There is good criticism and there is bad criticism. Sometimes criticism feels bad because of how it is delivered, sometimes it feels bad because it has been delivered at all. Sometimes it needs to be heard, regardless.
People—people who love to write like I love to write—pay me to edit what they’ve written. They pay me to look for mistakes in grammar, they pay me to edit for context, they pay me to warn them when their dialogue sounds contrived, they pay me to note when their characters come out of character—many of them pay me to “do whatever needs to be done,” and, in that case, I catch all those things I just mentioned above without ever being asked to do so. This is fine with me because I can’t leave those things alone anyway.
Some of my clients asks me not only to notice mistakes and inconsistencies and to fix them, but also to open a comment field and write a short lesson on why what they wrote doesn’t work. Writers pay me for this. I want to make that clear—they pay me, they voluntarily seek me out and secure my services. Yet, sometimes these very same writers also become emotionally unhinged when I do the very thing they’ve paid me to do: help them make their poor writing good, and their good writing better.
A friend of mine, a professional illustrator by the name of Violet Lemay, wrote an article recently about how much she’s enjoying teaching illustration to students online, and how thoughtful these talented student-artists so often are. She had to admit, though, that some of their reactions to the subject of revisions makes her want to snicker. Knowing her, I believe that if she does feel the need to snicker, she snickers in only the nicest of ways; but if you work with student-artists or writing clients, sometimes you can’t help but give at least a good-natured shake of the head when they gasp at the idea of revision. For some of my writing clients, the idea of being asked to make revisions is one of the most insulting requests they feel they can ever receive. It says to them that what they have created isn’t wonderful, fantastic, and utterly perfect. You can see how this might make someone else giggle a bit, right? If you can’t see this, make a…
NOTE TO SELF: “I’m human; perfection isn’t my strong suit. That’s okay.”
It isn’t hard for those of us with some mileage on us to accept the fact that we are not perfect, but for others, it can be a very distressing concept. It isn’t always a bad thing to want to get as close to perfection as we can, but if we are writers, getting close to perfection is accomplished through revision. And not only through subjective writer-birthed revision (or subjective artist-birthed revision if you’re an illustrator like my friend Violet, or a future-illustrator like one of her students), but also through objective revision suggestions made by qualified individuals outside your Self. When a writer has spent years on a novel, or days on a blog post, she often re-reads passages seeing what she intended to write and not what is really there. It’s a trick of the mind that seasoned writers know well. Extra eyes are the writer’s FRIEND, and we can get closer to perfection when we can accept good, solid critique from someone who wants to see us succeed. AND (stay calm because I have to tell you) sometimes you’ll hear some pretty nasty criticism that will actually be helpful to you once you get a chance to take a breath, lick your wounds, and get on with it. Allow me to repeat that with a slight variation on the theme:
“As a writer, as an artist, as a human being, you’ll hear some pretty nasty criticism that will actually be helpful to you once you get a chance to take a breath, lick your wounds, and get on with it.”
The VERY thing that makes those words you’ve penned the “perfect” words, is revision. If you take a look at the concept illustrations Violet Lemay did in preparation for cover art in a section of The Baltimore Sun, you’ll see how the limits placed upon her by others involved in the project forced her to think harder, to stretch herself, to work in stages towards the “perfect” cover. Here’s a woman who knows her stuff, she’s proven herself over and over again to all the right people (just take a gander at all the publications where her art has appeared over the years). Violet never lacks for work—I think she knows what she’s talking about when she says revision isn’t bad, revision is the key to exceptional work. This goes not only for artists, but for writers as well.
So, for all my writing brothers and sisters, listen to constructive criticism. Don’t be offended by it. If it doesn’t seem like it’s “right,” that’s fine, put it aside. But don’t just dismiss it out of hand. When an editor shows you ways to improve your writing, understand that she isn’t saying you can’t write, she is saying you can write better. We all can.