Working through the editor’s notes on the final draft of our first manuscript (working title The Things They Buried) has brought to mind my years spent learning to both consume and react to criticism of my work. My career began in journalism as both writer and editor. No better way to quickly learn to get over yourself and take the critique. No matter the industry, what I picked up working at newspapers made feedback at all future jobs much easier to take.
Yet even with all that practice, one of the hardest things to deal with in pretty much any job remains criticism. It can be especially tough to take in artistic fields, whatever the medium. When feedback becomes something other than praise, there’s a gut reaction that kicks in, a need to leap to the defense of my decisions. It can be difficult to take.
Outside of practice, practice, practice, accepting criticism is one of the few ways to really improve a skill. That doesn’t mean I’m obligated to accept and implement every bit of feedback I receive. If that were the case, I’d end up changing things back and forth and back again every time I presented my work to someone new. No, it means ignoring that gut reaction, listening to the feedback and considering its validity.
When reviewing anyone’s comments, there are those edits that fix things I didn’t even know were broken – storyline flaws and gaps, movement within a scene, inconsistent character behavior. These can be simple to correct (“He took his hat off twice in two paragraphs.”) or they can call for major rewrites (“Sure, your hero solved the main murder, but who shot the chauffer?”). Edits of this type are wonderful; annoying to realize, but critical to correct.
Sometimes, though, critiques are merely matters of taste or opinion. For example, in On Writing, Stephen King mentions that he hates it when an author spends time describing characters’ clothing. (To be fair, he does say that this is only his opinion.) However, in the same book, King also says he is a huge fan of Raymond Chandler, an author in love with every detail of every scene he ever created, including the clothes. Neither style is right nor wrong. Each is only a matter of the opinion and taste of both writer and reader.
So while grinding through edits, not matter how painful they may be, the trick is discerning what is valuable feedback and what to let go. It’s a pretty big trick.