Constructive criticism is hard and scary—whether you’re on the giving or receiving end. Okay, it’s much harder on the receiving end, who am I kidding? I’ve seen people give up on their dreams because they were afraid of putting themselves out there. And that’s exactly what dreams require from you to be turned into reality. I know. Sometimes feedback feels like you’ve boarded a roller coaster that you can’t get off. You’re getting whiplash and to top it off, you’re now aware that it was a total mistake to eat that cotton candy moments ago.
I asked Ken Wheaton, author of The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival, to guest for the Writers on Writing series to offer his perspective on why you need honest, straight-forward feedback and what to do once you get it. Normally this series lives over at The Writers’ Salon, but Ken’s advice rings true even if you’re not a writer, so I wanted to post it here as well. No matter what your activity or grand plan – just substitute singing or painting or underwater basket weaving (or whatever floats your boat) for the word writing.
Have you ever had to offer or accept constructive criticism? Do you have any suggestions to share?
A guest post by: Ken Wheaton
Recently, a friend of mine asked if I’d give his first novel a read. This is not something I like to do. It’s time consuming and puts me in the position of crushing dreams—which I really only enjoy doing with members of the Millennial generation.
But he’d only asked that I give it a quick read, let him know if he should start submitting or he should rework the book. He didn’t ask that I give copious notes or a line edit or to mark it up.
So I said yes. He emailed me the manuscript, I uploaded it to my Nook and decided I would breeze through, make some mental notes and offer some general suggestions. I made it 40 pages before printing the document. Three weeks later, I mailed off a dog-eared, coffee-stained, scribbled-upon pile of paper and a few pages of notes.
I’d actually finished in two weeks, but didn’t want an envelope full of critique showing up on his doorstep the day before Thanksgiving.
Why? Because I’ve been there. And unless I’m getting two pages of glowing praise, feedback pisses me off. Same thing every time.
This summer I turned in a manuscript to an agent. She sent it off to a reader. A couple of weeks later, I received an email saying, “Here’s the report. Take some time to digest it.”
“Take some time to digest it.” That simple phrase told me everything I needed to know. That simple phrase should also be stamped on the hand of everyone aspiring to be a writer. It’s not easy. But it’s necessary. If you think writing is a realm of inspiration, positive-feelings and pure artistic expression with little regard for the reader, you should stick to posting your free verse to LiveJournal.
Writing is work. Worse, it’s rework. And more rework. Yes. I have a novel published. So what? Forget that one. The new one needed help.
So I took some time to digest it. It only took me a week of sulking before I got back to it. I’ve had practice.
The first novel I wrote was part of a masters program in creative writing. I turned it into my thesis committee, fully expecting to hear: “Ken, sorry to show up at your door at 3 in the morning, but this was so awesome I just had to come over with my agent who—and sorry if we were out of line—has already sent your book to auction and it’s up to $250,000.” Instead, I was told it was an ambitious project and that with more work, maybe one day. That day never came.
One day I did start writing something else. Then I rewrote that something else. Then rewrote it again. It was finished. It was ready to go. But I showed it to a couple of writers—figured they could blow some smoke up my ass before sending it out to agents and publishers.
From one of those people, I received a banged up, scribbled-on manuscript with two pages of notes. Who the hell was this person*? Where did she get off?
It didn’t matter. She was right. And I was pissed. But I took some time to digest it. And I kept working. And that’s the one book of mine that’s been published.
None of this is meant to discourage you.
What I do want to do is encourage anyone serious about writing to seek out one professional reader you trust or an acquaintance of friend who reads a lot, knows about writing and can take the gloves off and beat some sense into you.
Sure, I know. You’ve shown into a few other people. You’ve workshopped it.
But your family and friends are too easily impressed by 75,000 words strung together to be of much use. Even if your spouse DOES have a fine critical eye, it’s likely best for your relationship that he or she not use it—especially on your first novel.
Writing groups and writing workshops? To me, they serve a few useful purposes: motivation, deadlines and competition among them. Unless, of course, they devolve into cliquishness, politics, literary-on-genre violence, the one student sleeping with the instructor, ego-stroking and passive-aggression. Because this so often happens, it becomes easy to discount the resulting criticism as pettiness and jealousy from that one bitch who just totally has it in for me.
But the real problem with writing groups is that most people don’t sign up because they want to read and critique someone else’s work. You can boil the whole experiment down to one phrase: “Enough about you, now about me.”
What you need is someone who will focus on you, someone who will go at the manuscript like a honey badger on a beehive. Bonus points if you’re handed a pile of paper that looks exactly like a beehive that’s been honey-badgered.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what stage in your writing career, you will be pissed. In time, you might develop a slightly thicker skin, but no promises there. You may always feel like a Park Slope parent, who’s just been told her child is ugly, impolite and not bright enough to even get on the wait list for that pre-school. And then given a long list of pointers on how to raise the brat correctly.
But take some time to digest it.
And get back to work.
And don’t forget to thank your reader.
*It was Jackie Cangro. True story.
Ken Wheaton is the author of The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival. He is also managing editor of Advertising Age magazine. He blogs occasionally at kenwheatonwrites.com. Follow him on Twitter at: @kenwheaton.