Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thoughtful About . . . Criticism

Confession time: I am not, by nature, the type to accept critique. Maybe (and I'm guess here) it has to do with the fact that back in grade school I was always the one at the top of the class. The one who was always right, who the teachers used as an example. I got accustomed to being the best. And when you think you're the best, it's pretty easy to ignore advice from lesser mortals. ;-)

In high school, I remember when my AP English teacher was talking to us about constructive criticism. I understood the theory, obviously, but I recall thinking something like, "Yeah, but it never feels constructive. It feels like you saying you're right and I'm wrong." Have I mentioned I didn't like being wrong? LOL.

When it came to my writing, I tended to do it for myself. I had eight books completed by the time I finished college, and only let close friends and family read them. There were quite a few times when I'd ask for advice about a certain aspect of the story, or on where to cut to get my word count down.

And nearly every one of those times, I'd ignore whatever advice came in. Think something along the lines of, "What do you know? This isn't your story." And do it my way.

I'm not sure when it happened exactly, but I finally realize that, in fact, it is the reader's story. And so I need to write it for them, not for me. Which means I need to know what they need. What they think. What needs to be changed. And so I consider myself blessed to have critique partners and editors who offer criticism--the kind that really is constructive.

Last Tuesday afternoon, I got my second round of edits on Annapolis. The editor, in her email, called it "pristine," and said she barely got to do her job. Naturally, this made my day. And naturally, when I opened the document, I saw that there was still some work to do. I paged through it as I was making dinner and getting ready to run out for an evening appointment, and when I saw that some of the suggestions required actual thought, my reaction was something like this: "You're kidding me, right?"

Yep, the same reaction I've always had. Here's the difference--I used to leave it at that thought. When I first joined a critique group, it would sometimes take me days to heed good advice. Now it's the same process of acceptance on my part--but it only takes a few seconds. Sometimes part of a second. After that first, "But, but, but . . ." I go, "Yeah, I see your point. Okay." And I get down to making it better.

Occasionally my work with other writers, many of them new to the business and still working on that first manuscript, proves that I'm not the only one with this problem with criticism. I've heard excuses, I've heard exasperation, I've heard outright denial that there's a problem with their book. And I've thought, "If you don't want honest advice, why did you ask me to read this??"

Then I realize they're no different than me, and I make sure to offer my criticism along with the hammer and nails they need to incorporate it--because I don't want to tear anyone down with my words, I want to build them up.

I know myself well enough to realize that I'll probably always have that half-a-second argument when I get criticism. But I'm so glad that I'm to the point now where I can so quickly see the wisdom behind it. As I'm working regularly now with editors and agents, I keep thinking of the kind of author I want to be--and I don't mean defining myself by what I write. Rather, I'm talking about being an easy author to work with. One they know they can depend on to deliver the best manuscript I can, to accept advice graciously, to work hard and quickly to give them what they ask for.

Yeah, a little pride sneaks in when an editor tells me my book is in great shape--pride quickly checked when they follow the praise with constructive criticism. But when I click "send" on a manuscript, it's not with the thought of, "There, perfect." these days. It's with the hope that I gave them what they wanted. That they read through it and think, not that Roseanna is the best author ever, but that Roseanna is a great author to work with.

I have no doubt this will be an ongoing process--and I'm grateful the Lord didn't bless me with a contract until I was to the point where I could accept all the work required for it with grace.


  1. What a GREAT post. It took me a while to accept criticism too (and I also went the other way for a while - assuming EVERY suggestion someone gave me HAD to be incorporated), but now I actually crave it (after those few seconds LOL). Thanks, Roseanna.

  2. Since our crits are always exchanged over email (sadly) I never even know about your "but, but, but..." moments. I think you're a very easy writer to work with :)

  3. And hey, there are even a lot of comments that don't earn a "But, but, but" but rather a "Well, duh. Yeah, obviously." ;-) See how far I've come from the old days? LOL.

    It can definitely be a balancing act, Joanne, and there are certainly still times when I decide to keep things as I have them. Just not EVERY time. ;-)