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Tough love and the authors' mentor

I sometimes think my parents named me Jo for a reason. It’s short for Joanna, actually, but I have been just plain Jo for decades now. Have you heard the phrase ‘honest Joe’? Well, that’s me! It’s a monika I’ve had to learn to live with.

When I became an authors’ mentor in 2002, after getting 15 books of my own published and working as a journalist for a few years, I had a fair bit of experience underneath my belt. I’d had my failures and in fact my publisher rejected every page of the first book I was commissioned to write on wordprocessing. Yep, I had to start from scratch.

My first magazine editor, back in 1987 in Dubai, told me straight.

“Well, you’re a new writer but you have good ideas and you show promise,” she said. “So I’m going to ask you to write for me and then rip your work to shreds. If you can take that, you’ll learn the craft on the job.”

I decided I could take that and there began a long career in which I wrote thousands of feature articles for magazines all over the world, and even ended up editor myself.

So, by the time I became an authors’ mentor I had graduated from the school of hard knocks. I knew that if I was to be any good I had to be honest with my clients and tell them exactly what I thought. Thank goodness I’m British and the art of giving people bad news in a jolly nice way was in my blood! I’m pretty good at beginning a piece of particularly tough criticism with words such as:

“I’m really sorry to tell you this, but…”

Or

“Would you mind changing …”

I don’t like being nasty to people. I even tell them that what I suggest is only my opinion and they can take or leave it, but that I would not be doing my job if I didn’t say it as I found it.

Nevertheless, I do not like giving negative feedback. And always try to go back over my comments to soften them a bit if I can. I still quake when I press the send button, but I know I must do it.

But when one of my friends comes to me for advice that is really hard. I SO don’t want to offend them, that not only do I quake when I press the send button but I worry about what they will think of me when they read it and whether our friendship will be over. But, like I said, it’s my ‘job’ and I have to be professional even with a friend.

So, two weeks ago, I found myself reviewing a book for a really good friend of mine. He’d already written it and published it and as I read I knew I was likely to cause a commotion with my comments. But I did a really thorough job, and didn’t even charge him for it. I just could not keep my mouth shut. I wanted his book to be the best it could be and knew that as the book was print on demand, fixing it did not mean he’d have to bin the 2,000 copies in his garage. So, I said what I thought, pressed send and lay awake for a couple of hours that night.

The next day, an email was waiting for me when I got to my desk. I felt sick. I saved the email til last and gingerly opened it.

“Nobody has ever taken the time or trouble to give me such a high level and really useful critique … Ever !!! And I really appreciate the time you’ve spent and your intention of love .

I love all those ideas and they would be great to wrap into a second edition …

I take them all on board and will mull on how best to implement them rather than my usual “drop everything approach” – I do want this to be a big success.”

I could breathe out at last and I am delighted to report that we will work together on that second edition – on a professional basis.

The reason I share this with you today is that I know how hard it can be to even dare to ask for feedback from a professional. I also know how hard it is to give negative critique. However, thanks to my friend’s wonderful email, which he has given me permission to share, I have had my belief endorsed that it really OK to be honest – even with a friend.

  • Carolyn

    Yes, Jo. This is soooo you. I could just see your face as you had to write that difficult email. And you do always provide such constructive criticism when need be. You’ve helped yet another author grow with what you know. Well done!

  • Petra

    Jo, thanks for your blog articles. They have often helped me to understand some things about writing better. In regards to what you write here, do you have an overview of the most common mistakes that beginning or even experienced writers make? You also gave me some clues via email, thanks for that as well! Maybe you can give some examples in another blog post?

  • Anonymous

    Oh beautiful Jo.

    I love this saying: Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them. Francois de La Rochefoucauld

    Thank you for being kind and honest….