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How to Receive and Learn from Criticism

Author Ashley Nance presents at LDSPMA with helpful tips to avoid ableist tropes.

How do you avoid being insensitive in your writing? One of today’s publishing challenges is ensuring what you’ve written doesn’t offend your readers. Author Ashley Nance had to grapple with this problem after publishing a memoir about her experiences growing up with a sister who has autism.

At the 2022 Latter-day Saints in Publishing, Media & the Arts (LDSPMA) Annual Conference, Nance offered her suggestions for accepting and applying criticism when what you’ve published is unintentionally offensive. Nance presented her experiences in her class, “The Inclusion Paradox: Developing Believable Characters with Disabilities while Rooting Out Ableist Tropes.”

Facing the Problem

Nance originally published her book Crystal Puzzle: Growing Up with a Sister with Asperger’s in 2014 but recently decided she wanted to remarket her book. She posted about the book in a Facebook group, and a woman who is on the autism spectrum commented on Nance’s post and criticized her for being insensitive toward the autistic community. After reading the comment, Nance thought, “Woah, I clearly missed something huge.”

Nance faced two main problems with her book: the word puzzle in the title and Nance’s use of “Asperger’s” instead of “autism.” Nance explained, “The reason I chose Crystal Puzzle is pretty obvious. Puzzles are associated with autism, Crystal had autism, and it was a puzzle that I figured out.” The issue with puzzle was that the organization Autism Speaks uses a puzzle piece as its logo. In 2015, Autism Speaks “moved toward getting funding to ‘fix’ autism,” which is offensive because neurodivergent individuals don’t need to be “fixed.” The puzzle piece became a symbol of ignorance instead of how Nance originally meant to use it. “Now I realize that autism is a description of an entirely different way of thinking. It isn’t a disability at all.”

The second issue was with the term Asperger’s, named after Johann Friedrich Karl Asperger, who was known for his research involving children with autism. His involvement was controversial because he selected children to be sent to a Nazi clinic that was responsible for murdering children with disabilities. Because of that controversy, many members of the autistic community prefer not to be associated with the term Asperger’s, but Nance didn’t know that when she published her book.

“When you’re going through the editing process,” Nance explained, “that’s when your heart meets the world.” She didn’t expect the type of response she received, and she had to choose to approach the criticism with humility, or, in her words, to take a “Moroni-Pahoran tack.” “When the edits come back, you’re still the author. You still know what your purpose is, and you can take that feedback like Pahoran did and say, ‘Okay, I see you have some information I was not privy to. Now I understand what is going on, and I have a clearer idea of what I need to do moving forward.’”

Finding Solutions

With that in mind, Nance offered a few questions and tips to consider as you write your book:

  • Ask, “Why am I writing this book? What do I want to accomplish by writing this book? Who is the book for?”
  • Know the rules of your genre.
  • Define your audience.
  • Read books that are already successful with your audience.
  • Seek feedback early and often.
  • Ask fellow writers, Facebook groups, and sensitivity readers to review your work.
  • Avoid writing about disabilities or other issues if you don’t have personal experience with them.

“There’s a huge amount of humility necessary in the editing process and more so if you are writing about anyone who isn’t you,” Nance said. She plans to rerelease Crystal Puzzle and incorporate the things she has learned. She will also pitch a new book with her and Crystal’s experiences side by side. Writing about sensitive topics can be challenging because your experience is not always someone else’s experience, but Nance proved that it’s possible to take negative feedback, learn from it, and produce stronger, more inclusive writing.