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The e-mail from Hell (and how I sent it)

I’m still haunted by it - and I wasn’t even the recipient

By Jon McKnightPublished 3 years ago 5 min read

I shouldn’t be writing this. My better judgement says “don’t”. And there’s a serious danger that every other writer on Vocal will loathe me for what I’ve done.

After all, Vocal is all about encouraging writing, and writers - and while I’ve spent 40 years doing just that, there was one occasion, one appallingly unforgivable occasion, when I did exactly the opposite.

This is what I did.

I was the editor of a high-profile magazine that was frequently approached by people who wanted to write for it.

I had engaged, encouraged and nurtured several writers who’d become valued members of the editorial team, and the proprietor always sought my opinion on whether others who approached the magazine were good enough to write for it.


That was a serious responsibility, and I took it seriously. I would read samples of their work, very carefully, assess their writing ability, and give detailed feedback to the proprietor so he could decide whether to engage them or not.

That feedback was in the strictest of confidence, naturally, which meant it could be honest, heartfelt and, on very rare occasions, brutal.

This was one of those occasions.

The writer had sent a story about an artist. Whether the artist was any good or not was far from clear, but the writing was terrible.

If the writer had been taking his first tentative steps on to Vocal, for instance, or submitted his work as part of a creative writing course, I would have reacted entirely differently to it and would have been as supportive as I could of his efforts.


But this was different. He claimed to be a professional writer and was offering his services to an international magazine that, if he’d read it, he would have realised expected the highest standards from its writers.

His piece was lamentable in almost every respect. There was no way on Earth he’d have been good enough for any high quality publication, never mind the one he was aiming at.

So I said so. In great detail. And didn’t pull my punches.

This is what I wrote:

I've read carefully through Ivan’s piece and tried but failed to like anything about it.

I don't believe English is his first language (or if it is, he's not very adept at expressing himself in it), and the whole piece strikes me as pretentious waffle that I don't believe will excite any of our readers.

He writes in the passive tense where the active might have been more engaging, there is nothing in there about the artist's life or background which might have indicated what motivated her or shaped her outlook, and what remains is a documentation of the techniques and materials the artist uses.

Far from offering us any telling insights, the only quote from the artist (and a second-hand one at that) is that she works "from an extremely strong need to paint", which must apply to more than 99% of artists who ever lived.

If I were Ivan’s commissioning editor, I'd insist that he wrote interestingly about the artist as a person, getting the artist to explain her techniques rather than second-guessing them, and talking about the artist's standing in the art world (is she widely respected by the art establishment or a wannabe?) as well as the financial value of the artist's works in case any reader might be tempted to want one.

In many ways, pix of the artist's works should speak for themselves, so Ivan should confine himself to the things we can't see on the canvasses.

I want to encourage new writers, too, especially those who have experience and knowledge of subjects we don't, but I felt Ivan’s piece was a complete turn-off in every respect.

I read it back, then re-read it. Was I being fair, or unduly harsh? I re-read Ivan’s story again, and concluded that, if anything, I’d been lenient in my criticism.


The proprietor might be disappointed, as he was always keen to expand his editorial team, but I felt duty-bound to be honest and let him know that this would-be contributor, at least, was a complete no-hoper

Conscience salved, I pressed Send... and even as the e-mail vanished from my screen in what seemed horrifically like slow motion, I realised that I’d inadvertently sent the message to Ivan, the writer, not to my proprietor.

I was absolutely mortified.

No thesaurus could possibly contain all the insults I heaped upon myself, nor could it help me adequately express the shame I felt at sending such a damning response to a writer, however accidentally.

When I’d recovered my senses sufficiently, I wrote an immediate and heartfelt apology to the writer.


There was no point in pretending I hadn’t meant what I’d said, as my words were open to no other possible interpretation, so I could only apologise for my dreadful mistake in sharing those private, tactless thoughts with him instead of with the intended recipient.

I never heard back.

It wouldn’t have been much consolation to him to know that the only person on the planet who felt worse than he did at receiving my e-mail was me, for having sent it, and I remain haunted by it to this day.

Tens of thousands of e-mails later, I still have a flashback every time I reach for the Send button, paranoid that I might ever do the same again.

And part of me, just part of me, hopes that the writer might have responded to that most traumatic feedback by upping his game and becoming, in the process, a far better writer than I’ll ever be.

And, who knows? He might be part of Vocal’s senior team right now, sitting in judgement on this!

The name of the victim has been changed, unlike that of the perpetrator. Wishful thinking on my part, perhaps, but have you done anything worse than this? If so, why not share it as part of Vocal+’s (No) Regrets challenge for the chance to win $5,000? See you in the new Confessions category!


About the Creator

Jon McKnight

I have left Vocal.

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