Growing up in the Midwest, I was afraid of tornados. They came out of nowhere without the warnings we sometimes get today, and they laid waste to all in their path. I was fascinated with them by the time I attended college, watching them move across Illinois farmland as my friends hollered at me to move away from the windows.
Tornado season is almost over, generally running from March to June, and yet this week I feel as if I am caught in the vortex of one. Actually, I am enmeshed in an escalating controversy swirling around a group to which I belong. People are rushing to take sides, there is name calling and finger pointing with tempers escalating, some already out of control.
Amazingly, the topic is not politics, sex or money. No, is it none of the topics where I am so willing and able to jump into the fray. It’s book reviews. Who knew that emotions could run so hot when a group of authors gets together to review and critique the work of their peers? We agreed when we joined the group to shut up and listen, to take the bad with the good and to learn from all feedback, but even writers are only human. Because of that, a misspoken word, it would seem, can start a conflagration.
Learning to Love my Inner Porcupine
I know I am defensive. I have tried my entire career to get it in check, but the truth is that for me, blunt honesty can hurt. Hours later I might see that the advice was spot on, but in the moment, I get defensive. At least I know this about myself, so now I warn people. “Tell me anyway,” I say to them, “It will sink in later and be useful.”
We want to believe we are professional about these things, capable of accepting feedback, learning and growing. We all can do things better after all, and we know people who are smarter about something – or everything – relative to us. For example, I have finally thrown my hands in the air and surrendered to technology. The current score is Tech 3, Maddy 0. I am struggling with my website, with apps, and even with an electronic signature. I must simply cry “Uncle” and pay for help.
But writing. Ah, that is a different situation entirely. I spend hours in front of my computer, day after day, week after week, writing from my imagination. Creating my original work, my baby. I read it, polish it, reread it, polish it some more and then send it into the world with expectations of readers loving it, of receiving praise.
Alternatively, I can send it to a critique and review group and let them tear it to shreds. What idiot would agree to do that? After all, the review might be wonderful, but it might stink, and whatever it is, the rules say I must agree to live with it.
Or must I?
Softening the Blow
That is the controversy swirling around me today like a tornado and leaving wreckage in its wake. The situation is this: an author in our group is demanding that someone change a review. The author doesn’t like the feedback, although it is positive – four out of five stars. However, it slams the quality of the editing. The reader found too many typos and said so.
OMG – you would think the world was ending. The author is quitting the group over this review, unable to stay involved with people who would print something so defamatory in an Amazon review. The rest of the group is debating what went wrong. I am wondering the same thing. Was this situation avoidable, or was it inevitable?
Personal coaches, personal trainers, dieticians, therapists, mentors, teachers, tutors: we hire people to help us all the time. From complex problems – anxiety and depression, career management and weight management – to more manageable ones – dog training perhaps – we seek out guidance from experts to help us do better, be smarter, resolve issues.
The Flaw in Peer Reviews
But peer review and advice – that is a very different animal. From the friend you know who always has some cutting remark on the tip of her tongue “just being honest,” they might say or “I knew you would want to know.” Some friend.
Or, the person who has to have the last word at your expense or always has to be right or “just wants to help” by telling you they hate your shoes, your hairdo or your fiancé. Unwanted advice and counsel from these people bombards us and lets face it, it’s much harder to hear.
Authors need to grow the thick skin of a crocodile to survive peer reviews… Click To TweetChoosing an expert and paying them creates a relationship and an expectation. They are there to teach, you to learn. They will make you better, thinner, smarter and you will pay them for it. When you ace your exam or improve your swing, the relationship will end. You give them permission to tell you what you do wrong and how to do better.
In peer reviews groups, even in teams where you give each other permission to give feedback, it is harder to maintain your thick skin, to accept the feedback from someone else. Why? I believe it is because you are secretly saying to yourself, “what do they know? what makes them so smart?”
By definition, we are dealing with our peers – our equals. When we acknowledge them as peers we acknowledge that they are not better or smarter than we are, so why should we let them tell us how we can improve?
That is how the tornado forms, moving across the plains of the first and second meetings, until it gains steam in meeting three and explodes in meeting four. It takes down everything in its path, a writer’s confidence, imagination, and ability to go back to work the next day. This is not unique to authors. I have seen peer reviews tear through teams in corporate environments, destroy friendships and create rifts in families.
Can we learn to be Crocodiles?
Is there a way to avoid it? We can say we will grow a thicker skin but is that possible when our emotions engage, when the subject is important or the work is very personal, like a novel? Can we be the crocodile we need to be without becoming a porcupine?
Can you? I believe in peer reviews and in asking my friends for advice. Beta readers, and tough editors improve my work. I have to swallow my pride if I want my books (and my blogs) to reach you in their best possible form.
I spend huge amounts of time listening to the podcasts and reading the blogs of my peers, learning from their mistakes. Sometimes it’s easy to take their advice, to buck up and do better when they point out that I went completely wrong. Other times, I crawl under the covers and stop writing for a few days. Just think about this, I am not sitting face to face with them and it is still hard to hear. How sad is that?
I would like to do better at receiving input. Perhaps you can help me practice – read my Beguiling Bachelor novels and give me feedback or write a review. Whatever your opinion might be, I can practice acting like a crocodile, and give my spines a rest.
How are you at taking peer input? What about giving it? Can you accept criticism and advice that comes with a “I meant well” excuse? What’s your secret? Won’t you share it with us in the comments below?