You Need Criticism to Become a Good Writer
There will be days where the criticism outweighs the hope you have as a writer, and those are the days you need to prepare for in your career
My first paid writing was a scam, but it still paid two dollars an article, which seemed huge money for the work when you are sixteen.
I was in my sophomore year of high school, enrolled in an advanced writing class. This was a prep class for the college bound amongst us, but there were only a few students my age in the class.
Most everyone else were seniors honing skills they would need to survive their first year as college freshmen. Luckily for me, they were mostly a lazy group, more concerned about sports and proms than exploring the creative side of writing.
The older students sat in the front and dominated the discussions while the young and supposedly dumb hung out in the back row, but my work was getting noticed by the teacher and read out loud often.
Getting noticed in this class only took doing the homework and turning it in on time, but I was already addicted to writing and the various writing projects assigned each week inspired me to think and work hard, two rare traits in our little high school.
Word spread quickly there was a kid in the back row getting good grades on his writing and I soon had a number of the seniors asking me to write their little two-to-three-page assignments…for the monstrous fee of two dollars.
Soon I was staying up late at the kitchen table cranking out five or more writing assignements a day and thought I was going to be rich. I even started writing each one in a different voice thinking I could disguise my participation, but anything that easy, and obviously questionable, always ends harshly.
My teacher, one of those rare people that exists to bring the best out of any student who tries, asked me stay after school to discuss the class. I was expecting to be walked to the principal’s office and then be tossed out of school for a few days, but he surprised me then changed my life forever.
“I know you are writing the assignments for most of the seniors, and I don’t care,” he said, “but if you want to write this much, we need to work on making you decent at what you do.”
He then sat with me for two hours giving me the first real critique of my writing I had ever had
I believed I was already a writer in my young but already arrogant head, but in two hours he showed me that filling pages wasn’t the same thing as thinking like a writer.
Most importantly, he patiently taught me criticism was the life blood of a writer and that you only grow when you submit to the beating a good editor or coach can give you
That meeting, followed by the next three years of his classes and guidance, made me a writer for life, but it also taught me how to take a punch.
Since those days, I have had moments in my writing career where I have sat at my desk on a quiet Friday afternoon, opened a bottle of wine, and celebrated a new book or the acceptance of an article I felt was special, taking a brief break to quietly enjoy the validation of years of plugging along as a writer.
I have also had days where an editor sends me back a manuscript looking like it had been massacred by a herd of insane red pens that left little of the original typing even exposed under the thousands of notes, question marks and circled typos in what I probably had thought was decent work.
On those days I take the bottle, and the bloody manuscript, and sit under my desk wondering why even for a minute I ever thought I had what it took to be a writer.
If you can’t take criticism, stop dreaming of being a writer.
There will be days where the criticism outweighs the hope you have as a writer, and those are the days you need to prepare for in your career.
Here are a few lessons I have learned the hard way that might help you survive those critiques that make you want to toss your notebooks into the wash machine for a long cycle of cleansing or maybe donate your laptop to a homeless shelter so you can now get a real job doing anything but trying to be a damn writer.
It’s not personal (at least most of it)
New writers not yet seasoned by the fire usually take all early criticism as a direct frontal attack on their work and some new writers are so insecure, they refuse to even post their work or submit it to an editor for fear of judgement
Criticism usually comes from three different sources:
· People we pay to help us, such as writing coaches or editors
· Editors we submit our writing to for critique and possible publishing
· Those who respond to our work, such as our readers, once we are out there in public
You must seek out criticism when you first begin if you want to survive over time. The first years as a writer are often the years where we struggle to find our voice or to develop a style or genre that fits us.
Coaches or paid editors can help you find your direction, but more importantly, help you become technically more skilled. Many new writers have the vision but fail because they don’t get read due to their work being so technically flawed. Vision can easily die if buried under badly constructed sentences, usage mistakes or simple grammar failings.
Seek out a coach you trust early to solve the technical riddles and use several different coaches to help you find your voice and style. Many coaches will inadvertently make you a clone of their style losing you altogether in the process. Vary coaches and get different opinions as you progress in your early writing days.
Editors you encounter though submission exist to protect the fortresses they guard. Their role is not to make you a competent writer. Their mission is to package you and your work for their publication.
Criticism from this type of editor, if you get any beyond the simple rejection notice, is often target specific meaning they are trying to get you to rewrite your work to fit their need for that publication. This criticism is often a combination of correcting technical weaknesses, but also a guide to steer you toward rewriting to their specs and needs.
On a larger scale, editors for your first book may be one of the most painful processes you will ever submit to and these editors are usually right about your work and the need for change, but remember, it isn’t personal, it is about what you submitted to publish and your work, not you as a human being
It took me a year to write my first four-hundred-page nonfiction book and another three months to clean up suggested changes that came back from my editor. I cussed, questioned his sanity, spent a few days even wondering if I wanted to listen and just withdraw my book; and then I sat down and did everything he suggested. At the end, it was a better book because I submitted to his suggestions, as painful and as humbling as they were to accept.
The final criticism comes from the readers of your published work. Some will love you, some will go after you out of sheer meanness, and most will just find enough picky details they must comment on making you want to call each one personally to find out how any individual can have time in their life to comment with such a trivial piece of nonsense.
My advice is to create a relationship with your fans, answer the picky comments with a thank you for caring comment, and completely ignore the trolls of life. Perhaps the single biggest mistake you make here is getting pissed off and chasing a troll whose entire life centers around getting attention from people like you because he or she said something outrageous.
Pay for help and listen, submit to editors as needed and ban trolls from your life and you will live longer as a writer.
Are the critics right?
Train your mind to just one response whenever anyone offers criticism of your work. Sit quietly, breathe, and ask yourself if he or she is right?
Reframing your mindset makes you more open to the help you probably need, but for most of us our first response is to always fight back and question the sanity of the one offering criticism. Is the person right? Did he or she see what we missed as writers? Is this criticism something that will make this work better?
What can I learn from this?
Equally important is learning from criticism. If the offered advice is something that was intended to make you better, what can you take away, and can you get more of this help?
Finding people you trust with your work is rare, and if you find that person, ask for more, and drain everything they could possible help you with then move on to someone else. Eventually, your work gets better because your prospective gets better through the constant flow of different eyes reviewing your work.
Most new writers are afraid of getting too much advice when they really should be asking for more until they finally learn to see their own work through the eyes of others. This can take years, but it is worth every painful red mark anyone will make on your work.
Was this a concise, focused piece?
Was it me? Is this really a messed-up attempt at writing something decent?
The most common mistake at a beginner’s level is that the concept is too big for the piece. Instead of a tight, concise article, you end up with a concept that is too much for the format. Many new writers just can’t stop from putting everything in their head at the moment on paper instead of finding those small bits that might make an exceptional, but tight, piece of work.
Writing too broad drives editors crazy because there is never enough time or space to fully develop the idea, so there really is no beginning, middle or solid ending, just a rambling article that never really ends.
I can safely say that most of my early failure in writing was too much in too little. If I was asked to write an article on a specific concept, such as managing a trouble employee, I had to write about the background of troubled workers, pay issues, and a hundred other nuances I felt had to be there but diluted the concept.
Writing tight is good writing and the skill to write a concise, tightly edited piece is one of the great skillsets in becoming a writer.
Will editing save this or is this concept wrong?
Sometimes you explore an article and it just doesn’t work. You create, you doubt, you write anyway and then you submit, then it finally takes a real editor or coach to say there is nothing there and move on.
Sometimes the best thing is to kill the piece and save it for parts later. Everything we want to write should not be everything we write. I currently have notebooks filled with almost good ideas I revisit now and then to figure out if I can take one and turn it into something better than it was. Each idea was a good thought, but not strong enough by itself to stand alone.
Those writers who fill secret notebooks and occasionally submit a poem to the world can ignore the pain of having your work criticized until you can’t breathe. You write for the pleasure of writing and you should enjoy every second of sitting quietly creating magic you love.
But for those who want to write for money, you must submit to the process of having others destroy the best of what you did that day. Your writing only gets better when you get better, and that doesn’t happen until you grow as a technician; something that never happens unless you submit voluntarily to the critique process.