The Born Freelancer Reflects on Reviews

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.



For some, a beginning – or return – to school. (This year being more of a headache than most, thanks to the pandemic.)

For others, like me, September brings forth a plethora of school-era memories…

Some university profs hated my writing style while praising my content. Others thought my content lacking but my style readable. Still others hated both… while a few really liked them.

I was always pretty consistent. So I was praised and condemned for essentially the same basic style, the same level of content, and the same commitment to my work.

It took me ages to appreciate that most comments probably said as much (or more) about their writer’s own expectations and aspirations (for me? for the course? for their careers?) as it did about my work.

One memorable comment came from a much respected prof teaching a history of communications. I had turned in a term paper on the history of radio drama in Canada – which I have also written about on this site – and received in return what I initially took for unwarranted criticism. Accompanying it, a high mark.

Talk about mixed messages.

So I learned early not to take any “reviews” too seriously. Not to completely believe in any praise nor fully accept any condemnation. To extract what insight or knowledge I could without shouldering any accompanying emotional baggage.

This still holds true for me today.

Over my years as a freelancer I have received much feedback for my work; in print, on air on radio, as a producer, television writer, website curator and filmmaker.

From employers

Some of the very best (most helpful) – and worst (least helpful) – feedback on my work has come from producers and editors who hired me. When you start out, if you’re lucky, you get the thinking engaged kind of mentor-figure who sees their job as doing whatever they can to bring out your vision.

It’s not their job to teach you how to achieve your goal but they may share their wealth of experience in ways that can only inspire confidence (so very important) and point you in the right direction.

I have been blessed with work under so many such individuals that it is impossible to single out one as an example. Much easier to remember are those employers whose feedback bordered on the sadistic.

“I know it’s what I asked for but it’s not what I wanted”. 

When working freelance in a commercial television production, I’d often find the boss was not a great communicator. Their strength was raising cash or filling out paperwork. Frequently their “creative” demands were transmitted via an under-the-gun intermediary whose job it was to try to interpret their master’s often contradictory instructions. All you can do is grit your teeth and do your best. And find the nearest wholesale outlet for Tums.

“Can you change the script by 30%? And can you do it by Monday?”!

Sometimes the instructions are so vague or meaningless they can challenge your sanity. So, again, you do your best. Often I received these directives just before end of business day on a Friday. I suspect some of them actually enjoyed messing up a freelancer’s weekend just when it seemed all clear. Why? Because they could.

You get the drift. Such feedback is inane but if you want to keep your job you try to enact it as best you can and then let it go as fast as you can. Never take it personally.

From the public

Professional reviews

The thing to remember about published professional reviews is this: It’s much more entertaining to write or read a bad review than it is to write or read a good review (although it can happen). Most published professional reviews are there to sell papers (or get click-throughs) and only incidentally to be helpful to we creators — by promoting our work. As they say, the only thing worse than a bad review is no review at all.

I’ve read of many actors and writers who actually revel in collecting their bad reviews. The recently deceased, greatly admired Dame Diana Rigg compiled a wonderful book of such bad reviews, “No Turn Unstoned”, which I highly recommend. It is comforting to read so many famous names in world theatre, television and film were once so scathingly reviewed.

Viewer/reader feedback

Critical feedback (aside from outright praise) written by individuals directly to your show, or posted online, tends to fall into predictable categories:

• “I am so disappointed by you(r show)”

The whiff of moral supremacy is a nice touch. It’s as if they had had such high hopes for you that you failed to achieve, like a wayward child disappointing their parents. It attempts to invoke guilt. It always makes me laugh.

• “I used to love you(r show), now I don’t”

Like a personal relationship gone sour, this kind of feedback is a level more sophisticated than just “I hate you” because it injects an accusation of betrayal on our part. It is as if we were once good and worthy and now we are not.

One of the satirical broadcasts for which I once wrote got a lot of these. I often wondered if their writers ever ended their real life relationships with as much eloquence or passion.

• Misunderstanding what was said or written

This can be the most frustrating feedback. Despite every effort someone somewhere will always simply misinterpret your words. This happens more frequently in broadcasting where the viewer does not have a written copy of your words.

The only constructive response is to insure the next script is even more straightforward and unambiguous although that can be at the cost of any subtlety you may wish to employ.

• Divergent opinions

Intelligent, well written, differing opinions if presented without overt malice can be an eye-opener. I may not agree with the writer but it can be instructive to see another POV in order to help inform my own in future.

• Additional (or updated/corrected) information

Likewise a well written response offering further or corrected objective information can be a positive boon and form the basis of future scripts. However, too often in these days of fake news such comments may mean well but are themselves simply misinformed.

• You’re crap and I’m not

What always amuses me about such feedback is the presumption that its writer could have done better. Occasionally I might secretly agree but would wonder: if they knew all the struggles and hardships I had had to put up with to get the job, would they still have wanted it? Invariably, I conclude, most would not.

The takeaway

Feedback on your work will always appear in some form or another.

Some will be helpful and even guide future endeavours.

Some may even be supportive and encouraging of your work.

Others will totally miss the point or else despise you for it or else simply spew forth mindless venom.

The capacity to take all kinds of feedback in your stride, without allowing it to unduly impact you (emotionally) one way or another, is another useful ability in our freelancers’ toolkit.

However, completely ignore all feedback at your peril. Even the most seemingly negative feedback may contain gold if it comes from an insightful source.

Remember that university prof I had? After rereading their seemingly derisive feedback it became one of the most influential criticisms I ever received.

They concluded (and I paraphrase after all these years)… “I suppose I shouldn’t expect much better. It’s as if you aren’t writing an academic paper at all. Your idiosyncratic style is better suited for newspapers, television or radio.”

That one “bad review” got me seriously thinking about the direction of my whole working life that followed.

Thanks, prof!


Posted on September 17, 2020 at 8:13 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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