Tuesday 17 April 2012

Only One Thing Will Make You A Better Writer

Obviously, you need to hone your craft and develop your skills, and there are certainly a multitude of styles and genres to choose from. But the one thing you definitely have to be is open. Open to the idea your work might need to improve.

But you can’t be honest about what you need to do with your writing if you worry about what other people think of you. What they think of your writing is another matter. But tying up your self-worth with the stories you produce is not helpful.

The work is the work, and you are you.

The enemy of honesty is insecurity. We all know the feeling of doubting ourselves and suspecting our efforts are not very good. And the manifestation of that can be anything from running away and crying, to getting defensive and belligerent. 

It’s very difficult to look at your own work and appraise it objectively. And when others do it for you, it’s very difficult to be objective about that too. But whether or not you’re judgement is correct in how you view things yourself, or how you view the opinions of others, you have to at the very least be open to criticism.

The problem is, you can’t help feeling shitty when someone throws negativity your way. The instinctive response is to avoid it. To find a safe, comfortable environment where that doesn’t happen. Which would be fine if you could stay in that cocoon forever. But you can’t. Like keeping a child in a controlled environment away from germs and disease, all you’re doing is making sure the first time that child goes out into the world they’re going to die a horrible death.

In order to be able to deal with difficult situations, you have to expose yourself to them. The cruellest and most unfair critics are the ones who are most helpful in the early stages of becoming a writer. Not because they help improve your writing, but because they help toughen you up as a writer. And it’s painful. Really painful. Your own personal Fight Club. But like most things, it’s scariest when you’ve never experienced it.

Personally I’ve been critiqued by all sorts of writers at various stages of ability (mine and theirs). I’d say comments come down to two basic types.

Stuff I agree with.

Stuff I don’t agree with.

Both types can be presented in various ways: friendly and couched in platitudes, or blunt and lacking tact. It makes no difference to me. If I don’t agree, I ignore it. If I do agree, I feel lucky to have found something I can use. The tone used in either case is irrelevant. Only I can choose to make changes in my writing, no one has any power to force my hand.

I know I’m making it sound easier than it is. If someone starts dismissing all your ideas as amateurish and hackneyed, it will hurt. We all have feelings. Even me. But I’ve received over a thousand critiques on Critique  Circle. Over 700 on Authonomy. Hundreds more on The Cult (now called LitReactor), Litopia and Writing.com. At this point the only thing I look for in feedback is if there’s anything I can use to make my story better. Encouragement and insults are just extra words I have to dig through.

Some of the nicest, most flattering comments have been the most useless. Some of the most vicious have helped me pinpoint exactly where things get dull. 

You have to remember, when someone dislikes you (for whatever reason) they will generally attack where you’re weakest. Their reasoning may be fucked up, but the fact they chose a particular element in your story as their target probably means they’ve identified a weak link. Which is very helpful.

Don’t want to give them the satisfaction of being right? Don’t tell them.

And it’s also worth remembering that just as  insecurity can make you behave regrettably or overreact to things not really so important, the person reading your work suffers from the same things. Poor bastard probably has his own problems.

So, if you are concerned about exposing yourself to ridicule and abuse, it’s a valid concern. The first five hundred horrible comments may sting a bit. But the 501st time's the charm.
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Comments (even stinging ones) are always welcome. Cheers.

If you're curious about what my writing looks like you can see a sample from my current WIP on Authonomy here.


Susan Bodendo/Super Earthling said...

Great post! :)

I'm known for turning in very clean manuscripts, probably because I go over and over them before they go to my editor. I cry like a baby as I delete my precious, golden words. LOL But it always makes the story better.

Over many years of writing, I've learned the importance of being open to improvement.

Jacqueline Howett said...

At some point one has to take the plunge, even if you get pushed in.

You can avoid it only for so long!

Its quite a journey of growth, and were all going at our own pace. Yes, I see it like the clam hiding out at times from shyness.

How many times I was pointed to go to the local writers group prior to many of my own blunders, but I seemed to always miss the day, maybe on purpose with the whole stage fright thing. Not wanting to get that close. Yeah, and the ego is quite interesting.

Yes, after some awareness of how it all goes and the bigger picture sinks in, it isn't so bad.
Great post. I enjoyed the read. it was quite to the point. Nice meeting you.

Christine Rains said...

Wonderful post. I found it hard to put myself out there to be critiqued, but once I gained a few good partners and joined a writers group, it grew easier. Sometimes your eyes are opened to something you never noticed before and sometimes the comments aren't worth anything, but for that one great one, it's all worth it.

L.G. Keltner said...

You've developed a good attitude to criticism. I'm still working on building up a thick writer's skin. I guess I'm still too protective of my work, but anyone who wants to actually send their stories into the world needs to pluck their head out of the sand eventually. That's one reason why I started blogging.

Unknown said...

Great post and a good attitude to maintain as a reader, especially if you aspire to write. If you love to write, you cannot run from the very thing that you fear, and that is feedback on your own go at it.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I completely agree that it is up to the writer to take charge and decide which changes they want to incorporate in their writing. Criticism can be very painful, but its also a necessary tool for better writing and growth as a writer.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

How did you come to the magic 500 number? ;-) I didn't count my feedback so I don't know personally. But I agree, receiving feedback can be unpleasant but necessary.

Where I fall down is how do I know if they've made a valid point? Someone recently slammed a short story another reader absolutely loved, which left em very confused. Obviously it needs more reviewers, and it will have them, but I've had to make myself a little rule of thumb - one comment gets ignored, a second comment on the same issue is a flag there may be a probnlem.

rena traxel said...

I always give myself a day to process feedback so that I have the chance to let whatever I'm feeling pass. It's nice to hear positive feedback, but it doesn't always help.

mooderino said...

@super-I go over my scripts but there always seems to be stuff I can't see. Very annoying.

@Jacqueline-a friendly shove in the back sometimes is required.

@christine-defintiely helps more than hinders.

@LG-I don't want to make it seem it's all water off a duck's back. Useless comments (especially when you've spent a lot of time giving thm feedback on theirs) can be very frustrating, but that's part of the deal. Sometimes you get nowt.

@Diane-it also helps if you manage to find a few people of like minds (which you will eventually).

@Rachna-the total control the writer has should make annoying coments a lot easier to handle.

mooderino said...

@Ciara-500 is just meant to indicate a big number, not taken literally.

As for how to know if someone is right or wrong in their critique, it's something you have to develop. Whether someone likes or dislikes a story is irrelevant, that's just personal taste. People who write similar to you will like your stuff BECAUSE you make the same mistakes they make. Only when someone breaks down what they liked or disliked will you be able to see for yourself if their point is valid.

Eventually you will be able to see a critiquer's reasons in the way they phrase their comment, or by reading one of their stories and seeing what kind of writer they are.

But generic 'I loved/hated it' comments are meaningless at this stage (even if dozens of people say it). After you're published, they're great.

@Rena-writers have to accept that if they feel very upset about a comment on their writing, the problem is theirs, not the guy commenting.

J.C. Martin said...

Good point. You must be separate enough from your work to be open to constructive criticisms. No work is too precious for a bit of feedback.

J.C. Martin
A to Z Blogger

mooderino said...

@JC-it's something that's quite hard early on. But if people don't want to tell you what they really think for fear of upsetting you, then there's no point asking anyone to read what you've written.

Hart Johnson said...

You're so right. I think gracefully taking criticism and growing from it takes practice, but the BEST way to really embrace it is to take the information, improve your work and SEE how much better it is.--It is reinforcing if you follow through. Great post!

Jen said...

Wandering over thanks to Alex Cavanaugh! He mentioned you in a post :D

Wonderful post! I agree: the critiques that sting the most are the ones that help us grow...as long as there is a gem of truth in them!

Nice to meet you!
Cheers from your new follower,

Sara Hill said...

It's amazing how blind you can become to your own writing.

Beverly Diehl said...

I like to think I'm open, but prolly not as much as I should be. Recently had to really dissect some rather harsh crit I got from a friend. Some of the things she was dead on right about, others... not so much so. Really threw me into a blue funk, wondering if despite the crit I got from other sources, I should throw it all in the trash. Then I had to look at the fact that her reading tastes are very narrow. When I mentioned, for example, that I love the humor and tone of Pride & Prejudice, and was hoping to emulate it, she sniffed that she never reads "period pieces" or chick lit. So while not everything she had to say was off-target, some of it was, because she was attempting to mold my contemporary romcom into lit'rary fiction. It takes some time and distance and experience before we can consider the source, sometimes.

I like your idea of the 501st criticism coming easier.

Susan Oloier said...

Your point about separating yourself from your work is critical. It is so easy to become defensive when others critique (or criticize) our work. There is always going to be someone who has something negative to say, and it's best to just let those comments remain what they are: opinions.

Unknown said...

I'm in a writing group and I actually look forward to feedback. When I get feedback from a reader (and we are all readers first), I feel a great deal of appreciation for the feedback, even the negative. I have to know what works and what doesn't work.

Usually, if more than one person points out a problematic area, then chances are it's problematic! If I'm ever going to improve, I have to know what I need to improve first.

Great reminder here! I like my writing group. They don't sugar coat anything. :)

Donna K. Weaver said...

Well said. Not everyone is particularly tactful, but that doesn't mean once we get stitched up and have some painkillers in us we shouldn't take a look at the criticism. It might have some merit.


Small Town Shelly Brown said...

Alright I'm opening my soul here but here is what stops me from getting my work critiqued like it should. It's not that I don't handle the crit well. In general after a couple of days to let it all sink in, I do pretty well with the feedback. What stops me is the fear that I am annoying other people. I know that my stories aren't up to snuff so who's the poor sucker who has to read my crap for hours? This is what is stopping me. Lame, I know but so real to me.

mooderino said...


@Jen-Any friend of Alex...

@Sara-we're designed not to see our own shortcomings. Probably a good evolutionary reason for that. No idea what that might be.

@Beverly-reading their work often helps put thing in perspective.

@susan-I think it's natural to be insecure if you're inexperienced. Trick is to get more experience.

@Diane-some people do like a more tactful approach, but people forget the 'spoonful of sugar' approach is meant for children.

@Donna-Yes, there's always ways to numb the pain.

mooderino said...

@Shelly-you're totally worrying about nothing. I read thousands of stories (literally) and I don't enjoy any of them. They're all bad. Even the sort of good ones have too many problems to just sit back and have fun. And so they should be, people are learning as they go. I don't read them in order to entertain myself (that's why I read actual books). I read to offer help, and hopefully get help in return.

Sometimes I'll even get someone suggesting if I don't like their story they don't mind if I bail. Of course I won't enjoy a first draft. I'm looking for problems, not perfection.

Jenni Steel said...

Well I must say I'm only a beginner and I am a little concerned about my writing. I have not had anyone judge me so far but I am open to criticism.

I think I need to just get out and "Do it!

Thought your post was great, thanks for allowing me to share.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Taking feedback can be painful. I carefully structure when I'm accepting feedback. When I have an open mind and am asking for it, I can take anything. However, I hate the stuff that arrives unannounced. "Oh by the way I'm reading your book and I think it coulda been fifty pages shorter..."

I want to respond, "that's nice. Maybe you should have beta read it then. But it's already published so write it up on a review that I'll never read. Byeeee."

mooderino said...

@Jenni-exactly, just do it. And if it's painful, that's good. You're on the right track.

@Michael-why someone would randomly offer suggestions on a published book I have no idea. Seems a bit pushy.

Nate Wilson said...

Might need to improve? Of course I need to improve! Why would I stay as I am when I can get better?

You certainly have the right attitude for criticism. Let it sting for a bit, but then take a step back to see if it's a valid point. And yes, the nicest, most flattering comments are almost always the most useless (except, possibly, for the ego).

That being said, I'll correct you on one thing: If you don't agree with a criticism, but you keep getting it from multiple people... you'd best start agreeing with it.

mooderino said...

@Nate-yes, but it's still your choice. The important thing to remember is you always get to call the shots. Once you know that's something no one can take away from you, it's much easier making the right decisions.

Scarlett said...

This is such a good post - I think in all stages of writing we all get criticism... if you put yourself out there you're asking for people to judge you,. But when it comes to writing it's about being true to yourself - not everyone will agree with you, find you funny, or enjoy your stories... but you can't please everyone. I think writing is about pleasing yourself - and if yu can make others happy too then happy days! xx

mooderino said...

@Scarlett-both writing and criticism should be about trying to get the writer as close to his intention as possible.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I'm very fortunate to have a supportive and motivating critique group -- the critiques are thorough and specific, but we all understand every comment and "correction" is only a suggestion. One member is outstanding at spotting timeline errors, another zeroes in on passive voice, etc. And even though we like to point out the "outrages" in fun, critiques are never harsh or destructive. I wish every writer had a group like mine.


mooderino said...

@Patricia-sounds like how it should be (bit rarely is).

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