You know, I almost called this blog "For Struggling Writers." Then it hit me. Is there any other kind?
Anne Allen posted a great blog today about critique groups. If you’re a writer, and are not familiar with Anne Allen's blog for writers, today is a good day to jump on board. Here’s a link:
Learning to understand and make use of criticism is a crucial subject for writers at every stage of the game. It’s hardest on newer writers, those who haven’t quite gotten their feet planted yet. But, believe me, if you write, you face critique.
Years ago I wrote a small piece for The Writer magazine to help writers make sense of the inevitable barrage of criticism. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time, but now I’ve found it, and I’m reprinting it below.
And I want to include one more link. Years ago I wrote an email to a good friend, wanting to help her chart her way through similar waters. It ended up on a web site for the National Gallery of Writing, and I’m including a link to that as well:
So, three articles on the subject of what to keep and what to throw away when faced with criticism. I thought it might be useful to have them all together in one place. Taken as a whole, I hope they’ll form a sort of detailed pep talk to help someone up from the “Critique Group/Nasty Reviewer Rejection Syndrome.”
Hey. We’ve all been there.
Here's the little "Making Sense of Criticism" article I mentioned above:
My first short story acceptance praised the way I “depicted the characters with brief brush strokes.” The same story had just been rejected by another magazine because of the “hollowness” of the characters.
One story was accepted with such enthusiasm that the editor thanked me for sending it to his magazine, citing such work as his reason for being an editor. He went on to nominate it for best American Short Stories, the O’Henry award and the Pushcart Prize. The last editor to have read the same story rejected it, saying it did not hold the reader’s interest and was told, not shown.
When my novel Pay It Forward came out, Time Magazine called my dialogue tinny and my characters stunted. The Chicago Tribune called my dialogue believable and my characters well-drawn.
It starts the day you join a critique group, it intensifies when you get an agent. Every time your agent sends out the work, the rejections get more confusing. One editor says it’s too this, the other says it’s too that. In the face of such conflicting opinions, what do you keep and what do you throw away?
I like to say that you must never, ever, under any circumstances, change your work just because someone tells you to…unless, of course, they’re right.
The writers in the group usually laugh. Because, of course, knowing who is right was the problem to begin with. I can’t sum up this thorny situation in a handful of words and make it all come clear. But I can offer a few ideas for consideration:
1.) There is no “right” and “wrong” concerning art or creativity. Everyone’s opinion is just that. An opinion. I despise the work of Ernest Hemingway. If I had been a contemporary, I might well have told Papa not to quit his day job. Would he have been wise to accept my opinion as fact?
2.) Lichtenberg said, “A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, don’t expect an apostle to peer out.” This is not cited to characterize those who disagree with you, only to make the point that people bring their own experiences and perceptions to your work. You can’t stop them. No two people will have the same experience with what you write.
3.) Our egos tend to dictate that all the advice given us regarding our work is wrong. This is what I like to call the “You just don’t get it” syndrome. Sometimes that same advice sounds a lot saner and more workable a few days later. In a critique situation, it helps to write down everything that’s said and sleep on it for awhile.
4.) Try saying nothing when faced with advice. When you begin to argue you stop listening. Even if the person really is saying stupid things, arguing will only make him or her say more stupid things. Right or wrong, just listen.
5.) Your reader is important. If your reader doesn’t get it, you’re not done. Then again there will always be someone who doesn’t get it. If it’s one in ten, you can’t please everybody. If it’s nine in ten, it’s time to listen.
6.) Important as your readers are, their names do not go on the finished product. It is your own sensibility that you ultimately have to please. No matter how strongly someone disagrees with the direction of your work, it must remain your work, or you’ve lost everything worth having.
One of the biggest breakthroughs I ever had was when I learned to stop saying, “Is it good or is it bad?” and switched to, “What is the market for this? Who would like this kind of work?”
Dealing with the opinions of others is, in my estimation, the hardest part of being a writer. I don’t know that anything I’ve said makes it all that much easier. But there’s a question you can ask yourself at times such as these, and the answer will tell you everything you need to know. The catch is that you have to ask it on a deep level and answer honestly.
The question is, “Do I agree?”
When you can answer that question honestly, a great deal of initial confusion will fall away. When you base changes--or the refusal to make changes--on that answer, you will be honoring your reader, your work and yourself.