The Foolish Writer and the Wise

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You’re no fool. Right?

But is it possible, perhaps, that you do foolish things sometimes? It is. We all do. As writers, we’ve pretty much all wrong-footed it at least once or twice.

But how do you know what’s foolish? Being too confident is a classic writer’s mistake, but so is being too shy and tentative. It’s just as foolish to think you’ll always fail as to think you’ll always succeed. With that in mind, take the quiz below to determine what foolish writers — and wise ones — do in some often-seen writing and publishing situations.

A. You ask your critique group for feedback on something you think is great. They think it needs work. You:

  1. quit the group in a rage. Clearly they don’t see your genius. Too bad, so sad. FOR THEM.
  2. accept all criticism, beat yourself up for not doing a better job, and slavishly follow each and every suggestion, instruction, or correction that they give you.
  3. listen to the criticism without arguing or getting defensive, but take some time to digest it. Then decide which of their ideas ring true for you and which ones you think are off the mark. Incorporate what you want and leave the rest.

B. Huzzah! An agent loves your query and wants to see the full manuscript. But she wants an exclusive. You:

  1. grant it right away, no conditions, no time limits.
  2. fire back a FURIOUS email declaring you would NEVER work with anyone who DARES ask such a thing.
  3. write back that other agents are reviewing the manuscript and you can’t give an exclusive, but you hope she’ll read anyway, and you won’t accept another offer of representation before informing her first (and attach the manuscript).

C. Now the agent has your manuscript and says she’ll get to it soon. Time goes by and you don’t hear from her. You:

  1. wait and wait, letting three months go by. Six months. A year. You don’t want to be a pest. If she likes it, she’ll tell you, right?
  2. start emailing once a week, then once a day. Then start calling. Remind her she promised you and she has totally failed. You NEED to know, dammit! Where is your ANSWER??? Maybe lie and say someone else has offered representation just to light a fire under her you-know-what.
  3. wait until the initial timeframe is up, then send a polite followup email. Continue to reach out politely, once every few weeks or so. In the meantime, tend your other irons in the fire.

D. Your agent or publisher wants to know what books you’d say yours is most like. You say:

  1. “It’s a cross between Harry Potter and Twilight, of course! It’s going to be HUGE!”
  2. “I really can’t compare it to any other book because it’s completely unique. There’s never been another book like it. Ever.”
  3. “It will appeal to readers of [author or book in your genre with some similarities of plot or premise, released within the past few years, ideally successful].”

 E. An Amazon/Goodreads/blog reviewer writes a very negative review of your book. You:

  1. respond point by point with an impassioned (and profanity-strewn) defense of why they are wrong, wrong, wrong.
  2. collapse in a heap, certain your book is now doomed.
  3. shrug, or have a glass of wine, or cry on the phone to your best friend, but under no circumstances whatsoever respond publicly.

So by now, you get the gist, right? The wisest path is often the middle of the road. It’s impossible to come up with a guideline that’ll fit every situation you’ll encounter on the long writer’s road, but here’s one to try: “Always” or “never” is almost never the way to go. If you find yourself talking in absolutes, you might be traipsing into some foolish territory.



About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.


  1. says

    Point nicely made!

    When receiving criticism or negative reviews it’s so easy to have an extreme reaction, or even to bounce between both extremes. It takes far more mental and emotional energy to take the middle, balanced path.

    Thank you for the reminders. :)

  2. `Peggy Foster says

    I love this post. This is a good reminder for all of us writers to remember. I remember when I was a singer and when I was trying to get places to sing at across the country I would send cd’s of me and my band to different venues. Oh hhow I wanted to call them and say, “Hey come on will you let me and my band play at your place or not?” But I didn’t do that. I would take the middle road and once the time was up I would contact them every so often. Thanks for a great post!

  3. says

    Moderation, moderation, moderation. I can’t stress this enough to my friends, kids, co-workers, and–most importantly–myself. In MOST facets of life, it’s the key. To say “all facets” would be using a foolish absolute, after all. I especially subscribe to E.3. It astounds me how many writers publicly respond to negative reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. It makes me cringe. Don’t engage the haters, people!

    Great post! Thanks!

  4. says

    Good stuff, from one of the least foolish writers I know!

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom, and helping to identify some of the major missteps that aspiring authors can so easily make.

  5. says

    Love the reminder to seek the middle of the road! … And loved reading what we’re *not* supposed to do. It is a little cathartic to daydream in that direction, yes? :) But best to act wisely, and save all the foolish ranting for my journal (…to be burned later).

  6. Ronda Roaring says

    A. is the one that drives me nuts. Why do writers ask for a critique and then get all defensive! In some groups, you’re not allowed to say anything during or after your work is critiqued. I like that. If you can’t that the critiquing, you shouldn’t ask.

  7. says

    I am guilty, I have to confess, of getting it wrong once, on point E. A reader once took the trouble of emailing me to them me how awful he thought my book was, and why. It was nasty and spiteful, but I exercised self control, and replied with a simple thank you. But he emailed me back, with more of the same. I couldn’t resist a simple rebuke, but boy did I pay for it.
    Never made that mistake again.
    A list of good points there. Thank you.

  8. says

    Anytime you can unleash a fit of rage is awesome. When someone rips my work, I throw things, scream, and then stomp my feet as I spin in circle of fury.

    Actually, that’s what my three year old son does when he doesn’t get his way. It looks a lot more fun than the middle of the road.

    • says

      Hey, if the tantrum’s in private and you feel better after, it’s totally worth it. Especially if you can be reasonable after getting your grrr out. Then go have a glass of wine and relax=)

  9. says

    This is great advice. Some of it may seem like common sense, but that common sense is hard to see sometimes when we’re blinded by our own passion.

  10. Diane Turner says

    I love the idea of a quiz, as it gives me a sense of where I stand when I read the scenarios. I’ll tuck this away for use when the time comes. Thanks a bunch, Jael, for the sage advice.