Puzzles, Science & Progress

I want you to be brutal. I want you to tell me everything I’m doing wrong. I need your advice on how to fix it. I want unabridged, unadulterated honesty.

I need it.

I crave it.

It’s the only way I’ll ever get better, become stronger, improve as a writer.

Nobody said it was easy.

I have a mantra that I live by when it comes to those who ask for my advice: “If you ask for my advice, are you prepared to hear my unfiltered thoughts?” I believe in honesty, or rather, constructive criticism.

There is, however, a fine line between “constructive criticism” and “nitpicking.”

When it comes to providing feedback for someone’s writing, dispensing constructive criticism is to discuss, rationally, the faults in what they’ve written, whether it be tone, plot, character development, etc., AND providing the writer with logical explanations behind your points. It’s also opening up a discussion on how to fix these issues while keeping the original integrity and direction of what was written. Constructive criticism is not just saying, “I don’t like ________________[Fill in the Blank].” It’s not being mean for the sake of being critical. Part of distributing constructive criticism is of course pointing out what works in the piece, what is wonderful, and the discussion of potential. It’s a delicate, balanced scale, but there must be an equal amount of praise and brutal honesty. As a teacher, I’ve learned that I have an obligation to encourage, not discourage, while showing my students how to improve.

You don’t know how lovely you are…

It’s the same for me as a writer. I’ll only improve by understanding what I’m doing that’s not working.

But more to the point, I’ll only improve if I truly understand the feedback I’m given. I can’t stress enough the importance of being able to decipher feedback that will improve your writing and strengthen your vision from feedback that isn’t in line with your vision.

Majoring in writing in college helped me to develop a thick skin. When I started taking creative writing courses, I was deathly afraid to workshop my writing. In fact, I would wait until it was my turn my default. As I progressed, especially once I reached graduate school, I threw myself at every available chance to workshop. Getting feedback, however brutally honest, was the only way I saw a noted improvement in my craft.

I tell my students all the time that writing is a process of discovery, and as solitary as it is, it’s actually a very collaborative process. Sounds like a oxymoron, I know, but it’s true. If you’re writing for public consumption, for publication, as I am, as many others that I know are, it’s necessary to show your work to other fellow writers AND be open to feedback. After all, we’re writing not only for ourselves, but for hundreds, thousands, hopefully someday millions of readers who will find us and connect with us; we have to be able to connect, to know what others respond to, what they aren’t as responsive to, and what ultimately doesn’t work. Writing is all about connection, human connection, and as much as the process of regurgitation-on-paper is solitary, in the end, what creates a better product is collaborative learning, knowing how to listen to those around you that you trust to help make your manuscript more solid, better than you ever thought it could be.

In December of 2013, after six months of planning, brainstorming, and intense writing, I finally finished the first complete draft of my new manuscript, which I’ll simply refer to as SoS [I’m too superstitious to give the title just yet.]

I typed the last few words, clicked “Save,” and immediately sent it to my beta readers. I didn’t bother to edit or revise it. I needed some time away from it, as I’d been to close in proximity to these characters for far too long to have any sort of rational reaction in the editing process.

If it were up to me, I would have immediately started querying because I believed that this manuscript was perfect.

Beyond perfect.

SoS was the epitome of perfection and I had created the written language with this book; that’s how enamored I was when I finished. I was an excited tween girl, a post-pubuscent bro who just lost his V-Card, a fat kid on Halloween, a child at Christmas (let’s see how long I can keep going with this…)

I reveled in my genius. In fact, I was certain that all of my beta readers wouldn’t find a single thing wrong with my manuscript. Ok, maybe the ending was a little rushed, but I knew that, and I knew I was going to go back and fix that. I made that clear to everyone. But other than that, I felt confident in my skills. And, much to my (non) surprise, three out of five beta readers praised it (for the most part.)

THEM:

ME:

But as time went on, I didn’t really feel inspired to revisit it. If it’s perfect, why spend time revising, right?

Here’s the thing: After some time away, I began to need more. I started to think: This cannot be perfect. I know it can’t. It can’t be as flawless as I think it is, IT’S A FIRST DRAFT! No first draft is perfect. Actually, most of my first drafts have been awful. Beyond awful. MegaSuperPoop awful. I needed to be brought down to earth, to allow myself to be vulnerable enough to be open to brutal, honest feedback so that I could have the chance to make my draft as perfect as it can possibly be.

I had to open myself up to forceful, no-holds-barred constructive, criticism in order to see what needed to be done.

I was so enamored with myself, so convinced that I had nailed it, that I didn’t WANT to fix anything. But that doesn’t make anyone a better writer. There has to be a balance between sticking to your artistic guns and allowing room for change.

When I met with my last two beta readers, they didn’t hold back. Granted, I was slightly buzzed off wine during our fabulous pajama-themed menage-a-dinner in Harlem….

… but I was sober enough to be taken down several necessary pegs.

Here’s the thing: they were right. Everything they said about my manuscript was spot on. They gushed about the potential, and said that if I work with it, I will have something totally unique and wonderful. However, I left our pajama party that night with one nagging thought: I am not good enough.

I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

But that’s the thing, I am good enough. I wrote something that I am extremely proud of, and hearing brutal feedback doesn’t mean that I still didn’t write something exceptional, nor does it mean that I can’t write or that I somehow need to compromise my vision.

Most of their suggestions were in keeping with my original vision, and I just needed to hear how to fix in order to be able to actually make my manuscript better. Of course, there were a few minor comments that I didn’t agree with, but that’s really what the whole beta reader/workshop/feedback game is all about: knowing what will strengthen your book/work and being OPEN to those suggestions, versus choosing to stay blind to obvious problems in an effort to prove to others that you know what you’re doing.

Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be so hard
I’m going back to the start

Writing is revising. Writing is improving. We write to improve.

If everything was perfect on the first try, then no writer would be considered great because in the midst of so much “perfection,” what could possibly be regarded more?

Open your mind to your flaws.

Be open to criticism.

If it weren’t for criticism, I would never become a better writer.

So … here’s to revising!

4 Comments

  1. So well put! And I of course internalized the whole thing.

    Also, this:

    SoS was the epitome of perfection and I had created the written language with this book; that’s how enamored I was when I finished. I was an excited tween girl, a post-pubuscent bro who just lost his V-Card, a fat kid on Halloween, a child at Christmas (let’s see how long I can keep going with this…)

    I’M STILL A FAT KID ON HALLOWEEN!

  2. This entry resonated with me. Not because of anything I’ve experienced personally but because I just read about Stephen King’s experiences in his book ‘On Writing’. Have you read it?

    He writes about his first draft being written ‘with the door closed’ and The Ideal Reader he has in mind.

    1. Stephen King’s “On Writing” should be required reading for any writer. I read it years ago and have been meaning to pick it up again…but I have a laundry list of new books that I’ve recently purchased that I want to sink my teeth into first. It’s great though!

      Glad this resonated! Getting good feedback is CRUCIAL.

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