Some Great Advice About Toughness, Critiques, and Writing, From J. Kent Messum

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”–Albert Einstein

About a week ago I stumbled upon a Canadian writer who posted about tough love for writers on the Guide To Literary Agents Blog, via the Writer’s Digest website. This  post pretty much captures how I feel about critiques and the need for complete honesty from not only a critique partner standpoint, but also from ourselves. If we aren’t willing to identify the truth about our words than we will never grow as writers.

Here’s a small sample of the post, which I can’t recommend enough. “You might be asking yourself some typical questions right now: Why can’t I get a break? Why isn’t my writing attracting the attention of agents? Why aren’t publishers clamoring to pick up my book? For starters, I’ll wager it’s because your work isn’t very good. In fact, your writing is probably awful. Much like mine was many years ago, long before I understood the importance of honing my craft.”

You’ll notice Mr. Messum doesn’t mix words, he’s blunt. It’s the very thing writers are encouraged not to do with critiques. Most of the advice floating around the interwebs would have each critique end with rainbows and sunshine. Writers would hold hands and sing songs about how good the other was. The truth is, literary professionals aren’t going to do that, so why do writers?

It’s the critique partner’s responsibility to intelligently relay any perceived flaws in the manuscript in question. Hopefully they can do it in a way that won’t destroy their CPs, and friends. I know first hand how difficult this can be. I also know how valuable it is too. Let’s face it, each writer doesn’t want to hear their main character is boring, as I was told years ago by a fabulous critique partner. We have to learn how to detach our personal feelings from our words. Without the truth we’ll never learn that skill. After time, and practice, you’ll discover you can do much of the critiquing on your own. Your eye becomes tuned to what goes into creating fantastic fiction.

I used to think my critique style was harsh because that’s what others told me. I would agonize over sharing what I saw because I didn’t want to hurt my fellow writers. I’m always up front about what prospective CPs will get from me. I’ve lost friends over critiques but will not waver over the principle of constructive honesty. Some of my CPs love it while others don’t. The truth, they say, will set us free. I agree.

I’m to the point where anyone can say anything about my writing and it doesn’t bother me at all. I understand who I am as a person/writer enough to know what’s relevant and what isn’t. I’m confident I can recognize a valid point when I see it because I really do check my ego at the door. My constructively honest critique approach even landed me an internship for a literary agent. I’m not saying this is the only style that works, but it has worked for me and anyone else willing to give it an honest try.

So how will you know you’re improving?

I’ve been participating in a short story competition where the winners will be published in an anthology. Since each deadline for these stories is around five days, I never thought to send any stories out to other readers. I outlined what I wanted to do, wrote, edited, printed and read the story, edited a second time, and sent it in. The only writer who read my stories was me. Out of hundreds of short stories, mine made the top five. Not bad, right?

As writers we must understand the over friendly CPs will keep us at the same level…FOREVER. You simply can’t fix what you can’t see. Even though your friends may spare your feelings, your writing will suffer. If you find yourself in the same position you were a year or two ago, you need new/better CPs. You’re stagnating, standing still.

If you ever catch Ann Collette’s Today’s Twelve on twitter, you’ll see she approaches queries and samples in the same way. She doesn’t mix words. Time is money for her and any other literary agent. This doesn’t mean she’s a horrible person or anything, she’s actually quite nice. As writers we must understand that our skills are either ready, or they aren’t.

Developing confidence along with competent writing skills comes with experience. We must put ourselves out there, discover what works for us and what doesn’t. Will an honest approach work for every writer? No, and that’s perfectly fine. Each writer is capable of different things, handles situations differently. The key is knowing what you’re truly capable of and recognizing what’s holding your writing back.

I’m going to leave you with this quote from J. Kent Messum: “The way I see it, the road to success is more like a freeway these days. There are innumerable others travelling toward the same destination as you. Along the way there are going to be accidents. People will break down, run out of fuel or turn back. There are plenty of off-ramps that many will take for legitimate reasons (money, security, stress, relationships, etc). If you want to become an author, do your damnedest not to be one of them. Constantly overhaul, rework, and polish your writing. Work your ass off. Otherwise, you may want to just pull over now and get off the road.”

Okay, I’ve rambled on long enough. Let’s get to the links. I highly recommend you read J. Kent’s post and the story of how he signed with a literary agent. They’re well worth your time.

You can find J. Kent Messum’s post, titled Why Tough Love Is Crucial For Writers here:

You can learn how J. Kent Messum signed with his literary agent here:

You can find Ann Collette on twitter here:

You can find out more about J. Kent Messum at his official website:



  1. I always worry that people are too kind about my writing. Then I worry that when I’m offering critiques I’m being horribly mean. It’s a tricky balance to find but I’m hoping to get closer to finding what I need (from myself and others) with my latest project.

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