What Every Writer Can Learn from Sarah Dessen Right Now

Reviews and Criticism are for READERS not for WRITERS.

Book Twitter is all aflutter. Some big deal, bestselling authors got upset when a grad student made a statement to the press about joining a committee when she was a junior in her undergraduate program.

Her purpose for joining the committe was to make sure that her school’s ‘common read’ was not a Sarah Dessen young adult book. You can read all about that — well, pretty much anywhere news is disseminated. But you can start here.

I’m not going to rehash the whole thing. Let’s just say that it was ugly. Name calling and nastiness ensued — in the direction of hugely bestselling authors whose names you will probably recognize, toward a young woman.

The student has left the internet. Dessen and her friends have pulled way back, removed their posts, and apologized. Anyway, like I said, you can read all about it all over the book web.

I want to talk about something else, today. Curtesy of this brouhaha.

What I want to talk about today is something that I think is important to remember if you want to be a writer. We might as well learn from the whole debacle, right?

If you are a writer, try to remember that reviews are not for you. Criticism of all kinds are not for you. Reviews are for readers.

Once you put your work out into the world, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. That’s hard — because you worked really hard on it and you want it to be yours still. But it’s not. It belongs to each individual person who reads it. And each one of them is going to get something out of it that’s colored by their own experiences.

You know that’s true, because if you’re a writer chances are you’re a reader. And you know what it’s like to have a book really belong to you. That doesn’t happen when you write. It happens when you read.

As Dessen is learning right now, that goes for megga bestsellers. And it goes for you, if you ever publish anything.

Someone on Twitter linked this Tweet from Neil Gaiman that is totally unrelated, but still fits. It’s a good reminder. Don’t be a dick. If the only way you can do that is to not read your reviews, that’s a good policy.

So, one more time. Reviews, critiques, criticism — they aren’t for you. They are for readers. They’re usually public, which means you can see them. But they still aren’t for you.

Just like you might be able to see into someone’s living room from the street — but that doesn’t mean their things belong to you.

Replying to reviews and criticism is pretty much always a bad idea.

Learning from them is something else. If a bunch of people dislike the same thing about your work, file that away. Fix it, if you want to.

If you’re being accused of something or you think there’s something going on that demands a response from you — get advice before you respond. I can almost guarantee that Dessen didn’t ask advice from her agent or editor or lawyer before Tweeting her response to that grad student’s comment. Or before responding to the responses to her Tweet.

She probably was acting on advice when she pulled all that down and apologized later.

Here’s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter and Instagram and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.

Learn. Write. Repeat. Visit me at ninjawriters.org. Reach me at shauntagrimes@gmail.com. (My posts may contain affiliate links!)

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