You Win Some, You Lose Some

Not too long ago a friend of mine, a writer/editor quite a bit younger than me, sent me an email. She’d received some (petty) criticism from a client. “Any time I get any kind of negative feedback (three times now out of hundreds of projects) I feel like I’m in the wrong business and I should be doing something else,” she wrote. “Do you ever deal with this?”

I had to laugh. Let’s see, I thought. Let me count the ways.

You always remember your first time. He was a book packager who’d hired me to research and write content for a project. The pay wasn’t good and the deadline was too tight, though I didn’t realize how much work was involved until I got started. I worked round the clock to meet his deadline. I know now he was in financial trouble and trying to rush so he could get paid. I also know now there’s no way I could have pleased him. He said horrible, horrible things to me and later didn’t pay my invoice.* I walked around with a stomachache for days. I was mortified by what he’d said.

There was the author who went into shock when he got my editorial notes and refused to have anything further to do with me; the publisher had to hire someone else … There’s the gal who was so resistant to my suggestions she tells all her author friends to request anyone but me from their mutual publisher … The smart-aleck who, when I mentioned how often he was telling, said, “Strictly speaking, it’s all telling (it’s not storyshowing, you know),” although no, actually, not all narrative is telling … Then there was the in-house editor whose vituperative email made both me and the author cry.

I could go on, but I know how I am, and it’s just not good to dwell on these things. Suffice it to say, it’s happened enough that I know 1) it will happen again and 2) it can’t be helped. For whatever reason—personality conflict, misunderstanding, immaturity, bad diplomacy, whatever—sometimes a project will go south, and it’s plumb out of my control.

Generally speaking, I don’t have trouble making friends or getting along with people. My father was in the air force, we moved a lot, and a kid who goes to four grammar schools in six years quickly learns how to get along. But then the kid grows up and, to her shock, learns she can’t make everyone she meets like her. I figured this out when I was about thirty. It was shocking. I was depressed for a week.

If you’re a writer, you expose yourself to slings and arrows every day. I love that line in David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green: “If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.’” It’s true. But if you don’t put yourself out there … well, you’ve wasted a lot of your precious life. When the criticism comes—and it will, and it won’t always be gentle—you have to figure out a way to go on.

So this is how I deal with it (and what I told my friend):

1. No one’s perfect. Fact.
2. I always do my very, very best. I know this in my heart, so I can live with myself.
3. I also try to always be nice. And kind.
4. Also fact: not everybody likes me, no matter how nice I am to him or her. And that’s OK.
5. But I know there are plenty of people who do like me personally and who also like my work. I have, you know, testimonials, and I can look at them if I’m feeling down.
6. In spite of that, sometimes a project will sour, no matter what I did or didn’t do.
7. Oh well. What’s next?

So there you go. Chin up.

* He’s also no longer in the business.

UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.


Tweet: When criticism comes—& it won’t be gentle—you have to figure out a way to go on.
Tweet: Sometimes a project goes south, no matter what you did or didn’t do. Chin up.

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  1. April Line says:

    I love this.

    If/When I return to actively pursuing editing clients, I am going to make some changes to avoid some of the vitriol.

    1. Policy, I will not read or receive any emails, phone calls, or requests for communication within 24 hours of the writer getting my notes. What’s the military way of saying that? Dead air?

    2. If it is a writer who has never published or who has only self published before, I will require them to pay for what I call a manuscript evaluation before I accept them as a client.

    I recently heard of an editor who has a questionnaire he sends to clients who approach him.It’s a good idea. An ice breaker activity, so you can maybe vet potential personality conflicts up front.

    Seriously, we should not need antacids for this work. We also shouldn’t need psychotherapy.

    You are a goddess.


  2. Amanda Halm says:

    Oh yeah. You definitely get used to it. My last freelance writing project didn’t work out because I didn’t understand what the Creative Director wanted. She was bad at giving direction and I couldn’t hear her anyway because they were blasting trendy music.

    Your posts have helped me so much. Thank you!

    • Jamie says:

      Oh! Oh! People who can’t articulate direction are soooooo frustrating! I do a lot of repeating: “So you’d like me to x, y, and z.”

      But yes, the first few rejections are devastating, then you realize sometimes you just have to say “no harm no foul” and move on.

      And thank you, Amanda. :)

  3. Bonnie Leon says:

    Jamie, great article. Negative comments and reviews are hard to take, but your list of how to deal with it is right on.

    Early in my career I rarely received negative reviews. However, since my publisher started offering free books I’ve had a lot more. I try not to pay too much attention unless there is something that gets repeated several times, then I just might need to work on that thing.

    It’s interesting that I came across this just now. I just finished reading a review that said, “Loved the story, but not accurate.” And earlier this week a received a review from a person living in the area who said I got it “just right”. Shaking my head.

    What struck me most about what you said is, you know you’ve done your best and you can live with yourself. That helps me a great deal. I put in hundreds of hours on research and sometimes I don’t get “it” right, but I have done my best. :-)

    Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Jamie says:

      Thank you for this lovely comment. I was a little nervous about this post because it’s not easy for me to admit to being less than perfect. (Cue hysterical laughter.) But the response (I got a lot of email about it) has been very gratifying. You made my morning. :)

  4. […] ups (I’ve got more vacation time than anyone I know) and downs (which I’ve written about in “You Win Some, You Lose Some”); you need some discipline and an ability to buck yourself up, as Katherine O’Moore-Klopf does […]

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  1. By Taking Care of Business (An Update*) on 19 June, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    […] ups (I’ve got more vacation time than anyone I know) and downs (which I’ve written about in “You Win Some, You Lose Some”); you need some discipline and an ability to buck yourself up, as Katherine O’Moore-Klopf does […]