thumbs down rejection criticism

When I submitted my first chapter to the editor of my book, Decorating Eggs, I heard back from her with a brief note instructing me only to eliminate the quotation marks I was using to emphasize certain words. That was it. No critique of the writing, simply a grammatical rule to apply.

“Great,” I thought. “Everything else is perfect. Yay!” The lack of critical feedback gave me full permission to continue the process of using my own voice and to not hold back on my style.

I sent chapter after chapter to the editor with no further comments. I felt elated that I was so on track that the writing flowed out of me swiftly and easily. I felt appreciated and respected for this skill I had never previously been paid for. It was a wonderful bubble to be in, and helped me to get my book completed on time.

Imagine my surprise when, after I’d met all of my deadlines and gotten all of the chapters to the editor, I heard back from her with these words. “Now I’ll read through it all and give you my edits.”

Thank goodness I had written with the luxury of no criticism.

It almost didn’t matter what would happen next, because what I’d sent to her, week after week, was the book that I wanted to write. It’s nearly 20 years now since that experience, and what remains is a positive feeling and the continued desire to write.

Contrast that with what happened on book #2 when the publisher informed me that after all the edits and copy edits, she now wanted to add her red pencil to my words. I was ready to pull the plug when I reviewed what I considered her dumbed-down version of my Soul Proprietor.

Criticism is a powerful tool, best used judiciously and with caution. I heard that a famous editor (please share if you know who!) said that editing is like writing on the author’s skin.

When visiting the Jewish Museum to view the William Steig exhibit a few years ago, there was a memorable story posted about one of his New Yorker cover illustrations not on display. The art editor decided not to buy it, which didn’t mean it wasn’t a wonderful piece of art. Steig tore the painting in half and threw it in the trash.

That story has stayed with me as a powerful example, especially viewed from a different perspective than my own sensitive ego. Clearly the work was of the highest quality. It simply didn’t match the magazine’s need at that time. How often is your self-condemnation personal and global, rather than externalizing it with self-talk that says, “It must not be what they’re looking for right now”?

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