Rachel's Write of Way

What’s the MOST Tactful Way to Say “I’m Sorry, Your Writing Sucks”?

Posted on: April 9, 2010

I’ll admit it—I’m too nice. Okay, maybe I’m even a pushover at times. For the most part, I’ve rolled through life just fine like this. But sometimes it makes things very difficult when I have to be firm and give criticism without throwing in a million I’m sorry!s, which kind of becomes my go-to phrase when I’m saying or doing something that I know is slightly unpleasant or uncomfortable for someone else. I’ve been known to apologize to the table leg I kick at a restaurant or the wayward stool I trip over. You get the idea—I HATE BEING MEAN.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I can be plenty harsh. In the heat of an argument, if my personal values are questioned, if I’m talking about something  I’m passionate about, then I can be aggressive, and you won’t hear me apologizing for what I have to say, either. And if it’s a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, or something that I feel I’ve earned the right to give out expertise on, I’ll dole out a healthy dollop of criticism like it’s whipped cream. Too much? Never!

What’s with this seemingly random diatribe into my psyche and an analysis of when Rachel Burkot is nice and when she’s not a creature you’d want to encounter before you’ve had your morning coffee? I’ve been meaning to make another blog post for some time now, and now that I’m settled in my new apartment with new roommates, and my job is finally NOT new (ish…it’s all relative!) my life is becoming a routine. Yeah, I did something kind of cool, kind of worthy of a few blog posts when I moved to the Big City on my own for an unpaid internship then landed my dream job in publishing. But now I’m all situated. I’ve done the hard part. One piece at a time in the giant jigsaw puzzle that is my life (and believe me, there were times when I thought that puzzle was just not manufactured to fit together, no matter how many ways you played with the pieces), everything magically came together.

Oh, I know this isn’t the end of the road. I’m 22 years old! I have SO much ahead of me still. But I took it as a sign that my life is so much less stressful than just a few months ago when I found myself lying in bed last night praying, instead of for a job or for direction in my life (which I finally feel like I have), for my jewelry that I ordered off Kohls.com to arrive before the wedding I’m flying to next weekend. It’s a rough life for the Pittsburgh girl in Brooklyn these days, let me tell you. (I promise to pray for world peace and starving children tonight to make up for my selfish, materialistic prayers last night.)

I could be writing about my first bar crawl in Manhattan that I’m going to tonight (golf-themed, for the Masters…still scratching my head about how to get around the golf attire rule, as I don’t do polo, and my interaction with plaid ended at Catholic school), the crazy heat wave New York City had this past week and how much I enjoyed smelling sweaty armpits on the subway, or my roommate highlighting my hair while we watched The Ugly Truth last night (SO. MUCH. FUNNIER every time I see it . . . and interesting how Gerard Butler seems to get hotter, too). But YAWN. These things put together all add up to the excitement of waffles without butter and syrup.

Sooo I thought instead I’d start to look for more universal topics to write about. Things that might actually be of interest to random people who might happen to read this blog, and not just a continued saga of my life in New York. Cuz that ship has sailed, and it’s smooth sailing so far! But smooth equals boring. And thus, I arrive back at the point I was starting to make at the beginning of this post. Rejecting a wannabe-author at work this week had me reflecting on how hard it is to dish out criticism for anybody with a heart equal to or bigger than the Grinch’s…two sizes too small 😦 It’s human nature to not want to offend somebody, and I think when it’s a stranger it’s actually HARDER to be harsh. After all, what have these writers done to me except put their life mission, their dream, their baby (in the form of a double-spaced manuscript in Times New Roman font) in my hands? When human beings are mean, it’s usually as a response to a conflict, or something that has stirred them up. Anger management cases excepted, people rarely get mad for no reason.

This makes it all the more difficult for me to attempt to criticize writers’ works—to tell them, “I’m sorry, but you can’t write for crap. Please get a new life goal because publishing a book is one thing you ain’t never gonna cross off your ‘Dreams to See Fulfilled Before I Die’ list. You can sugarcoat something a million ways, but if a person can’t write, a person can’t write. They will never be able to revise their plot, characters, voice, etc., if they just don’t understand the difference between a semicolon and a comma, or why, “He walked me home because he just didn’t want the date to end because when it ended it would be over, and the end of the date meant that he wouldn’t be on a date with me anymore” is a wordy sentence that needs to be cut down by about 96.4 percent in order to be most effective. (*NOT an actual sentence anybody wrote—at least I hope not! I just made it up. But it’s representative of some of the writing I get.*) This is a much-debated issue in publishing, but I’m of the camp that believes you cannot be taught how to write well. You can be taught techniques and strategies, but, like ducks know how to swim from birth, some people just have an instinctive knack for writing.

The age-old question, then, is how do you tell people they’re in the group that were NOT given this ability? Sorry, but you can’t string a sentence together to save your life. There are great writers who shine so much brighter than you that your manuscript won’t be able to see the light of day on a shelf with the best-sellers. This is what it boils down to, but it’s all about tact. I know it’s so difficult right now just because I’m new to the industry, and I’m hoping it gets easier as time goes on. But merging editorial expertise, a trained and honed ability to critique writing, and the tact that longs to pepper human interaction is NOT an easy thing to do. If anyone has the perfect recipe for blending these three ingredients, kindly pass it along.

And please tell me it comes out better than the eggplant casserole I tried to make for dinner the other night.


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