by Lauren Baratz-Logsted
Write like an artist. Edit like a surgeon.
This is one of those things I say to other writers all the time because, hey, it sounds good! And, you know, I actually believe it.
When I'm writing a first draft, it's for me. I get to do whatever I want to please myself. But when I begin the real work of revising? Then the audience comes into view; then I have to leave my personal feelings and attachment at the door, and start carving my base sculpture into something that will be pleasing to others, hopefully lots of others.
Sometimes, I can do a lot of the heavy lifting on my own. After 32 books, at the risk of sounding immodest, I like to think I have a pretty good internal editor. I can often see where I need more about totem poles, or less. I can see that the reader's feelings for a problematic character will improve if I shift the mirrors, making surrounding characters worse so that the problem child is better by comparison. And I can see when I have to sell motivation harder so that the reader, even if they think they would never do the same thing in a million years, understands exactly why the character does what she does. (It helps that I'm a freelance editor.) But sometimes, even writers with strong internal editors need help from, well, other writers.
When a writer is first starting out, the tendency is to believe that the ideal reader is one who says, "I love what you've done! It's perfect the way it is! Don't change a thing!" Sounds great, doesn't it? The truth of the matter is, if you're lucky, as you go on you realize that's not the ideal reader at all. The real ideal reader is the one who says, "I love a lot of what you're doing here, but I think it could be better," and then proceeds to tell you what needs fixing, preferably in clear language, ideally with a prescription for how the fix can be achieved.
For the past dozen or so years, I've hosted a writing group in my home on most Friday nights. Over time, some of the players have changed but the spirit remains the same. I wish you could all be there - and not just because the wine and chips are always good! But also because over time, we continually if incrementally learn how to better serve each other's needs as writers. Since you can't be there, though, before we get on to the giveaway - yea! a giveaway! - let's look at what I think are some of the best ways to take and give criticism.
- Don't be tearful, don't be defensive, don't show anger. You may be feeling any one of these, or even a combination, and that's fine. Just don't let it show, because if you play any one of these three cards too frequently, you run the risk of alienating the people who can best help you. Learn how to accept what others say graciously, particularly when it hurts. If you can't manage anything else, at least say, "Thank you. You've given me a lot to think about." And you know what else? Do think about it later! When you have a clearer head, you might realize the criticism was spot on. Or not.
- If you make changes according to 100% of the criticism you receive or if you reject 100% of the criticism you receive, there's a very strong chance you're doing this all wrong. Others can only give their opinions. But no one is right 100% of the time and no one is wrong 100% of the time In the end, it's up to you to learn how to sort it into what best helps the work, what doesn't really change it but makes the other person happy, and what would hurt it.
- There's no need to ever say to someone else, "You just don't get it!" Even if you think that, keep it to yourself. No matter how wrongheaded the person criticizing you today might be, as they say, even a broken clock is right twice. And the person who's wrong today could be the best person to help you tomorrow. Don't make it impossible for that to happen by pushing people away with your superior intelligence.
- The only time it's worth saying, "Well, what I was intending was..." is in order to get clarity; if by stating intent you'll somehow be able to talk through with the person offering criticism how you can get from what you've done to where you want to be.
- You'll meet with more success if you always open with a positive. Who knows? Maybe you hated everything about the writing sample someone just shared with you. I don't care, you still need to find a positive lead to open with. "I really like the way you..." And then you can jump in with your laundry list of what you think needs changing.
- No matter how defensive the writer gets, even if you're treated like you don't know what you'e talking about, don't you get defensive back. Don't act as though you're being attacked just because the writer, or others in the group, disagree with your ideas.
- Don't just make up random crap to puff yourself up so you can feel important.
- Always remember, while so much in life is about you, when you're criticizing the work of someone else it is not about you, and your only goal in the moment should be to help the other writer improve.
Well, obviously I could go on about this sort of thing forever...and I practically have! But that's enough on this from me. Moving on, then...
I did promise you a giveaway, right? (Yea! A giveaway!) To two lucky commenters below, I'm offering up signed copies of the trade paperback editon of LITTLE WOMEN AND ME. This is U.S. only, I'm afraid. Winners will be chosen at random and notified in the comments section here this Sunday at noon. When you comment, please tell me anything you'd like to about criticism.
Oh, and in the meantime, if you really want to make my day? I recently dropped the price of The Disrespctful Interviewer: 13 Interviews with Authors to just 99 cents. Ninety-nine cents??? That's practically another giveaway! (Yea! Practically another giveaway!)
Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of 32 books. Visit her at www.laurenbaratzlogsted.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBaratzL where she frequently posts about sports, books and "General Hospital."