Friday, June 5, 2009


Honesty is a virtue. It isn't something that is easy to remember to do. Being honest is a concept more than an actual thing. I remember clearly the moment when I was walking with my grandmother in the parking lot of a Mall and she was explaining to me the difference between a white lie and a real lie. She told me a white lie is something we tell when we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and more importantly, when it wont do any harm. Harm. There is that nasty word again.

Humans breathe in the form of the white lie. Let's go ahead and give some examples I know you are all familiar with: "You don't look fat." "I love that color eyeshadow." "Your writing is strong..." "No, really... I really think he likes you!" "Of course she didn't mean it that way."

You know it. You do it. We all do. Honesty is a hard business. Brutal honesty can sting badly, in both directions. The receiver of the honest opinion is hurt and the giver of the opinion is wounded by the infliction of said hurt.
The truth is that white lies are necessary in the social world, but have no place in the world of teacher/student or writer/agent/publisher.

If we did not practice the art of the white lie in social settings, we would become social sociopaths. It is socially awkward to be brutally honest in social situations. Consider the woman you are just meeting on the arm of your husband's best friend. She is wearing a hideous lime green jump suit. Laugh about it in the car later... do not shake her hand and say "oh my, what a hideous green jump suit." If you ever become true friends later in your lives, you can mention it... carefully, and she will hopefully be in agreement by then. Maybe.

Recently I found a beta reader and critique partner for my book. We swapped and I got instantly sweaty. I read the first sentence and thought... Oh my, How will I do this? There was so much I wanted to tell her, things that didn't work, things that DID work. So I bit the bullet. I was brutally honest. And you know what? She was okay! Not only okay, but brave enough to tell me what she agreed with and what she would keep. And brave enough to throw some wonderful and honest critiques back my way.

As a teacher, it is my job to tell students the truth. The truth about society, the truth about their grades, their potential, their work.

As a writer it is my job to tell fellow writers the truth, and listen to it in return. It is also my job to be truthful with agents and/or editors. I will always be myself. I will always be honest.

BUT (and there is always a but, right... fat or not;) butt, get it?) The only problem, the only itsy bitsy problem with the concept that is honesty... is that it is relative. We have to always remember that even our truths can differ. What I think of as truth may be true to me, but not true to someone else, especially if it is about a critique. Now, an out and out lie is a different story and should ALWAYS be avoided. I have some stories about those... fodder for future postings.

Tomorrow: Recipe day!


  1. "BUT (and there is always a but, right... fat or not;) butt, get it?)"

    I was doing great with this until I got to that line. Then I almost spewed Diet coke.

    I digress. This a great post, and something I wholeheartedly agree with. One thing I have always strived for is telling the bold truth. People who ask me my opinion get the disclaimer - Before you ask, are you sure you want to hear what I think? I'm not always right of course, but at least you know where I stand.

    In the context of writers, editors, publishers, etc it is extremely important for complete honesty. Sure sometimes feelings get a little hurt, but (in most cases) the intent is to improve the work, not hurt the person. I truly believe that.

  2. Me too. And I REALLY wish I had a diet coke right now. No. Really. Like I might have to leave the office to get one.

    Does anyone remember glorious TAB?

  3. You're so right about the relativity of "critique truth". But, if you have to do the dirty work I think it's all in the attitude.

    My husband always says "you can say anything if it is couched in love". When we ask for critique, no one is doing us a favor if they skip the difficult truths. Just do it at the same time you point out the beautiful and it's all good :)

  4. And, my mom drak TAB. Oh, the memories...

  5. Oh Tess! You are soooo right! I wish I posted that. A "What the hell is that doing there?" feels so much better when a "NICE." is next to a sentence a few paragraphs down.


  6. Truth in a critique partner is a must, and I'm so glad that I have a great one!! We don't live up to our true potential unless someone is brave enough to give it to us straight! Writing is a solitary business, but without the companionship and honest comments of our betas, critters, etc, we won't grow as artists! Great post Suzanne, you're the best!

  7. i want the truth...i can handle the truth!!!!

  8. Mandy: ;)

    Gardenwitch: Since that night out on the rocks, I have always told you the truth. It is the thing I love best about our friendship. Now where the hell is my frickin critique of chapter one of The Junk Garden pray-tell?

  9. I completely agree that honestly is necessary, particularly in a critique. While some members of a critique group may be offended, those looking for serious feedback that might improve their writing will understand. I worry when I send myself out for critique sometimes but realize by the time I get it back that I really do want some constructive criticism. And ultimately, if there's something they didn't like in the manuscript, it will hurt me more in the long run NOT telling me than simply mentioning in the first place that it could be worked on.

  10. Brutal honesty is critical for learning, but too harsh for everyday. I know someone who loves to be brutally honest in all aspects. It's not always pleasant.

  11. I loved Tess's comment about honesty being kind. Yes, I want honesty in my critiques and I GIVE honesty in my critiques but there's a big difference between honesty and cruel honesty. Telling me that "This just sucks" isn't constructive or helpful. Telling me, "This structure is awkward" or "would your character really behave that way?" is both. I don't mind getting the criticism--I just prefer it to be done with tact.
    In that same vein, I also believe in pointing out the positive. It might be hard to find in some cases but it must be found. We all need encouragement and even if we didn't, what if you didn't point out the "right" and because they didn't know, a writer got rid of it? Wouldn't that change your reading experience and love for the project?

  12. Tact. Perfect! and sociological as well! Irving Goffman wrote a lot about tact. Tact is the key to human, social interaction. :) Great comment!

  13. I believe in honesty, and I have a thick skin. I want to hear if something doesn't work, or if it does, but maybe not where I have it.

    I've gotten rid of whole chapters because they were all dribble and backstory. Now when I first started, I didn't know that, so thankfully, I had someone who was kind enough to point it out to me.

    And that's how I look at it, as kindness.

    Let's take that lime-green jumpsuit. A friend would have never let her out of the house in it, but once out, would never tell her how hideous she looks. My sis and I are like that. If I look stupid in something and are about to leave, she so kindly says, you look stupid, go change. And I for her. Why? We don't want the other to look stupid in public.

    So, instead of letting me look stupid to the world, in my novels, tell me. Er, this just really doesn't work. :)

    Trust me, I can take it.

    Great post Suz, and great comments too!

  14. Oh, yeah, but tell me why something doesn't work, like Tess said. Otherwise, it's not helpful.

  15. Tactful critiques are the best. That way you give useful information and retain dignity as well.;-)

  16. I think much of the benefit of truthfulness also comes in the delivery of it. A trusted critique partner knows how to convey the weaknesses they find in our work in a constructive, positive light.

  17. Being truthful always is a tuff commitment, but most worthy things are. Nice post, very honest. ;)