Guest Post: Write Yourself a Bad Review

Today I’m honored to provide a guest post by author and writing mentor K.M. Weiland, whose blog Wordplay also was named a Top 10 Blog for Writers for 2011-2012. Her bio is below the post.

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We all hate the critic in our heads. You know the one—talks with a nasal British accent, uses words like “deluded numbskull” and “insufferable incompetent,” and never fails to announce that your latest story is tripe. This critic of ours never seems to have a good word to say and is always running us down. So, naturally, we try to block him out as much as possible. But what if we were to actually give him permission to speak every now and then? What if his grumblings and mumblings had something of benefit to offer us?

Think about it. We’re used to gritting out teeth, shutting out the soul-battering harangues of our infernal internal editor, and writing the best stories we can. Then we send our poor shivering darlings out into the world to face something even worse than our inner critics (cue thunder and scary music duhn-duhn-duh-DUH)—the outer critics of critique partners, agents, editors, and, perhaps worst of all, readers.

How much better would it have been had we listened to our inner critic’s helpful, if admittedly snarky, advice before we submitted ourselves to the censure of the writing world at large? One of the best and easiest ways to harness the inner critic’s laser-like perception of your writing’s weak points is to write yourself a bad review. Why would you want submit yourself to that kind of depressing degradation? Quite simply, because as painful as it may be, acknowledging your faults is the best way to overcome them.

So sit yourself down at your computer, pretend you’ve just read your story for the first time, put on your best nasally British accent, and start writing your review from the perspective of someone who noticed your story’s every single flaw.

  • Have fun with it. Since you have to face your faults, you might as well do it with aplomb. Turn up the snob level, write hyperbolically, and just generally give yourself permission to make this onerous assignment as snarky and witty as possible.
  • Be instinctive. Your inner story sense knows more about what’s wrong with your writing than your conscious brain does. In your first pass over the story, don’t think too hard about what you’re writing. If something bugs you—even if you’re not quite sure why—write it down.
  • Be specific. Once you’ve got your instinctive list of problems out of the way, go back and flesh them out. Where you wrote “weak plot,” dig a little deeper to identify why it’s weak. The more specific you are, the better your chances of understanding how to fix the problem.
  • Be thorough. Review the entire plot. Analyze every character. Skim through the manuscript, page by page, to make certain you’re remembering everything that’s wrong with the story. This is where your ruthless side needs to take the lead. Don’t let yourself get away with so much as a single weak chapter ending.
  • Analyze objectively. Once you’ve finished your snarky, snobby, nitpicking review, go back over it with an objective eye. Make certain everything you’ve written down really is a problem—and not just an overreaction from that part of you that wants to believe nothing you write is any good. Depending on how hard you usually are on yourself and how objective you are about your failings, you may want to take a couple days to recover before looking over the list.
  • Create a plan of action. Finally, and most importantly, decide what you’re going to do to fix all these problems. If your critic’s disparagements were legion, try dividing them into categories: plot, characters, pacing, etc. Then make a chronological list if everything that needs fixing—and what you can do to improve them.

Writing a bad review can be rough business. But don’t let it dampen your self-esteem. Use it as a building block to face your writing weaknesses and rise above your mistakes. Then, after you’ve finished your rewrite, give a try to writing the “perfect” review.

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K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

35 Responses to “Guest Post: Write Yourself a Bad Review”

  1. I have a deal with my inner critic. He (an imp named Patrick, sorry Patrick Ross) stays away while I write first drafts and then he gets to come back and help when I need him for editing. I have a feeling that he would love writing me a bad review. This is a wonderful, original idea–I love it!

  2. This comment came before I was actually done reading. You use the word “snarky” a few times (a word I’m quite fond of).

    I used it in a bit of dialogue, but didn’t listen to that little voice. I couldn’t think of a better word, so I left it.

    Then I took the writing to my first Writer’s Group. I had no idea what to expect, and the people were nice. They were also about 2 (or more) decades older than me. That one word got lots of comments. It was deemed a “teenager’s” word (I think they though I’m a bit younger than I actually am). None of them had heard of it and didn’t know what it meant (although the context was fairly clear, so it was really just the word).

    It would have been more productive meeting for me if I’d used another word. Next time, I think I’ll do what you suggest FIRST.

  3. You know? I was actually going to sit down and give myself a good talking to about my WIP. So this is timely. I’ll write it all down which will be much more effective because if I give myself a talking to, it’ll go in one ear and out the other. Taking a deep breath….
    (It’s a brilliant idea, by the way🙂 )

  4. Thank you so much for hosting me today, Patrick!

  5. I never listen to my inner critique while working on the first draft of anything, since doing that has led me astray so many times. But always consult her once I’m past that hurdle. She’s French and smokes Gauloises.

    What you suggest is a fun way of stepping back and taking a detached appraisal of what’s been written…should be the final step in the creative process for anyone.🙂

    • Although I absolutely understand why most writers try to keep their inner critics in the cellar until finishing the first draft, I’ve actually learned to embrace her throughout the process. Getting in tune with and listening to the gut instinct (which is all an inner critic really is) can save all kinds of work when it’s time to start revising.

  6. This is such a cool idea: both the bad review and the good review to follow revisions. Brilliant! Thanks for posting this.

  7. I like this idea because it brings fun and lightness to revision, which can otherwise be an onerous and humbling task.

    I’m curious how this has played out for you once your audience gets their hands on it. I’m guessing they sometimes find things to criticize that weren’t even on your radar, like Shannon’s snarky comment about the word “snarky,” above (just kidding, Shannon).

    It might be interesting to ask others critiquing our work to use the same nasally British approach, just to soften the blow with humor. Receiving criticism can be nerve-wracking, and I can see where laughter could really help break the internal tension enough to more openly receive the reviewer’s comments.

    • No matter how much we try to distance ourselves from our work, we’ll never be able to achieve total objectivity. No one is totally objective, and, as the creators of our stories, we less than anyone. So, of course, other readers will still find weak points (both subjective and objective ones). And that, of course, is why it’s so valuable to have good critique partners to review our work for us as well.

  8. @Charlotte: I’ll forgive you for naming your impish critic Patrick. It is, after all, a fantastic name.

    @Shannon: Kudos for trusting your instincts. And as for the word “snarky,” it is in pretty common usage here in Washington. The Washington Post Style section is often praised and faulted–sometimes by the same speakers–for a tone most often described as “snarky.”

    @Susan: Glad to see you’re so motivated!

    @Cynthia: I’m guessing your critic wears nothing but black.

    @Elizabeth: Glad you found it of value!

    @Sue: I found myself thinking about my writer’s group, where I am the only male, and I fear sometimes I do not come across as nurturing as the other participants. I’ve had the same gender concerns at my two MFA residencies and at three Writer’s Center workshops, where IN EACH CASE I was one of only two males out of about a dozen students. Gender shouldn’t matter, but I think sometimes it does in terms of how the message is received. Perhaps if we all role-played the same voice, then there would be less fear of miscommunication.

    • Interesting about the gender thing.

      I’ve been to exactly one meeting, but the genders were as even as you can get with five people. However, age was a big divider (at least that I felt). I’m pretty comfortable saying that everyone else was about 2+ decades older than me.

      I had to work hard to not take comments as patronizing. I think some of my comments came across a bit uppity, although they weren’t meant that way.

      Otherwise, the biggest technical difference was that I (and many of the bloggers I read, who tend to be a bit younger than the group I was in) don’t have any particular qualms with ending sentences with prepositions, if it helps the flow. This group was clearly agitated by it. Something I should remember if I want to write toward an older audience.

  9. Wait–you’re asking me to *voluntarily* submit to that battering-ram tongue of my inner critic? Oy vey! What do you take me for? A masochist????

    Sigh.

    Well, you’ve never steered me wrong before. But let me warn you: if I get broken and bruised, I’m coming to you to heal my wounds!

    Good post, Katie–a bit sadistic, but good.😀

    Thanks for hosting her, Patrick.

  10. I love this idea. I’m going to have to try it out.

    But, I am a snobby British intellectual, so I think I’ll have to use a French accent to write my bad reviews – the restaurant critic from Pixar’s “Ratatouille” seems like an ideal voice to borrow for this purpose.

  11. Sometimes I wonder if my inner critic is out to destroy my writing, he’s so ruthless. But, taken with a grain of salt, I can usually figure out what he’s really trying to say.
    Thnx for a great article, KM.. and thnx for hosting it, Patrick.

  12. @Kate I love the idea of your voice choice. You can use the critic we see through most of the movie first, then switch to how he was after tasting the rat’s down-home cooking for reinforcement later!

    @Gideon Julia Cameron, Anne Lamott, and Annie Dillard have all written about the destructive intent of the inner critic. I like how KM proposes a way to turn that voice to our advantage.

  13. Hi, Patrick. Loved this piece – very original!

    I’d like to offer you a guest spot to re-issue this piece on http://www.Murderby4.blogspot.com, a collaborative blog for writers that’s earned the Best WD 101 Website award for three years running. ;o) Please email me at aaron.lazar@yahoo dot com if you’d like to do so.

    Best,

    Aaron

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