Don’t Undo Someone Else’s Work

Don’t Undo Someone Else’s Work

When we were in the middle of cutting up 50 million miles of red oak three days before the wedding, we filled the pick-up with split logs at one end of the long front yard and drove it up to the house rather than walk those trees up armload by armload.

Sébastien had never filled a pick-up with a load of wood before (this was before Jean-Charles took to roaming the countryside absconding with firewood but that is Another Story; plus Jean-Charles has a Renault hatchback to fill, so it’s not the same thing). So he started while the other guys were finishing up with some of the splitting and chainsawing, and by the time they got there, he had a beautiful row, neatly stacked…at the end of the bed, bordering the tailgate.

Now that was impractical, because basically what you do with a truck load of wood is–you toss it in any old way, and you do the neat stacking when you get it up to its eventual wood pile. And the neat stack like that by the tailgate kind of got in the way–people had to toss over it or around it.

Not too big a deal, wood was flying over all sides anyway at that point, but still, a little bit of a handicap, and at one point I said to my brother David: “I guess I could toss that stack farther back.”

He said, “Naah,” in that long, long drawl he has. “I’m not going to undo another man’s work.”

Which is the kind of thing David pops out with from time to time, in that drawl from here to tomorrow, and you look at him and think: THAT is a very true thing, and how is it that David just has a way of Knowing What’s What and putting the word for it on it.

Now obviously sometimes you have to undo someone else’s work. David and Annette have been building their gorgeous house on the hill with the labor of their own hands for coming up on three years now, and what with contractors and another, David’s had to undo someone else’s work quite a few times to get the thing built right.


In fact, if he found me quoting him on this, he might roll his eyes at the naïveté of his pre-house-building self and say the exact opposite. (Besides, David likes to argue. If he says, “This is that,” and you repeat to him, “You’re absolutely right, David, this is that,” he’ll fling back, “Now where did you come up with that dang fool idea? It’s not anything like that.”)

Still, I think he had a good point: you don’t undo someone else’s effort unnecessarily. Or casually.

This memory has been in my mind recently because of a couple of things. One is Mimi telling me a little bit about what inspired her Bisquick Mix Day over on French Kitchen of America. Very discreetly, Mimi doesn’t name names or tell negative stories about people, but basically, she wanted to take a stand for what she calls manners. And that’s what I usually call it, too, but I was thinking about it this morning, and it seems to me it boils down to what my brother said.

Don’t undo someone else’s work. Don’t diss on it lightly.

Reviewers and critics of any kind have a tricky job there, because their job is to critique someone else’s work. And you know, it’s very easy for that to cross over the line to tearing down someone else’s work.

I was talking about this with Jayne a couple of weeks ago, who said that one criticism they often get is that they criticize–they say when they don’t like a book and why, and some people think they shouldn’t say anything unless it’s something nice.

The problem, of course, is that reviewers who never say what doesn’t work in a book aren’t doing their jobs. And to do their jobs and respect other people’s work is a fine line, but I think the Ja(y)nes tread it well, as do the Dees, and Tara Marie and…

…well, really, I admit it, ALL reviewers who like ME. If they didn’t like Blame It on Paris, I might have a different take, which is I think where the trouble starts if you’re a reviewer.

Reviewers & critics have it tough.

BUT, another related moot point*** is why authors don’t review. It comes up, you know. Readers say: “Oh, they’re just hypocrites, wanting everyone to think it’s all roses over there in author land.” Authors get defensive and pop off the first thing that comes out of their quick-comment-writing fingers and say, “No, no, it’s because it would be harmful to my career.”

Yikes. I BET that’s not really why they aren’t all over blogalandia dissing on other authors’ books. I bet that is just an excuse they came up with quickly while dashing off a comment in between all the other things they need to be doing. Sometimes you do something instinctively and when you try to defend it, you throw out something logical that isn’t really the deep reason.

So here’s what I think:

Most authors don’t review because we aren’t called to be reviewers, and therefore we don’t have to tread this fine line between critiquing someone’s work and tearing it down. And we find it easier to just avoid the dilemma and stick with this principle:

Don’t undo someone else’s work.

‘Cause it could be your own work, that you poured time and energy, maybe even heart and soul and years of your life into.

And in some cases, this just means minding your manners. Courtesy. It’s not just an 8-letter word.

***Moot. Meaning infinitely debatable to the point that it’s probably not worth discussing. But NOT meaning that it’s irrelevant.

P.S. If I were my father, I would pop out with a stuffed animal about this point, because he LOVED to do that during his sermons. He said you always needed to make sure to have something in it for the kids. Here’s a cuddle bunny. (No, SHE is not a stuffed animal. The costume she is wearing is.)


  • Thanks for the baby picture. Yours, I presume? She’s adorable.

    March 9, 2007 at 8:34 am
  • Spot on, Laura. Thank you.

    That is one adorable baby. I just want to hug her.

    My father lived by two rules, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” and “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

    I haven’t aways lived by them. I try to now. I do not always succeed, but I do try.

    March 9, 2007 at 11:08 am
  • as usual, you’re totally correct.
    WHEN I get published, it will probably mean the end to the review site, just for that reason.
    That’s also the reason we try to keep that balance. I think you can review without being cruel. Yes, I really believe that. Maybe though, many people LIKE reading cruel things. I just can’t do it though. You nailed it when you said that there is a difference between critiquing and tearing down. I don’t think they have to be the same thing. I try very hard to be honest, but still be kind. If I don’t like something, I stress that it’s MY OPINION, not a fact. And I always try to find at least three good things about any book, even if I don’t care for it all that much. Authors work hard to write stories. They deserve at least 3 good things mentioned.

    March 10, 2007 at 12:37 am
  • And BEAUTIFUL baby!!

    March 10, 2007 at 12:39 am
  • Ooooooooh, she’s darling. She’s just darling.

    March 10, 2007 at 8:15 am
  • re: what dee said. I am in AWE of writers. Writers work HARD. Even if I personally don’t like the finished result, it is an amazing thing to put that many words together to create something. I think many people who’ve never tried writing have the idea that it’s easy (I don’t know why they’d think that). I managed to write 60,000 words during NaNoWriMo, but that’s not the half of it. The story is just the beginning. Crafting it into a pleasurable read–I’m not saying it’s not fun in its way, and rewarding, and satisfying, but it’s hard.

    I see a book as a gift, from a writer to a reader. I admit I didn’t phrase it in quite those words until about halfway through NaNo! But it is, it’s a gift, and anyone who browses the sites of writers who let us in even just a little on their process can see that they work very hard. I’m going on. But anyway, dee, I agree with you. Authors work very hard. And books–man, I’d be lost without books.

    March 10, 2007 at 9:39 am
  • YOUR bunny tops Lindt’s Gold bunny any day of the week…

    March 10, 2007 at 3:04 pm
  • Wait, is that picture what they built??? I’m in awe. Truly. In. Awe. Beautiful.

    Ditto on what everyone else is saying. It’s perfectly fine (and necessary, I would say) to say what works/doesn’t and what you liked/didn’t like about any media, art form, whatever. It’s how we share ideas and information. But yes, there is a thing called TACT and people should remember how to use it.

    March 13, 2007 at 9:47 am
  • That’s what they built, Michelle! Part of it. See the fireplace with the masonry that rises to the vaulted ceiling? My sister-in-law did that ALL by herself. All of it. It’s just incredible what they’re doing with pure hard work.

    March 15, 2007 at 7:54 pm
  • Writers do work hard. 🙂 I’m always impressed by people who do NaNo. It’s like a marathon a day for a month! And I do think if you write yourself, you grow more aware of the work involved, naturally. Just as when your published you grow more sensitive to the sense of exposure. All of those sensitizations probably play a factor in why authors tend to restrain themselves from public criticism (however gentle!) of other writers’ work. And when they don’t–it usually comes across as pretty ugly to me. I guess it’s such a delicate and difficult line to walk, a lot of authors just prefer not to try.

    Private conversations are different, of course! There are PLENTY of books that drive me right up the wall. And as Mimi aptly said, you can have good principles and not always manage to live up to them. Even frequently not manage to live up to them! But they’re probably still a good guide.

    Dee, I bet it would be pretty tricky to maintain the review site. But it’s such a great site and really an EXCELLENT way to be involved in the publishing world for now. All the people you meet, all the books you read and analyze! It will be a tough decision…one which I’m SURE you’ll have to face some day.

    Good luck to ALL of you writers, by the way! I am rooting for you.

    And you’re right, Michelle, reviewing in some way or another is absolutely necessary. If it didn’t exist, people would create it–all the reader blogs have proved that. Because people want to swap notes about books and figure out what to buy–I’m the same way. What I hear about a book can influence me to buy it, and I pass on info about whether I liked or disliked a book and why to other people. (Only if I dislike it, now I’ll only say so verbally to friends or family.) I give much kudos to reviewers; it’s a tough job to do well. That’s one of the reasons reader bloggers fascinate me.

    Amy, I agree a book is a gift to the reader. And reading is a gift to the writer. It’s such a symbiotic relationship. I have a funny story to tell about that one day actually, as long as I can make sure I won’t be embarrassing anyone!

    March 15, 2007 at 8:12 pm

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