You did it. You sent your manuscript out to be appraised by someone else—and you’re not sure whether to shout hurray or groan. Maybe you’re trying to get published, or maybe you’re just seeking feedback. Maybe this is the first time you’ve shown your work to someone, or maybe it’s the one-hundredth time. Whatever the case, you’ve placed your writing in someone else’s hands and now you’re trembling and biting your nails as you await the results.
Then you hear the flutter of paper, the ding of an e-mail, or the shuffle of the mailman, and your precious bundle arrives. But as you open it, you gasp at all the bloodstains marring the pages, and you wrestle with one of two thoughts:
- I must be a horrible writer!
- This person doesn’t understand me or my piece, and they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Both of these reactions are wrong, and neither is good for your morale as a writer (although at least the first displays humility). You’re understandably feeling stung, but before you start sobbing or chopping off any heads, pause to pray for wisdom. To endure criticism and emerge a more astute writer, you need to analyze five factors.
1. The Ratio of the Red in Proportion to the Black, Untouched Text
As any published author will attest, no editor, beta reader, or critique partner has ever returned a document without leaving a trail of red marks and comment bubbles on it. There’s a saying in my profession that “every editor needs an editor.” It’s difficult to identify all of the faults in your own writing.
Generally, your manuscript will be 50–60 percent red after an edit or critique session. Fewer red marks are a compliment, but more doesn’t necessarily indicate you’re a bad writer (although it probably signals you’re in need of practice and refinement). Maybe your plot is brilliant, but the characters are wooden. Or your prose is sublime, but the story is disjointed. Or your article is structured well, but the mechanics are rusty. Remember, Track Changes records every single operation performed on your manuscript. Even if an extra space gets deleted or a comma is inserted or a letter is added, a red mark will be emblazoned on the page. Although important, most of these minuscule adjustments are not an insult to your writing skills (proofreading skills perhaps, but not writing).
The definition of a bad writer is a person characterized by a flippant attitude toward syntax and resistance to negative input. He’s infatuated with the concept of writing and the attention or fame he might reap from it. He rarely revises his work because he believes it’s unnecessary, and he doesn’t care if he makes typos. When the going gets tough, he either becomes defensive, quits, or runs to his peers for false validation of what a “wonderful” writer he is. If you’re genuinely trying to learn, are pursuing excellence, and are open to constructive criticism, you don’t fit this description and are not a bad writer. As Ernest Hemingway put it:
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
When faced with a file blotted in red, don’t lash out and don’t become discouraged. Instead of viewing the corrections as an affront to your abilities, acknowledge that the person is attempting to help you enhance your writing and accept that there may be areas you need to grow in.
2. The Expertise of the Critic
Writers will collaborate with an assortment of people over the course of their journey. Editors, critique partners, beta readers, and other well-intentioned individuals are all separate species, and feedback from each should be handled differently. Since you as author ultimately hold the right to decide how your writing will be altered (or not), you need to be discerning about which suggestions to keep and which ones to discard. One way to determine this is to gauge how qualified someone is to recommend a particular change.
Who is this person with whom you’ve entrusted your manuscript? A friend? Parent or sibling? A member of your writing group? A beta reader you recruited off the Internet? An acquaintance who is an English teacher? An editor you met at a conference? What level of experience does he have with writing? Is he a professional in the industry, and does he have credentials to prove it? Does he read a lot? Is he familiar with the genre or topic you’ve chosen? Is he able to be impartial and honest with you, or will he only spout what you’d want to hear? Has he ever asked you to critique his own work, and if so, what weaknesses did you notice? How sound is his grammar? Does he have a broad vocabulary? How often does he make typos?
The answers to the above questions will become especially relevant when you receive conflicting advice. I guarantee this will happen at least once (usually more), because each reader will bring a different perspective to your work. Even editors won’t always coincide on which specific details will transform a manuscript from mediocre to magnificent. Many people don’t realize this, but polishing prose is as much a creative endeavor as writing it. Editors, like writers, have unique voices too. Although editors will generally flag the same grammar/spelling errors and anything that violates industry standards, their overall styles will vary.
In these situations, it’s wisest to defer to the person who possesses more knowledge and experience. If your mom (who only reads historical fiction) gushes over a scene in your fantasy novel, but two avid fantasy readers in your writing group think it needs revised, listen to the members of your writing group. If your editor advises you to cut a character out of your novel, but your best friend (who has had two books published) urges you not to, listen to your editor. If your dad (who is a doctor) warns you that a biological fact in your story is inaccurate, but your editor doesn’t mention the issue, listen to your dad (but do apprise your editor of why the correction needs to be made).
Of course, this doesn’t mean that family and friends won’t give acute suggestions, or that an editor is eternally right. First, you must examine yourself to make sure you’re not being overly protective of your writing. But you also shouldn’t allow someone with poor grammar to dictate where you place commas, or someone who has never written/read your genre to govern how you shape the plot. Most importantly, never disregard professional guidance in favor of amateur opinion that appeases your personal preferences.
3. The Nature of the Proposed Changes
As a rule of thumb, heed advice from editors and other experienced critiquers concerning:
- Industry standards
- Genre parameters (word count, content appropriateness, etc.)
- Clarity and cohesiveness
- Inconsistencies and inaccuracies
- Any issue pointed out by more than one person
If you have doubts about the reason for a change, simply ask. Editors and test readers typically won’t explain their rationale behind every tweak, because that would be tedious. But usually they’re more than willing to elaborate if prompted. You might discover that a change you deemed excessive was actually warranted, and learn something too.
With content-related and opinion-based suggestions, weigh the counsel carefully, but feel free to refuse anything that doesn’t align with your vision or jibe with your voice. Although an editor will be flattered (and even relieved) if you accept all her changes without question, editors also admire authors who defend their work with sound arguments. If you can articulate why you’ve opted to decline a certain change, then do so. However, recognize that a weakness in your piece may exist, and use that as a springboard to formulate an alternative solution which suits your intent. Two heads are better than one, so launch a discussion about it, brainstorm, and experiment with various fixes. Just make sure your tone is courteous whenever disagreements occur.
4. The Degree of Criticism You Anticipated Versus What You Received
Editors truly are book doctors, with beta readers and critique partners acting as nurses and EMTs. If they diagnose your brainchild as having pneumonia, they won’t prescribe medication for a common cold, no matter how much the patient denies the severity of his symptoms.
After an examination of your writing, if you expected your prescription to consist of sweet-tasting praise mixed with a minor dose of criticism, but instead your critiquer hands you a gallon-sized bottle of jumbo pills, stop to reevaluate. Perhaps you, and your manuscript, aren’t as robust and ready as you thought. Take your medicine and strive to get better.
On the other hand, if you’ve braced yourself for cancer treatment, yet your manuscript is given a reasonably clean bill of health, either your “medical personnel” aren’t being forthright, or it’s time to embrace the implications of factor number five.
5. The Number of People Who Have Reviewed Your Work and How Many Revisions You’ve Done in Total
Relinquishing my writing when I can’t improve it any further is the step I struggle with the most. As an overly consciousness writer and scrupulous editor, it’s often nearly impossible for me to achieve satisfaction with my writing. Perhaps I overlooked some minutiae, or failed to consider a potential misinterpretation of how I phrased a point, or came across too forceful or too vague.
I’m telling myself this as well as all of you: don’t get trapped in a never-ending editing cycle. Your writing won’t ever be perfect. If you’ve read extensively about the craft and have applied the principles to your writing, if you’ve striven for proficiency, if you’ve welcomed input from others, if you’ve developed a distinct voice, if you’ve rewritten page after page until your fingers and brain are numb, it’s time to let go and let God.
Breathe, rest, and repeat the process with your next project.