10 January 2011

How to Cope with a Bad Peer Review

by Carrie Bailey

I've had it happen to me a few times where the response I get to my writing is less encouraging than I wanted to hear. It's probably the most nerve-wracking part of creative writing. Handing your hard work over to someone else to read for the very first time, then having them hand it back with a sour look on their face. Then, they proceed to deliver all the words you didn't want to hear...meh!

What happens next is complex process. You evaluate the jealousy level of the reader. You evaluate their taste and personal style. You size up their experience and objectives. You turn the lens of introspection on yourself and then bore holes into your soul trying to reveal what went wrong.

Unfortunately, that isn't going to help... There are many reasons why we receive bad reviews and while we can't undo a bad review or heal the confidence it shattered overnight if it were truly awful, we can control certain aspects of the review process and understand them better to help us receive the most useful results possible. That's right. A review, a peer review, is supposed to help us improve, if the information you receive when you get a review has nothing that serves that end, it can, in fact, be discarded immediately, negativity and all. But a negative review, a soul crushing, tear extracting review that also includes a statement such as "too many commas" or "main character's motivation is unclear" can be gold, sort of muddied dirt covered gold. So, take the gold, and ditch the rest.

Ask Someone You Trust

The first peer review that you get for your work should not be an opportunity for someone to exert their dominance over you mean girls style. So, be honest with yourself about your friends, critique partners, and others you might ask. If they're competitive or passive aggressive in the slightest, it doesn't matter how much fun you have with them, they will not provide an objective review of your work.

The same applies to your great aunt so-and-so who just loves you to death. You know that. Besides, she's blind now and even if you hand over your manuscript, she can't read it, she's just going to tell you that you are wonderful.

Trust, in regards to a peer review, means that you can rely on their integrity and ability. It also means you have confidence what you expect to receive from them. 
Do you ever wonder why grade school children get so much encouragement for writing the letter "A" but writers receive so much criticism for adding one too many commas? Before you ask for a peer review, make sure your reviewer is completely aware of the following facts:

  • How long you've been writing.
  • What your objective is for your writing i.e. where you would hope to see it published one day.
  • What is standard for genre.
  • What mistakes of which you are already aware.
How long you are writing is important, because if you're just proud to finish a 15,000 word story and you hadn't even considered whether the market could cope with another tale of vampire love and zombies entering mainstream society...well, your reviewer might not be reviewing what you want reviewed.

Your objective on the other hand is important, too. Imagine this: You take a work published in a book where you would like to be published and you hand it to your best friend, but she returns it saying that she just doesn't think you have what it takes... Well, she may have her eyes on working for Vanity Fair, but you were looking to sell a few pieces to a local wine and travel publication. When your objective is out of sync, the person reviewing your work will not be giving you useful feedback.

Having someone who writes a different genre review your work can be tricky unless they're the most objective person you ever met, however, it can be potentially amazing in the end result. Someone who does not read your genre will not expect to like what you write so they will be quick to focus on the mechanics and share their surprise at discovering elements of your writing that they did enjoy. The key is to make sure your reviewer understands what you are aren't writing the same genre and that they are not a literary bigot. Yes, bigots exist even in writing. It happens when people get so enthusiastic about their own genre that they stop believing that anyone should be writing anything else.

Yet another important set of details are the mistakes. Why? Because, they think you don't realize they are there when you hand over your work for review. It could be that formatting is a lengthy process and you wanted a review of the content while you worked on formatting, but they may be sending back detailed notes on spacing and virtually ignore the text if you don't tell them...

Of course once you've already had a bad review, knowing what to do next time is only half of the struggle to keep writing. A writer puts a lot of themselves out onto the page and it's bound to result in some bruised egos here and there. Put it in perspective. It happens to everyone. The writers that persevere are the ones who can identify what is useful from a critique and dispense with all the negative emotional content that might come with it.

Remember that. Write down what you heard or look at what was written. Circle only what will obviously help your writing improve. Consider the rest of the advice in context, but file it away in the back of your mind somewhere it can't affect you. If other reviewers deliver the same advice later, then take it out have a soul searching moment. If later decide critique is true, then don't worry...it has become useful. You're one step closer to being a great writer! But, about that paper, everything else on the paper means nothing. Write down what you circled and throw the paper away.

And the next time you get a review, remember that what you say about your manuscript when you hand it to the reviewer will affect them. In some ways, it's like a job interview. If you tell them, you know you can't write, you'll never be able to write, publishing is not in your future, and some days you're aren't even sure you can correctly identify the letter "A." Well, don't expect them to spend a lot of time trying to change your mind. Just tell them what the manuscript is and let go...

By the way...chocolate also helps a coping with a bad peer review.


  1. Constructive criticism is gold, for sure. A lot of times, we don't see our own errors or places we could improve because we are so close to the work. It's hard to be objective. Once someone points it out, however, it is like this 'ah-ha' moment - of course! Why didn't I see that? A few mechanical errors and suggestions for changes is one thing, but unfortunately, I have also had the task of reviewing for people when the writing was just plain bad. (Super cliche, absolutely no idea about grammar, sentence structure and punctuation ...) I'm not sure what else one can do in that case but be honest. Sometimes the truth hurts.

  2. I think honesty is important always, but I've seen a lot of people bicker over grammatical differences when it's an issue of Chicago Style verses APA.

    An example would be where in a simple series APA wants the comma out, Chicago wants the comma in.

    coffee, cream and sugar vs. coffee, cream, and sugar

    I personally believe the worst editor is one who is unable to recognize context for another person's writing...however, bad writing is a phase that everyone goes through during the learning process. It isn't the end expression of their ability.

    My opinion of the worst five pages of a manuscript I ever read changed drastically when I read the synopsis. In context, it made sense.

  3. Someone who would read what you write can do a good review, but the best is done by someone who doesn't bring their personal preferences into it. Another well-thought-out article :)

  4. I really enjoyed reading this article. Always important to have a system for getting and handling peer review, no matter your trade.