Maintaining a Willingness to Learn

This is a post on editing, rewriting, and being willing to take a critique, and I fear that writers recently edited by me will think this post is about, or aimed at, them. It’s not. Well, mostly not. It’s about my own journey as a writer; the most important lesson I’ve learned from being critiqued and critiquing, and from being (sometimes harshly) edited myself. The best way to learn, in my opinion, is not by reading about theories of writing, dissecting the writing of others, or even writing lots yourself, (though these all have value), but by having your work reviewed by others.

As writers, I think many of us become attached to our words. They’ve taken such effort to eke onto the page, we become reluctant to banish them back into non-existence or fiddle with their just-so-ness. I’d like to say this is more true for newer writers, but I’ve encountered lots of experienced types who seem equally protective of their work.

When facing a disagreeable edit on something more substantive than punctuation or grammar, it can be tempting to fall back on lofty sounding excuses rather than admit weakness. “That may seem awkwardly phrased, or wordy, or unduly repetitive, but that’s my voice–my style;” or “That plot point is not unlikely; it really happened to my friend’s cousin;” or [insert long-winded explanation of what the author meant to achieve, usually involving some sophisticated literary device such as allegory or allusion, thereby intimating that a smarter reader would’ve understood]. Sometimes these are valid reasons not to accept a critique, but often not. If you have to tap dance to demonstrate that something works, it probably means it doesn’t. Put another way: it has to work on the page.

This was the mantra of one of my writing teachers, who brought the point home by telling us her own very personal, very heart-wrenching story. Her first child, while still an infant, was diagnosed with serious health problems that required long hospitalization. Ultimately the baby died. Many years later while completing her Master’s degree in creative writing, she wrote and submitted a fictionalized account of the experience–which was promptly trashed by her instructor. “Not believable,” he proclaimed, and went on to detail a litany of weaknesses in the piece. She patiently listened and then explained that it was believable, because it was a true story. His response? “It doesn’t matter.” Now, while one might’ve wished he’d shown more sensitivity in that moment, what he said wasn’t wrong. Once events are recorded on the page and released into the world, they stop being real life and start being fiction. They are subject to analysis under the cold light of day, by readers with no personal investment. They may not work and one may have to accept that–if one wants to get the piece published (obviously, it’s okay to just write something for yourself). My teacher came to agree with this philosophy, and now espouses it to her students.

And you know what? In a bizarre but fortuitous coincidence, just this morning I got an email inviting me to the launch event for her first published novel. The subject? Young parents faced with a critically ill, newborn daughter.

This is just one–albeit extreme–example of how an author might benefit from divorcing herself to some degree from her work. There are others.  The first way you’ve chosen to express a thought, while undeniably your voice, isn’t always the best way. The glorious world-building in your head might not be fully rendered on the page. And even a “smart” reader might get confused, and this might be your fault.

Of course a certain amount of sticking to your guns is required. You ought not to blindly accept every suggestion that comes your way, or you risk losing the you-ness that makes your piece special. All of us have encountered someone who has told us to do something blatantly wrong or clichéd because they don’t know better. The seriousness with which you take the advice will depend, in part, on how much you trust your beta reader.

But I believe that something can be taken from every critique. Let’s face it: many if not most of our future readers (hopefully) aren’t writers or experienced beta readers themselves, but average readers. Even if you don’t agree with a problem they raise, or view it a different way, it is always useful to consider the critter’s point-of-view. If they stumbled over or questioned something, often someone else will, too. Ask yourself what might be done to address the issue, even if it’s different than what they’ve suggested. Chances are, something can be improved.

Becoming a better writer requires the humility to admit that you’re not perfect and a willingness (the courage?) to consider that even a hard-fought piece might be strengthened by incorporating outside input. We’ve all heard some variation of the quote that there are no good writers, only good rewriters, but I prefer this one:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press.  Murder your darlings.” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch*

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

*Maybe–although this quote has been attributed to others, including William Faulkner.

 

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  • Great blog! I agree 100%. I think we’ve all struggled with the “but this is how it really happened” aspect, which is one of the reasons I don’t often lift events and characters directly from real life. Also, authors who go for (or claim to be going for) allegory or symbolism rather than readability drive me bonkers. This isn’t a literary criticism class, and you will NOT be graded on how clever your allusions are, only on whether or not the book is enjoyable!

  • Thank you Erika! I agree wholeheartedly. I struggle sometimes to completely understand a critique, but have learned not to ask too many questions – I’ve been perceived to be argumentative when I’m trying to clarify. I’ve been on both sides of the editor/writer fence, and I need to keep remembering that not everyone is so willing to regrind the grist.