I have been asked why anyone would want to get into the business of writing—a business that is based on criticism and rejection. I suppose that is true, and I understand from experience that it is often the hardest part for beginning writers. Yet, it is also criticism that is the key to success in this business.
Rejection slips are one of the main sources of that constant rejection, but here I want to talk specifically about criticism. I think the first important lesson I learned about writing is that criticism (as well as praise) is essential to our growth. When we have opened that vein and shared our most intimate thoughts or experiences, we are often tied too closely to our words to remain objective. Even if we are telling how to wash the family dog, we have still created something that is open to criticism, whether it is criticism of our words or our method. Accepting criticism in either case is not easy. To lay a manuscript open to criticism is like asking for an honest opinion of your newborn baby. All we want to hear is how wonderful it is—not that it has big ears, a red face, and its father’s unruly hair. Painful!
The key to surviving that painful criticism is to detach yourself emotionally from your writing. When you seek criticism of your work (yes, I said seek), you have to remember that they are criticizing the manuscript, they are not criticizing you. In my personal experience, I found that I did not grow as a writer until I started seeking constructive criticism.
My first experience with that was when I had the opportunity to attend a writer’s conference that offered an extended session where for a fee a few writers could stay over after the regular conference to work individually with an accomplished and respected author. In my first session with her, I was to take a manuscript that we would go over and critique together. I didn’t have an unpublished manuscript to take, so I took a copy of a recently published article. We went over the article line by line and she showed me where I could cut or tighten it. Although the article was only about 1,100 words, we were able to cut that published article by 50 words. I went back to my room and cut 100 words from an article I was working on. There is no doubt in my mind that that meeting was a turning point in my writing career. For the first time I was able to view my writing through someone else’s eyes.
Although the criticism is important to your success, you need to be careful who you go to for such help. Cross your mother off the top of the list, along with your spouse, children, sister, brother, best friend or favorite aunt. They will only tell you how wonderful it is. If possible, go to a professional who knows how to write and understands writing for publication. Although some non-writers, especially avid readers, can be good critics, you are usually better off to even pay someone to provide a detailed critique of your work.
A word of caution. Do not expect to get such a critique from a busy editor. Although it would be wonderful if we could get a letter outlining exactly why we got each rejection, it will never happen. It will be up to us to find those who can provide those helpful critiques of our manuscripts. Belonging to a critique group is also helpful. If you do get feed-back from editors or others, watch for recurring criticisms. If you hear more than once that your dialogue is stilted, your plots weak, your leads are boring, or your endings lack punch, take note. Instead of defending yourself, get a book or take a class that will help you improve in those areas. You might want to start a notebook of ideas and good examples in those areas of weakness. You can even learn on your own by analyzing good writing and paying particular note to those areas where you need help, underlining the leads, endings, transitions, or whatever. The criticism will serve no purpose unless you are willing to act on it.
If you pay for a critique, go over all the comments and corrections and study them carefully. Learn from those mistakes. Even when you have a manuscript accepted for publication, follow-up after it is published. Compare your original manuscript to the finished product and learn from the changes or corrections that were made. Note that some changes any editor might have made, while others are changes unique to this publication. Learn from both kinds—the first to improve your writing in general—the second to better understand how to write for that particular publication.