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First, be kind.

Your feedback has the power to encourage another person, or shut them down, possibly forever.

In my earliest 20s, I wrote a novel. Make that three. The first two were garbage—a kind of literary throat clearing. I shelved the manuscripts and moved on. But my third draft novel, “Sugar and Snow,” seemed to have something. 

My Uncle George connected me to his friend, a famous writer. She read my manuscript and shared it with her daughter, who also thought there was something to it. 

The famous writer asked if she could share my manuscript with her publisher. I, of course, said yes. Then I phoned all my friends to tell them I would soon be a published author. 

After three months of silence, the publishing company returned my manuscript, untouched. No word of explanation. Not even the courtesy of a boilerplate rejection letter.

Unless you count a few fibs on the resumes I submitted to potential employers, I never wrote another line of fiction. 

I drank my way through the next decade, and did not exercise my writing ability for nearly ten years.

The power to help… or hurt

I should not have been so sensitive at age 20, I suppose. Older writers had told me that rejection was part of the life. John Casey, an early writing mentor, survived the Korean War, wrote a novel about his experiences, and submitted it to two dozen publishers who weren’t interested. Eventually he siphoned a short story out of one of the chapters of his rejected novel, and found a little magazine to publish it.

John Casey became an award-winning novelist, but first he slogged through years of rejection, as all writers must. He’d told me that was the game, but my heart wasn’t ready for it. At 20, I wasn’t strong enough.

Perhaps as a partial consequence of how badly a single rejection spun me out of control, when I sometimes have to deliver tough news to a creative colleague, I’ve always striven to be kind about it. Maybe I’m excessively careful about not hurting people. But is that a bad thing? After all, I don’t know which people whose work I need to criticize or even reject are strong enough to take it, and which aren’t. 

And neither do you.

Happy endings

Being kind as well as clear becomes a moral mandate when you realize the power your feedback has to encourage another person to do their best work … or to shut them down creatively, possibly forever.

In “Wild Strawberries,” Professor Isak Borg is told in a dream, “A doctor’s first duty is to ask forgiveness.” We never know whom we may harm, or how deeply.

I told you a sad story, now here’s a happy one. I’m part of a small publishing company. Evaluating book proposals is where our process starts. Being clear compassionately is our mandate—we recognize the tremendous emotional risks folks take when they submit their ideas for review. 

Last year an author approached us with a proposal that wasn’t quite right for us. We responded with detailed feedback about what would have made it the right fit for us … and we chose our words carefully to avoid inadvertently causing harm.

This year that author returned with a spectacular proposal that we’ve accepted gratefully and with real joy. 

I thanked the author for having had the courage to come back—after all, I’d lacked that courage myself after my brush with rejection. The author thanked us for the feedback and the way we’d presented it, saying they would never have had the willingness to come back if not for the quality of our feedback. 

As a result of an author’s determination and our compassionate clarity, our readers and this industry will benefit from an author’s brilliance.

Creators, never give up.

Gatekeepers, first be kind.


Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

By Jeffrey Zeldman

“King of Web Standards”—Bloomberg Businessweek.

Designer at Automattic, Inc. Co-Founder, An Event Apart. Publisher, A List Apart & A Book Apart. Author. Father. He/him.