I’m lucky. Everything I write turns out flawlessly. I have perfect instincts that ensure everything I write is right on the mark. I know the instant I write something crummy, and I’m able to toss it out the window before anyone else ever gets a glimpse of it. By the time my words reach my readers, I’ve honed them to perfection. So why in the name of red ink and Bic pens would I need to bother listening to someone else’s unfounded criticisms? I already know my work is parfait. Anyone who thinks otherwise, obviously just isn’t bright enough to get it.
If you actually made it through all the hot air in the above paragraph without choking, you’re now thinking I’m either a supercilious windbag or far too poor a liar to succeed in the fiction game. Either way, I congratulate you on your keen insight in realizing that nothing I said up there could possibly be the truth. Not a writer on the planet, no matter how good he may be, is so good he can claim to be above the opinions of others.
Writing is a solitary venture. We lock ourselves in our little offices and bang away at our keyboards until we have a completed story. Then we print off our manuscripts, scratch away with red (or blue, depending on your preferences) pen, correcting, rewriting, and proofreading. And then, at long last, we emerge from our caves with our completed masterpieces. We’ve made it the best we think it can be, and we proudly exhibit it to a world of readers who aren’t always as grateful as we think they should be. What we sometimes don’t realize is that the reason our readers may not be grateful is that “the best we think it can be” isn’t always good enough.
So what’s to be done? The often painful answer is two-part:
- 1. We have to recognize that we probably won’t be able to make the story the best it can be by ourselves.
- 2. We have to go looking for the advice and, yes, even criticism, of others, and we have to accept it.
For each of us, writing as an art form is constantly evolving. No matter how good we may grow to be, the box of learning will never be empty. And we can never learn better than from our own mistakes. Unfortunately, however, most of us are utterly, completely, doggedly blind to our own faults. It takes the eye of an outside observer (preferably one whose experience exceeds our own) to catch the pitfalls over which we so blithely cruise.
I think the mark of a true writer—one who will be able to last for the long haul—is the ability to stuff his ego in his back pocket, reach out with both hands to accept his bleeding manuscript from a too-honest critic, and then grit his teeth, settle down for yet another rewrite, and emerge having grown a little wiser in the craft and a little thicker skinned.
It is never easy to hand over your baby, over which you’ve slaved for months or even years, only to receive it back with its mistakes emblazoned in neon lights. In my experience, criticism never really gets easier to bear. My own reactions usually run through a consistent pattern:
I send off my manuscript, humming a jaunty tune, certain that my test reader will think it’s the best he’s ever read, better than Dickens, Faulkner, and Brontë all rolled into one.
A few days later, when the first e-mail of comments lands in my inbox, I click it with expectant joy hammering in my heart... only to discover that my reader is usually more interested in pointing out my glaring plot holes than in praising my incisive wit. My joy fizzles like a deflated balloon. Hunched over my desk, I click through my once-beautiful manuscript.
This is about when I squint in defiance and mumble something along the lines of “Ah, what does he know anyway. He just doesn’t get it.” Then, I click a little farther down the page and realize that, in fact, he does get it. His outsider’s perspective allowed him to “get it” better than I got it myself. I heave a sigh, stuff my deflated ego in my back pocket, and get down to the dirty business of patching up my manuscript.
Once the corrections are made—and my story is visibly stronger than when I first sent it off—my bruised ego will have healed enough for me to be profoundly thankful for a reader who was brave enough to show me what I never would have been able to see myself.
Accepting critical opinions is never easy—but it’s always necessary. That said, one does have to realize that not everything a test reader says is going to be right for your story. Ultimately, only the author can know what fits his vision for his story. Critics aren’t infallible, and sometimes outside comments fall under the ambiguous heading of personal opinion. It’s always a good idea to run your story by more than person, and when you get the same comments from two or more sources, you’d be wise to listen up.
Although good critics don’t necessarily have to be writers, you’ll probably glean more specific advice from a fellow scribe. Readers who don’t write may be able to tell you what they do or don’t like, but they probably won’t be able to explain why they formed their opinions.
Be wary of whose advice you seek. Avoid readers who bash your work. A huge range of difference lies between constructive criticism and story bashing. You want a reviewer who can build you up, not one who will shoot the ground out from beneath you. Sharing our work with others is often a tenuous business. Don’t make it any more difficult for yourself than you have to.
It’s often difficult to gain the ear of an experienced, published author. The folks who have already proven they know what they’re doing often seem unattainable; but if at all possible, try to seek the advice of a writer who has more experience than yourself. While the opinions of peers are great, they can carry you only so far. Generally speaking, someone who hovers at or below your own level of writing probably isn’t going to be able to lift you too far above that level.
Finally, probably the single most important key to accepting critiques, is to know which comments not to accept. Not everyone knows what they’re talking about. And even those who do know won’t always be right. Hone your instincts and your knowledge. Cultivate the humility to correct your mistakes and the wisdom to know when to stick to your guns. And prepare yourself for the occasional sore ego: stuffing him in your back pocket means he’s going to be sat on quite a lot!
Story by K.M. Weiland