Be Careful What You Wish For. You Just Might Get It. I’ve learned that having someone review my work for accuracy and readability is imperative. When he was still alive and well enough to do so, Brian Pohanka read just about everything that I wrote, and often gave excellent feedback. I still have a network of people that I turn to to provide this invaluable service, including, but not limited to, J. D. Petruzzi, Scott Patchan, Horace Mewborn, Bob O’Neill, Teej Smith, and one or two others. Their feedback is critical. They point out mistakes. They point out bad writing. And most of all, they give me their honest, unblinking assessment of my work, whether it’s what I want to hear or not. Inevitably, the work is ALWAYS better as a result of the feedback that I get from them, and I value the fact that they feel comfortable enough with our relationships to do that for me, knowing that I will set my ego aside and not get offended by whatever they might have to say about what I’ve asked them to read for me.

It can be difficult to hear somebody say “this sucks,” especially when you’ve poured your heart and soul into the work. But, you have to hear that feedback, take it to heart, and make the changes that they suggest. And you have to do so with no ego. You can’t get all offended by it and get all huffy and sulky over it. Otherwise, you can jeopardize your relationships, and your ego can get in the way of producing your best product.

The first time I had someone review my work and it got shredded, it stung. My feelings were hurt, and I sulked about it for a few days. Susan reminded me that I’d asked for an honest assessment, so I had no right to sulk over it. The gist of her comment was, “be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.” And she was right.

The simple truth is that you’ve just got to suck it up, say thank you, and do what needs to be done to make your product what you want it to be. You can’t sulk over it, and you most assuredly cannot be offended by it.

I try to do the same thing when I’m asked to review things. First, I appreciate the effort that others have given on my behalf, and I try to return the favor whenever possible. But I will not ever sugarcoat things. I tell people that they’re going to get an honest and unblinking assessment of their work and that if they think that can’t take that, then they’re better off not asking me to review their stuff for them. Ultimately, it’s not worth losing a friendship over. At the same time, I’m not doing them any favors if I don’t tell them the God’s honest truth about their work. And if they get all huffy about it after being warned, then it’s on them and not on me.

The bottom line is: be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. If you don’t want an honest and unblinking assessment of your work, then please don’t waste my time or yours by asking me to review it for you. In return, I will do exactly the same thing.

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Comments

  1. Thu 01st May 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Eric,

    Once again you have made an excellent point.

    I think looking to experienced writers and historians can help in two ways (at least):

    a) they can help mentor you through the “process” – i.e., the importance of a well-crafted query letter/proposal to a publisher (many people think you just sit down and write a book)

    b) your own points about how they can debate your conclusions, point you to other/better resources, and make your writing better

    When I started writing magazine articles about a decade ago, I found someone who was willing to coach me through the process and critique my writing.

    For my fisrt book, I was able to get comments, support, and advice from people I admire – Russell Bonds, you, Guy Hasegawa – an expert in Civil war medicine and a professional editor – and others.

    Especially helpful were the comments and feedback I obtained from Mark Wilson -a professor at UNC-Charlotte – and Richard John – a professor at UI Chicago…both me challenged my assumptions and referred me to other research, and my book is all the better for it.

    As I say in the first setence of my “Acknowledgments” in “Lincoln’s Labels” – “the romantic notion of writing is that it is a solitary venture…the fact is, it’s very much a collaborative effort.” Being a writer takes some courage and not a little thick skin…and if you do it right, and take the advice that’s given you – your final product will be all the better.

    I look forward to future installemnts!

    Jim

  2. Sam Elliott
    Thu 01st May 2008 at 1:35 pm

    A very interesting series of posts, Eric. I agree 100% that you shouldn’t submit anything to a press until you’ve had it read over by someone you trust to be merciless as to style, content, accuracy, whatever. Because when a publisher’s reader gets a hold of it, they certainly will be that way. May as well hear the bad stuff from your friends, and a book has a much better chance of being published, IMO, if an initial bad impression is avoided by having it vetted before it ever darkens a publisher’s door.

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