishing sense of things.

I’ve done my share of taking subs for publications and, writers, let me tell you, it’s tough. Sometimes you get so many good stories you have no choice but to let a few of them go. However, I rarely ever sent out a form rejection. I hate them. The only times I ever sent a form rejection was when I had nothing really positive to say about the story, but I always added the sentiment to keep working and don’t give up.

Most editors don’t do that. They are pushed for time. They have lives, after all. They are often forced to send form rejections. It’s part of the business. Most editors are truly gracious and appreciative that writers take the time to submit to them. Yet, there are a handful of them that took notes from the aforementioned Simon Cowell. If you don’t know who Simon Cowell is, watch the next video.

There are those editors out there who do this to writers. I say this: If that’s how they are, then so be it, but by doing this, by acting like Cowell, damage is done. Sure, maybe someone can’t write, maybe someone can’t tell a story, but that’s no reason to not encourage someone or offer them a little bit of advice on how to better themselves. And no, telling someone to quit because you’ll never be any good is not the advice I’m talking about.

I have a saying (yeah, I know, I have a bunch of those) that goes something like: There is a minimum standard of how you treat people. This includes the homeless and people you don’t like. You treat people no worse than how you wish to be treated. That can be applied to writing as well. There is a minimum standard of how we should treat our fellow writers. If you don’t want someone to be rude about your work, think before you bash someone else’s.

What we have to remember is that someone took the time to write a story, hopefully edited and cleaned it up and then sent it off. Someone is waiting on pins and needles for a response and hoping it’s favorable. A rejection is bad enough on its own so no need to add insult to injury.

Be honest, but be fair in your reviews.

And, writers, be gracious and thankful if someone buys your book, reads it and takes the time to offer a review. I just recently found out that we can leave comments to the reviewers over at Amazon. Currently, I’m going through them and thanking those who took the time to read and review my work. It means a lot to me and I appreciate it.

First, do no harm. Words to live by.

Until we meet again, my friends…

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Comments
  1. Lisa Taylor says:

    Good rule to live by, AJ! I just posted my Versatile Blogger post, and linked back to you so I hope it brings you some traffic! Here’s the link: http://writersparty.com/2012/03/04/writers-block-party-has-been-dubbed-versatile/

    Thanks again for nominating me 🙂
    Lisa

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