Accepting or Rejecting Writing Criticism

Today, when I was cruising around a writers’ website where I’m a member, I came across this old article I’d posted on it.  Still applicable, so I thought I’d share it on my writing blog for all other aspiring writers out there who may happen to stumble onto it.  

We’re all writers here, right? And as writers, we probably realize that the first item on the list of qualities necessary for being a writer is a big ol’ thick hide. Yet, if you’re anything like me, you also realize that your own skin is closer to paper-thin.

Accepting any criticism is a hard thing, even when it’s warranted (maybe especially when it’s warranted). But a further problem is knowing when it’s warranted. Before taking criticism to heart, it’s important to know when it’s constructive and when it’s destructive. We all want to improve, but a criticism or suggestion that moves us in the wrong direction is less than helpful.

With writing criticism, distinguishing the good from the bad is tricky business — even trickier than with other kinds of criticism because literature belongs almost entirely in the realm of the subjective.

How many best-selling authors sold their first manuscript right out of the gate to the first publisher who saw it? For a writer, no matter how talented, it seems that rejection letters in the double digits are the norm for a first project. Rejection does not always equal lack of merit. Then again, sometimes it does. But how is the rejectee to know the difference?

Those “in the biz” are expected to recognize the kind of writing that a majority of readers will want to read. But if film critics are any indication, being “in the biz” may mean being out of touch with the man/woman on the street. (I apologize if you happen to be a film critic. No, wait! I take back the apology. If anyone should be able to take a little criticism, it had better be a critic!)

The subject of literature unavoidably opens up the “objective vs. subjective” can of worms. While there is a certain degree of objectivity involved in identifying good writing, that degree is negligible (as in, there are still a few hard and fast rules of grammar and style which any writer should feel free to break at any time as long as he knows he’s breaking the rules and does so intentionally). Writing is not a hundred metre dash. There are no stopwatches to declare unarguably that one writer is better than another. Good writing is a matter of taste, and tastes differ. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

So, the rookie writer’s dilemma: how to tell good advice from bad advice when the advice being given is all a matter of taste.

Let me share a little personal testimony with you for your reading enjoyment. Once upon a time, when I was young and reckless, I entered a story in a nationwide story contest. It was called, “The Pickett’s Family Vacation” and was about a family (yes, the Pickett family) who are (yes) going on vacation. Almost the entire story is taken up with Mr. Pickett attempting to fit one more piece of oh-so-necessary (according to Mrs. Pickett) vacation rubbish in the already-overloaded vehicle. It involves, of course, unpacking and repacking the vehicle, losing the car keys, getting a smack in the head with the car door while crawling around on the ground looking for the keys, wondering to oneself about the wisdom of having family vacations or maybe of having families, and all the usual fun and frolic that accompanies getting a family vacation underway. (At least, that’s how I remember family vacations.)

It was quite a funny story. I thought so. Subtle. Yet hilarious. And seeing I’ve since lost the story, you’ll have to take my word for it.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t funny at all. I don’t know. One man’s trash, after all. If you’d been forced to read it, maybe the best you could have managed would have been a polite chuckle. But I’m sure you would at least have grasped that the story was intended to be funny. You probably grasped the intent-to-be-funny just from my description of it. I know you are all people of discernment and discriminating tastes. (After all, you’re reading this article.)

In the story contest, I drew a judge who was plainly not a kindred spirit; a judge who, in my humble opinion, had no sense of humour. Or sense, period. Yet, I was informed, she was a best-selling author. Definitely “in the biz.”

Apparently, she didn’t like my Pickett family story. Apparently, she didn’t find it funny. Apparently, she couldn’t even manage a polite chuckle. But, here’s the kicker: apparently, she hadn’t even grasped that it was intended to be funny.

She suggested that I give the family “something to fight.” “Try burning their house down,” she offered helpfully. (Whaddyamean? I did give the family something to fight. I gave them each other. What more could they ask?)

Really? Burn down the house? Sure, I probably could have written a story where I burned the Pickett family’s house down, but then I would have called it, “The Pickett Family House Fire.” Not, “The Pickett Family Vacation.”

So, the advice I was given by the illustrious, best-selling, “in the biz” judge on how to improve my story boiled down to, “Write a different story. Write the kind of story I would have written.” Problem being, that me — li’l-ol-woman-on-the-street-me — wouldn’t have bothered to read the kind of story she would have written. I say so because I’ve never read any books by this particular best-selling author. (I can’t remember her name, to be honest.)

For me, the deal-breaker was when she advised me not to tell the reader it was a hot day but to show the reader how hot it was. “Use an expression like, ‘Skin sticking to the vinyl of the car seat.’ ” There is the objection that if she wanted my story to be written in her style and voice, she should have written it herself in the first place and saved me the trouble, but that wasn’t the clincher. This was the clincher: she spelled “vinyl,” “vynal.” I kid you not. (The judges’ comments were handwritten which explains the malfunction in her spell check.)

At that point, I’m afraid I said to myself rather haughtily, “Do I really have to take seriously the opinions of a best-selling author who spells ‘vinyl,’ ‘vynal’?” (Okay, that whole thing I said about writers being able to break any rules they wish doesn’t cover “vynal.” I have my limits!)

As you can tell, my amusement or bitterness (or bitter amusement or amused bitterness) at the story-contest incident has stayed with me through the years. But I learned a valuable lesson through it: Don’t enter story contests. In fact, don’t let anybody read what I’ve written. Not unless I’m willing to have it misunderstood. Not unless I’m willing to have people manage only the barest of polite chuckles over my subtle-yet-hilarious creations. Or to tell me that I ramble. Or to correct MY spelling and grammar errors. (And I know, I know. They’re numerous).

In fact, unless I’m willing to open myself up to criticism, I should keep my writing to myself. On the other hand, if I find that I’m not satisfied just keeping my writing to myself, I have to open myself up to criticism. Or correction. Or rejection. Or misunderstanding. It comes with the territory.

And the wise thing to do is to consider thoughtfully every piece of advice I’m handed. Whether or not I take it.

If I was to write my Pickett family vacation story all over again, I still wouldn’t burn down their house. Upon mature consideration, I rejected the honourable judge’s advice, not only because of the “vynal,” but because she’d failed to understand anything about my story. If she had said, “You’re not funny. Quit trying,” I might have listened and written a story about a family who burned down their house. But when she failed to understand that I was trying to be funny (when any reader of discernment and discriminating tastes can tell just from my description of my story that I was trying to be funny), I can acknowledge that my story was misunderstood on a very deep level by the judge and move on.

Still, though I didn’t accept her basic premise (that I should have written the kind of story she would have written), I didn’t reject everything she had to offer. She made another comment which, though it was the product of misunderstanding a detail of the story, helped me see that I hadn’t described the detail very well.

My conclusion is that all advice requires sifting. And ultimately, the individual being handed the advice is the only one who can decide what to keep and what to toss.

I may never be “in the biz,” but I still need to write. And I need to write what I need to write.

Only I can be I. And only you can be you. And only I can write what I can write. And only you can write what you can write. Yet I might be able to help you write a little better or clearer what only you can write. And you can help me write a little better or clearer what only I can write. Yet both of us need to sort through the help we can give each other to know what is me helping you write a little better what only you can write and what is me trying to help you write a little more like me (and vice versa).

I admit it. I’m no Hemingway. I never will be. But then again, neither was Wodehouse. Then again, Hemingway was no Wodehouse. And I like Wodehouse. I don’t like Hemingway.

I’m allowed to like Wodehouse and not to like Hemingway. There’s no stopwatch to inform me infallibly that Hemingway was a genius and Wodehouse was a goof. It’s a matter of taste.

I admit it. I’m no Wodehouse, either. But then again, he’s not me.

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