Defend Yourself: Criticism

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The first thing any artist needs to do is learn how to defend themselves.

No, I don’t mean karate or buying a gun or a knife. I’m talking about defending themselves against those internal and external forces that can cripple and artist and damage their work. I’ve thought about some of the most harmful conditions that can hurt a writer and the ways I’ve tried to keep them at bay.

What I mean is: Be Careful Who You Trust.

This isn’t conspiracy theory nonsense. Not everyone is out to get you. You don’t have to sit in your basement with a tinfoil hat on to prevent people from stealing your ideas or putting thoughts in your mind.

But you do need to be careful about who you share your writing journey with, especially in the beginning stages of your career. People don’t always have your best interest at heart. What’s more, they might not even know it. The same person who encourages you to explore your craft may subconsciously undermine you at the same time. They might be supportive of your writing, but only when it’s convenient for them. If they know you’re deep in the writing process, but constantly encourage you to hang out with them, they’re not being supportive. They might constantly emphasize that writing is tough, but they know you can make it despite the odds. They might read your work and offer critiques that are undercutting your creativity. It’s up to the writer to be strong enough to take criticism, but from the wrong source, it can hurt. It can make you fix an aspect of the story that isn’t broken just to please their particular taste or how they feel the story should evolve.

Even people who didn’t watch Game of Thrones have probably heard the controversy about the ending. (No spoilers here, I promise.) Many people had an idea of how they wanted the saga to end and were vocal when they didn’t get their way. But anyone who watched the entire series should be able to understand the ending was justified. It was hinted at throughout the entire show and fit perfectly with what we’d been told for several seasons. Endings to beloved series are always tough, whether it’s a book or a television show. But the writer has the right to end things on their terms, as long as it isn’t a cheap gimmick like a dream or some other unexpected event.

The best way to defend yourself from being undermined comes with confidence in your work. And confidence only comes through experience. No one’s work is perfect. We can always do better. I just finished re-writing some of my University novels for Wolfpack and took the opportunity to improve weak points in the work. I’m a better writer now than I was six years ago when I wrote the books. I’m a better writer today than I was a month ago. Our skills are always evolving, so it’s understandable if you set aside a story for a while and revise it upon further examination.

Critique is important, but never lose sight of what your main goal is: to tell your story your way. Whether it’s your best friend, a relative or a publisher, take in all opinions about your work. Be prepared to improve and be flexible. But too many cooks will spoil any dish and only you know the kind of book you’re trying to write. Don’t let anyone distract you from the process, whether it’s interrupting you during a good stream of writing or changing around a story you know in your heart is good and worth telling. Don’t let anyone undermine you – passively or actively – to the point you begin to doubt yourself. Making changes isn’t always surrendering and can improve your story. But listening to the wrong people might not only hurt your work, but your faith in yourself as a writer.

Tell the story you want to tell your way first. Reveal it to a select few you can trust to read it and give you thoughtful, meaningful feedback. Your work – and your commitment to it – deserve that much.

Before you send it out, invest in yourself and your hard work by hiring a professional proofreader to review it. Yes, it means money and it can be pricey, but it’s worth it. A story filled with typos and dead sentences and dropped plot points will kill any submission you make to a publisher. You’ve worked too hard on your story to allow it to be weakened by avoidable mistakes. Hiring a proofreader won’t make your story perfect, but it’s an important step in making it ready for prime time. Again, don’t think of it as spending money. Thinking of it as an investment in your ongoing desire to grow as an artist.  

If you’re fortunate to have a publisher agree to read your work, give their critique serious thought. Rejections are part of the business and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a reflection of your manuscript. Publishers reject any number of manuscripts for any number of reasons and none of them might have anything to do with the merits of your story. They might not be looking for the genre you wrote or they may have published several similar novels recently and your work came in too late. That’s a part of the business none of us can control.  

If they offer you specific critiques – even if they reject it – consider them. They may have a point. It may strengthen your story and make it work for the next publisher you sent it to.  

The best attribute a writer can have is to be able to bend, not break. Positive feedback doesn’t mean you’ve written The Great American Novel and harsh critique doesn’t make it trash.

Carefully think about the source of the feedback, their motivation, and move on from there. It’s a difficult but essential lesson for any writer to learn and remember throughout their career.

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