Why Tough Love is Crucial For Writers

Hope is a powerful word. It’s also a dangerous one. When it comes to the aspiring writer community a premium is put on positivity, the old pat on the back with kind words of encouragement, keep your chin up, stay the course, that sort of thing. This support system has merits, and undoubtedly aids you in many ways, but what most could truly benefit from is a hard kick in the ass. Tough love, it hurts like hell and can help you more than anything.

I’ll be straight with you. I’m the kind of guy who learns best by getting punched in the gut. Hit me hard, or enough times, and I’ll stop fighting and get the point. Tiptoe around a subject and it will take me longer to understand what you’re trying to say. As writers, getting to the point is imperative. If we don’t, we end up getting lost.

(What a movie can teach writers about how to start a story strong.)


bait-novel-cover-messum            J-Kent-Messum-author-writer

J. Kent Messum is an author, musician, and always bets on the underdog.
He lives in Toronto with his wife, dog and trio of cats. He is the author of BAIT
(Plume, Aug. 2013). You can check out the heart-stopping book trailer for BAIT here.
Find J. Kent on Facebook and buy his book on Amazon. Also, find him on Twitter.



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.

We writers have a bad habit of reading the works of others and thinking we’re superior. It’s called the ego. Everyone has one, everyone judges. I’ve heard so many people complain about some bad book they read and go on to say “Man, I could write a way better book than that!” Really? Go ahead and try then, see how far you get. That’s like picking one of the lowest ranked players in your favorite pro sports league and saying “Man, I could do that guy’s job”. In reality, I bet you wouldn’t even make it through your first day of training.

When I was in university studying jazz, there were all kinds of aspiring students around me. But out of all the talent I came across, I’ll forever remember this one poor dude. He was a quiet sort, totally in love with his saxophone and hard bop. I’d see this guy wood-shedding every day in practice booths, isolated for hours at a time, working hard on licks and scales and solos, going over the same things over and over again. He attended all theory classes and performance workshops, but everyone knew he had a bad habit of only listening to lectures he liked and dismissing valuable teachings he didn’t care for. His skills reflected this attitude. In the four years we attended the music program he never improved. I pitied the fool. All that time he spent learning with blinders on and in the end he just didn’t get it… unlike me. I was way better than that guy.

Except, y’know, I wasn’t.

(How much money can you expect from selling your first book?)

It took me years to realize that when it came to the written word, I was that guy. I spent so much of my time writing, but never improved. I was rehashing the same shit, making the same mistakes over and over again, convinced of my talent, positive that my amazing skills would soon be noticed by the powers that be. I didn’t want to have my work criticized. I didn’t welcome the opinions of others. A word to the wise wasn’t allowed in my house. I just wanted agents and publishers to read my stuff and recognize my brilliance.

In truth, I was terrible. My style was long-winded and pretentious. I forced the use of complex words, too large and improper in the context of my writing. My prose was bloated, my storytelling weak. I was so wrapped up in my own perceived awesomeness that I was blind to all my faults. Just like that sax player in school, I could have greatly benefitted from having someone berate me for my mistakes. I was overdue for a shake, a slap, a rude awakening. What I needed most was to get beat the fuck up by a real writer. Luckily, I eventually did.

My writing didn’t improve until I met my mentor, Peter Sellers (former president of the Crime Writers of Canada). When I started showing him my work, he asked me if I wanted his honest opinion. When I answered yes, he came down on me like a ton of bricks. There were no niceties, no sugar-coating, and no handling me with kid gloves. Peter made no bones about how poor my writing was. He tore my stories to shreds and threw them back at me, unimpressed and a little insulted by what I’d done. It was the first time someone had stripped my work bare and exposed me for what I really was: a bad writer. After he’d broken me down and shattered my ego, I started to rebuild myself under his tutelage. Some might think this harsh, but I needed tough love, someone to be straight with me. I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not been given both barrels like that. And that’s the thing: It’s not enough to just keep hoping and trying. You have to constantly improve as well. Writing is a lifelong craft. There is no limit to how much you can learn.

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.

Sometimes a little tough love can help keep you on track.

(Did you enjoy this column? Messum wrote a “How I Got My Agent” column for the blog previously.)



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16 thoughts on “Why Tough Love is Crucial For Writers

  1. Marianne Knowles

    There are times to go gently, and there are times to say the hard things. It’s possible to say the hard things so they are heard without hurting. But there are too many critique groups where people are too nice to be helpful, just as there are some that are too hurtful to be helpful.

    Here’s another post on a different aspect of tough love for writers, geared toward picture book authors, who may have fewer words but still must work hard: http://taralazar.com/2013/11/23/piboidmo-day-23-kelly-light/

  2. oneluckylady

    There are those of us who need the swift kick and those of us who need the kid glove (with plenty of us somewhere in between). Whether we want what we need is another matter again.

    My bottom line is whether I can find a way to benefit from what I get. Mentors and two-cents-ers often don’t have the self-awareness–far less the other-awareness required to discern what I need and what I might received well enough to utilize.

    Like most writers, I would prefer to hear the positive feedback first, so that the stuff that needs work isn’t so hard to hear. But when I get a brutal edit from someone who lacks interpersonal skills, I work at forgiving the reviewer their character flaws before revising my work so that I don’t miss good advice that I might otherwise dismiss as a cheap shot from a sociopath.

  3. RG Hughes

    Tough Love? I think we get plenty of it. In fact, it seems to be shelled out with a hawitzer. A firm believer in constant improvement, I appreciate honest feedback. Unfortunately, too many people think writing is an opportunity for relieving themselves on fellow writers, or for those who are paid by our outcomes to do worse.

    The truth is, we are all aspiring to improve our craft. Honesty helps, brutality doesn’t. Nobody learns immediately, some of us took a dozen years to graduate high-shcool, and five years previous, coddled in love, getting ready to learn.

    There are times for tough love. A teen that has taken a terrible turn, or a loved one who has turned to drugs or crime, even a writer with an inability to hear. In any case, one portion of tough requires five of love. It’s the love part, offering the path a change willing person can follow… that is important. The tough part should only come (as you noted) when first asked if the person wants help. Then it should be meted with a tender hand, helping the writer understand limitations and alternatives, and the importance of taking time to allow slow minds to interpret and adapt. Learning is change: Change requires us to go through the five stages of grief. There is no getting around it, and tough love is not a short-cut to going through the process. It is only the reset button.

    1. atwhatcost

      There is no Santa Claus. There is no Easter Bunny. There is no Five Stages of Grief. All were disproved long ago. Whereas I do agree a swift kick in the pants ought to come after someone asks, if they don’t know to ask, exactly how many years of wasted time must we watch them thinking they’re God’s gift?

      I’ve had the same privilege Mr. Messum had–an author and writing coach who told me the truth. He sliced and diced a short story of mine into mush. And then he told me “you can flat-out write.” I’d have that dissection framed and put on my wall, except my wall isn’t big enough. I can flat-out write. I still can’t flat-out write enough to make fiction sellable. (Oddly I can make nonfiction sellable.) God bless anyone willing to tell me the truth, because Santa Claus doesn’t really exist. I count on truth-sayers to help me. Pop-psychology doesn’t. Tender hands couldn’t talk me into cleaning my room as a kid, but reality did. I haven’t changed that much over the decades.

      Amen to the kick in the pants, but, got to say, don’t punch me in the gut. (Some of us have no abdominal obliques to counter the punch, but we have a well-developed butt. ;))

  4. mqallen

    Some amount of tough love, at the right time, can be invaluable. But that doesn’t mean one ought to be undiplomatic in general with critiques. Nor does rudeness necessarily mean the critiquer is any good. It might just mean he or she is a pretentious jerk that likes to knock people down for the sake of ego.

    There are times when a little shock therapy is best, like when I let my son go hungry for lunch when he left it on the counter today. He’s in High School. He’ll forget his lunch less if he misses a few meals. But it shouldn’t be the only way feedback is delivered.

    If you take the trouble to critique something, might as well deliver your wisdom in a way that maximizes the chance that the recipient will actually do something with it.

  5. marquest

    This is such a great article! Thanks, Kent.It was insightful and funny; and it came at such opportune time, too.
    I recently gave a writer a critique and although I don’t regret having being honest, I was feeling kinda guilty about it. In my defence, I did warn this person beforehand, telling him that although I aim at being helpful, “gentle” isn’t my style. He said he was okay with that but his response after reading my critique came across as bitter. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t nasty about it or anything. He thanked me for being honest and was very polite when he expressed his disagreement. It’s just that I was left with a bad feeling. You know, like maybe I hurt the guy or something. The thing is that no matter what anybody says, when writers ask for feedback, what they really want is praise. Honest feedback isn’t easy to give, but it’s a lot harder to take. I don’t take it well myself. In fact, it usually takes me a couple of days to get over the initial shock of someone telling me that my MS isn’t perfect. I bet my butt, you didn’t take your mentor’s comments that well initially, either. I bet you, too, felt indignant with your mentor for being so wrong about your writing. It’s commendable that you got over yourself and learned to appreciate your mentor’s honesty. In my experience, not many people are capable of doing that.

  6. Jhinnua

    I’m so glad I have social issues that make me naturally trend toward people who are blunt and almost overly honest to the point of brutal. People who try to fluff things so that I feel good about myself bug me.

    I have 1 beta reader who I throw stuff at, when she has the time, who just rips apart every single sentence…asks questions about the prose, offers suggestions for strengthening the work, etc. She’s better at the grammar stuff than I am. I’m a little better at description than she is with her writing.

    I’m looking for a secondary beta reader like her. The other beta’s I have are only good for reader-interest feedback, and to see if I have anything repetitive.

  7. Haypher

    I must admit I do ask for brutal honest feedback. I also must admit I hope they’ll give me glowing applauds instead. However, more admission, I made more headway from that ‘ton of bricks’ falling down on me. Let’s just say the down and dirty critique opened my eyes – helped me take my little darlings,dangle them over a steep cliff then have the guts to let them go. ;0)

  8. dymphna st james

    Thank you for sharing story on tough love for the writer. The first writer’s conference I ever attended my crit instructor told me my short story was not good and not publishable. Then she proceeded to give me constructive criticism. The next writer’s conference I had the same crit instructor and she told me how much I had improved with a new story I submitted. I had her envy for my short story Do not coddle the writer who wants to write well be blatantly honest and truthful and grow with constructive criticism.

  9. Michael Leo Morrison

    The harder part by far is just getting a qualified and impartial author or critic even to look at your work. I attended the Pitch Slam on the West Coast recently, and of nearly a dozen agents, none would even glance at the copy of my book I had with me. All they wanted to know is, what’s it about, and why is it so thick? All but one dismissed the work as unsellable based on its length. It’s 282,000 words, 600 pages. I was trying to sell a symphony in a room full of people looking for the next six minute pop tune hit.

    I also hoped to get some feedback by entering the self-published book contest. A reviewer generously praised most aspects of the work, but also noted it was in some parts overwritten and overly long. Alas – and here comes a really shiddy sexist comment – the reviewer was obviously a woman who thought the book was about the relationships and she completely missed the point of the story.

    Good luck just FINDING serious feedback.

    Have a nice day.

    1. Mertz

      By any chance do you still play the sax?

      Perhaps she didn’t get the point because you need to rework the book a little. Try asking others to read it, if they tell you the same thing, you know the problem isn’t them…it’s the work.

      1. jotokai

        No doubt. It’s really hard to get anybody to even look at a 5 page excerpt, in my experience- let alone 600 pages. Which is a shame, because a brutal going through could be worthwhile. I know that I’ve learned a lot from even non-qualified readers and writers.

        You might consider the advice about the relationships. For example, I’m slapping together a first draft of a space- opera yarn about a young rascal with an interstellar ship that likes to get into trouble. He causes trouble, agrees to do stupid things and gets shot at quite a bit, but the real story is about him and this girl that tags along with him, hoping to get off that planet. Is it because her situation is more interesting or because my plot is weak or because I just put too much spotlight on her? I don’t know- I hope I will during revision- but any of those could be going on in your work. (Just sayin’).

    2. atwhatcost

      You were given honest feedback. You’re still practicing your saxophone in a quiet space, expecting the world to accept you. 282,000 isn’t sellable for a first-time writer. Many first-timers think they are the exception to the rule. They’re the ones who never sell the first time. That’s why the agents walked away, but you’re not listening.

  10. mande78

    I’d much rather hear the truth, good or bad, than have someone pump me up with false hope. If I’m no good, then tell me so I won’t waste my time. Honesty is the best gift you can give a writer. Now, if someone knows how to make the sting of the truth less painful, let us all know. LOL. Thanks for another great post.


  11. vrundell

    Thanks Kent–for the reminder to strive for better in our writing. It is one of the most vulnerable, yet important, steps any writer can take–seeking honest criticism. I’ll go one step further–it needs to be honest criticism from actual authors. Not your mom, or your best friend, or even your spouse–unless those people are avid readers or writers in their own right. They have a natural tendency to praise the better parts and neglect the criticism necessary to advance the prose.
    Good thing your got your authorial-thrashing from a skilled writer who cared enough to help you get better.
    Best of luck,


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