• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Is this love – is this love – is this love – Is this love that I’m feelin’?

In the NYT article about Bob Loomis’ retirement from Random House after nearly sixty years, Jon Karp (now publisher of Simon & Schuster) said that Bob would signal boring prose with the marginal comment, “We know.” That gave me a good chuckle. I have always used the rather boring “repetitive” or the more jaunty “rep” to signal prose that  has lost its will to live.  Sometimes I write, “slows narrative,” or “condense?” There are many euphemisms for boring, but “we know” has a the genius of the light touch with a just a dash of condescension. Woe to the writer who does not heed.

What is the best or worst comment you’ve every received in the margins of your manuscript? Mine was, “who would want to read that?”

86 Responses

  1. An English professor would express his pleasure in well written prose by referring to the author as a “miserable wretch”. I was a happy recipient of that droll comment- on several occasions.

  2. The worst (at the end of an esay): “There is zero narrative voice throughout. I. Don’t. Care.”

    The best: “I can’t comment. This is above my pay grade.”

  3. Lacks narrative cohesion and drive. Then, when I begged for another morsel of explanation: “I can’t really say you might want to try your writer’s group.”

  4. My foxy 8th grade English teacher told of hearing her professor comment, “Burn this shit!” but it turned out he’d said, “Burnish it.” Always stuck with me.

  5. “Seriously?”

  6. “No one cares about any of this crap and no one will ever care.” — guy I’ve already mentioned at my former writing group.

    And then there was the time a fellow writer who said he loved me offered to read a story of mine that I thought was pretty good. He picked it up, sat down, read for two seconds, then picked up the remote and turned on the tv.

    He seemed surprised when I took away the story — and, after a few days, myself.

  7. boring.

    i found his comment cliche.

    then i drank 3 glasses of wine in 10 minutes. it went downhill after that.

  8. My favorite professor wrote things like “nope” and “not even close” next to all my horrible titles.

  9. “Who wants to read about an ugly girl?”

  10. Sink it!

    I thought it a euphemism for boring, expository over-share, but no, it meant rip the thing up and start over.

  11. Best “Enjoyed the humour”

    Worst – we had to email our drafts to the prof by a certain date so she could photocopy for class, but if we were unable to meet that date, we could email direct to classmates. Once I did the latter. One person in my class handed back my story with no comments except the following in big capital letters and lots of exclamation marks:


    It might not be the worst comment I’ ve ever received, but for some reason it felt like a slap across the face.

  12. “Always use that and never use which.”

    Seriously. This was scrawled on the margin of an anthropology paper in a Yale undergrad class, by the idiotic TA, which helped tip my decision to make it my last of five semesters as a part-time student, when I had two small children and the beginnings of recognition for my thats and whichs out in the real world. (Still have no college degree.)

    • Still, I’m now curious as to the current whereabouts of that TA– Dept. Chair? Division Manager at a Big Box Store? That could be a novel in itself.

      • About three years after that a friend mentioned a bimbo grad student in her building who slept with the squicky super in exchange for reduced rent. This was a grim apartment building in New Haven people called “Trumbull Dungeons,” I was delighted to hear that it was this same grad student.

        I just searched on her name and discovered that she is a professor at xyz U, where her ratemyprofessor comments include repetitions of the words flaky and eccentric, plus this gem: “She hands out colorful widdle sheets every class and insists we read them out loud, taking turns. Basically, she treated us like idiots.”

      • Gawd – worse and worse! Me thinks she upgraded her bedtime partners to get that prof. gig…

    • A friendly warning: since it was easy enough to discover who the “idiotic TA/bimbo grad student,” was by googling the direct quote you supplied, I learned her name and that she was actually quite popular with the students, considered “brilliant” even, with only one or two unfavorable ratings. You might want to consider paraphrasing future quotes if you’re going to defame someone.

      I also looked for your rating to see what the students were saying, and could not find anything. Nor could I find any trace of you on the Columbia University website, where your website says you are “currently” teaching.

  13. “This character is totally lacking in originality and her voice makes me want to stop reading and throw your manuscript away.”

    No joke. I was 20 or so. Two decades later, I am just about over it.

    • That’s not criticism, that’s a high school assignment to write a review on Amazon.com. And a not very original review, at that. I’ve read dozens exactly like that.

  14. I can’t remember the worst because I don’t keep my edited mss after a book is published.

    My best were from Melanie Kroupa. She’s a genius. You know how a great teacher can make a pitiful little slow kid feel good about herself.? Melanie’s like that. She takes you by the hand and gently pulls out what she knows will make the story better. And she makes you think it was your idea!

  15. There is no space I can clear for a direct answer to your question that is not stained with either vengeance or self-aggrandizement. And even that statement is a perilous skirting.

    Of more immediate practical importance, the cat is scratching at the door to get out. I must assist, for I have thumbs.

  16. Best: Your work makes me feel as if I were outside.
    Worst: It’s very quiet.

    • I love the “Your work makes me feel as if I were outside” comment!

      And yeah, the “It’s quiet” comments make me want to scream. Only because sometimes my work tends to the quiet (“sometimes” ha ha) and it’s something I consciously work on. So when I think I’ve written something very “not quiet” and someone tells me it actually is, I want to give myself paper cuts.

      Of course, I’ve also learned that some readers have vastly different interpretations of “quiet.” I’ve run across a few workshop members who will hate my writing forever because I don’t write about dismemberment, massive blood loss, serial killers, or war. (Seriously.)

  17. “What, exactly, is the point of your story?” he said, with a confused look on his judgmental little editorial face. “Um… well, I was trying to share with the reader about what happened in the story, about this woman’s morning. I was capturing a moment in time. It was kind of clear, really. Nobody else has ever been confused,” I thought. “Thank you so much for looking at it. I really appreciate your input. I’m going to think about that,” I said. “Asshole,” I thought.

    • The “what’s the point?” comments are the worst. One reader didn’t write any comments until the end of my story, where he generously provided me with:

      “….and the point is?”

      • Ooo, Laura, I hate that!

        I don’t mind so much honest confusion about the point I was trying to make. But having it phrased in that pseudo-cool, snarky, dismissive way . . .

        Honestly, I’m not the kind of person who goes around slapping the silly out of people, but that particular phrase makes me want to try it.

  18. It wasn’t a manuscript but a report for 10th grade social studies.


    My teacher was pointing out all the places in the textbook I had plagiarized. Subtle I/he was not.

  19. Karp should have acknowledged that he was quoting a speech Maya Angelou gave at Loomis’s 50th Anniversary celebration at the NYPL.

  20. Interestingly, the worst comments I received were spoken to my face during workshop rather than appearing cowardly in the margins. (And I didn’t even do an MFA! We’re talking community writing groups for adults.) The worst of the spoken comments were things like “This is too unpolished for me to waste my time commenting on” (spoken with a snooty voice and bitchface) and something along the lines of “God damn, I hated this.”

    I recently celebrated some of my written workshop comments in a blog post here, but they are more funny than cruel. I’m partial to:

    “This reads exactly like a New Yorker story — meaning it has no ending.”

    “Is this supposed to be funny?”

    “Maybe you could use more contractions.”

    “Too many words!”

  21. Oh, and a beta reader did write “BLECH!!!” a few times in the margins of my work. However, this did not hurt my little feelings — he was a fabulous beta and was drawing attention to an annoying over-writing thing I was doing with this particular piece. The first few times, he explained why didn’t like it. As it continued, he resorted to BLECH to save time, I assume.

    Trust me, nothing drives home the fact that you need to pay better attention and stop trying to get away with shit than a good old BLECH!!! I kind of love it.

    • Now that I’ve written “blech” so many times it looks totally bizarre and meaningless. But you guys know what I mean, right? Like the sound you make when you’re 8 years old on a field trip to a natural history museum and they make you taste “Eskimo ice cream” made out of whale blubber or some nonsense.

  22. I haven’t submitted anything, but my most memorable blog comment came recently.

    “Vulgar as shit, as usual.”

    I’m not sure how it’s useful, but it made me wonder if my mother had started reading my blog.

  23. “I don’t see an organizational structure.”

    Holy shit. (At least the editor of this NF book, smartly and kindly, offered an excellent one, which I used.)

    Best? The best is when the advance checks arrive.

  24. We’re not interested at this time.

  25. “You can do better.”

    A correction, of course, but I like the optimism.

  26. I sometimes have interpretation problems, but the worst was from a workshop. The professor wrote — you need to spell out the numbers. When it came around to my turn he also discussed it. What? But, but, but I paid $800 for this class. Shouldn’t I just stab you in the forehead with this pen to wake your rickety old ass up? Spell out my numbers!?! I would rather he wrote, don’t write, leave us alone, go get a job doing something other than writing sentences. But like I said, I often have interpretation problems.

    • Jeffy, Jeffy. From other comments you’ve written here, interpretation problems is the least of your problems. Okay, had to take the easy jab. But to soothe your ego, don’t worry–you can write. And you write very well. You come at it from this cockeyed angle. And that, as they say, is your ‘voice’. Don’t lose it. It works.

      • Thanks, whoever you are. I’ll spare this borrowed, if not sometimes subtly hi-jacked audience, the denuding of the word Cockeyed (I know there is a better word for what I mean than denude, it’s usually associated with dissecting poems in a university setting, but for the live of me I can’t find it today.) But, thanks. I needed that. At the same time, a spoon-full of sugar helps the medicine go down. You know the rest. And if just one person can show me one word that isn’t figurative, I’ll give you everything I have, gladly.

  27. I forgot one: “Letter is so poorly written, yuck”

  28. Once, when a student asked how I liked his paper, I replied, “It sucks.” I couldn’t help it. It did.

    The worst comment I ever received: “It’s episodic.”

    The best: “It’s flawless.”

    (On the same manuscript.)

    The most helpful: “This is never going to sell.”

  29. I had a copy editor try to insert punctuation into a painting in my illustrated travel memoir. I’d painted the stuff from life, and she didn’t like the way Chateaux Margaux, Lafite, Haut-Brion and La Tour stamped their corks.

    This was a bettter story when it was in my head. The resentment festers beautifully up there.

    • Along similar lines, I wrote a story based in Barbados and had a scene take place in Holetown. One of my classmates wrote that I should change that name. Well, sorry, but that is actually what it’s called.

      • If it wasn’t nonfiction, why not change it if it distracts or shocks too much? I happen to think it’s a GREAT name in general, but I don’t know if it fits the story.

  30. Own worst critic. One of my longtime writer friends has shredded my stuff–or parts of it anyway. Won’t pretend I haven’t been upset but bottom line: I welcome honest criticism–how else to learn, get better? If someone dances around I get irritated–like I said, I want to know and learn. If I’ve got spinach in my teeth please fucking tell me.

    • My experience is that assertions that ‘honest criticism is welcomed’ is true only up to a point. Go beyond that point and things can get frosty. Lost friends, lovers, and acquaintences who wanted ‘honest criticism’ until I hit that one spot that proved a bridge too far. If asked, I avoid ‘honest criticism’ like the plague. If pressed and can’t escape, I’ll stick with platitudinous comments. It just ain’t worth the grief.

    • I like to use my shredded writing as nesting material for the chickens. That way editors are not the only ones shitting on my writing.

    • “If I’ve got spinach in my teeth please fucking tell me.”

      So much this. Do not let me leave the house in an outfit that makes me look like a sideshow attraction.

  31. Best comment was from an agent who loved my novel:

    “…a heartfelt, dramatic, and compelling project, and one which boast a fresh and amazing concept. The possibilities are limitless.”

    She still turned it down but the best advice she gave me was to hire someone with professional savvy to zero in on the weaker spots and advise on how to strengthen the execution as a whole.

    The worst and most clueless comment came from a member of one of my critique groups about the same novel, she wrote in the margin, Why are you always writing about black people ? (um….gee….maybe because I’m black asshole.)

    Thank God I have skin as thick as armor and a sense of humor when it comes to comments like this.

  32. “I stopped reading here.”

    First year English class. I withdrew, took a lower-level class on how to write an essay, and retook the class later. Those years of creative writing in high school taught me how to soar but did not tell me how to construct a clear paragraph.

    Best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten, but I have to say, the most brutal.

  33. I had a poetry teacher in high school who would write “SHUT UP!” next to a great line.

    Nothing makes you laugh like opening your end-of-semester comments and seeing you got a “SHUT UP”! overall for the term.

  34. My writing prof used to write “Sigh” next to boring or overly dramatic segments of my fiction. I hope I wasn’t the only one who got that.

    But the worst comment I’ve heard was given to another student, who tearfully approached the TA during a study session. Our environmental studies prof had scrawled, “I find your writing style… worrisome” at the bottom of her paper.

  35. From a beloved editor, over and over: “This is not a word.”

  36. “This is a bunch of gobbly-gook.”

    (I’m sure it was!)

    His comment made me a writer, and that’s for real, folks.


  37. My worst one from a writing professor was, ‘That is the perception of a retarded person.’

  38. My thesis advisor was fond of a well placed “UGH!” to signal that, yet again, the dread and circuitous passive voice had taken over my MS. Now I take my own students to task over it. MWAH HAH HAH!

  39. From a magazine editor:


  40. “This is a porn word. You can write a better story than this.”

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