By Mary Mercado
The art of accepting criticism.
I heard an interesting discussion on the radio the other day. A question was posed, “What’s the meanest thing anyone has ever said to you?” It was the premise of the talk show host and guest that criticism, even the vile, hurtful type of criticism can work to make you stronger and can actually work to empower you, if you embrace it.
Embrace it? Hmm? It got me thinking especially in regard to my career as a writer.
First, I thought to myself ‘what’s the meanest thing anyone has ever said to me?’ Instantly, I was transported back in time to a hallway at Brighton High School in suburban Salt Lake City. At that time, I was a shy sophomore, already self-critical of every move I made. That day, a muscle bound jock hurled a nasty insult my way. It cut me to the quick. Not emotionally equipped to hurl it back, I received it and believed it for many years to come.
Over my 25 plus years working as a writer I have definitely had my share of criticism. I’ve experienced it all – everything from an editor’s rude rewrite request all the way to an outraged news director’s public rant over my misspelling of a well-known local street. I have also received dozens of rejection letters from publishers without so much as a hint as to why he/she refused my manuscript. In each of those moments, I am transported right back to that hallway in high school, feeling the same humiliation, shame and frustration.
Whether criticism comes from parents, an English teacher’s red pen, or a pimply faced kid in high school, everyone has a time they can remember when someone else made them feel small, inadequate, or wrong. As writers, not only is criticism an inevitable part of the process, we’re actually asking for it when we put our words out there for public consumption. Plus, if you plan to get paid for writing there will be agents, editors, publishers and eventually the reader who will have something to say about what you wrote. And it’s not always going to be positive– especially when you’re starting out.
Writing is like giving birth. You labor over it for hours, weeks, or even years, exposing your most intimate thoughts. So when someone says your work is not right or no good, it feels personal. I’ve known plenty of writers with potential who have become paralyzed just because one person said something negative about their writing. So how do you manage the criticism that inevitably will come, without letting it cripple you?
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child
Keep in mind our inner writer is most likely a very sensitive child. Once we decide to “become a writer” and start working seriously on a project we tend to seek validation — for someone to say “Atta boy!” or “Good job!”. But that may not be such a good idea. Years ago I took a writing class from Randall Wallace, a novelist and the screenwriter of “Braveheart” and “Pearl Harbor”. It was his contention that new writers should keep their writing secret. “Hide it away where no one can find it,” he said. The reason? One little off handed comment from a well-meaning friend or relative can devastate a new writer. Let’s say you’re at a dinner party and someone asks you about the book your writing. You tell them and their response is something as innocent as, “Oh I just saw a movie about that,” or “My Aunt Edna is writing a book like that.” It could be just enough to discourage you from continuing. We writers are a sensitive lot and one negative comment can send us into a self-loathing, downward spiral.
At some point, however, it’s time to buck up and brace for the worst. Recognize that constructive criticism is an important tool for growth. It’s going to feel uncomfortable, so be prepared.
One way to lessen the pain is to make sure you’ve checked your grammar and spelling. Some writers are magnificent storytellers, but lack the finesse of a seasoned writer. Too many flowery adjectives, missing commas and run on sentences will turn off the reader and give an editor just enough reason to toss your sample chapter in the rejection pile. I recommend every writer own and frequently refer to Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style and/or the Associate Press Stylebook. Both are an easy to use reference guide that will help you express yourself in a professional manner.
Consider the Source
First of all, determine if the person criticizing your work is worthy of your respect. This is especially important in this day of social media when everybody is an online critic and anything published on the Internet has a comment section.
In the case of the high school jock, I now realize he was, in fact, an idiot. Secondly, maturity has taught me, he may not have meant what I thought he meant. For the most part, the criticism I have received from editors and producers has been valid. In fact, I learned a great deal from them—even though it hurt to hear it at the time.
One producer, in particular, was extremely critical. Her words, “Try again,” or “Give me something more pithy,” used to hit me like a sucker punch to the gut. However, I now recognize I probably learned more from her about writing for broadcast than anyone else I’ve ever known. There were some days when she would have me rewrite a 20-second voice-over five or six times. It was infuriating. But in the end, it was always better, had more impact and was more succinct than what I had originally written.
It’s Not Personal
Yah, right! It sure feels personal when someone criticizes you work — your baby. But, it shouldn’t. Back in the 90’s I worked as a copy writer for a large, national credit union. I wrote radio and print ads, as well as direct mail copy about mortgages, credit cards and home equity loans. One day I brought some brochure copy to my colleague, a graphic artist from New Jersey. She blurted out, “Your copy is weak. I think you need to give it another try.” Her bluntness stung, especially since I considered her to be a friend.
I learned two things from that experience. First, people from New Jersey say exactly what they’re thinking – an invaluable trait in business. Secondly, it really wasn’t an assault on my personal character. She was trying to help me.
Once I looked objectively at what I had written, I recognized my writing was passive, not active in tone. It lacked punch. I could do better. Over time, my colleague actually became a trusted mentor. Her advice helped me improve.
If you want to become a better writer, I strongly encourage you to find an experienced writer who can offer educated, objective criticism of your work. Friends and relatives may offer interesting insights, but someone with experience in the genre you’re writing about will eventually become an invaluable asset on your road to publication.
Show Me the Money
The person writing the check — wins. Whether it’s a corporate client, an editor or a publisher, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the writing is, if it’s not written the way they want it, they won’t pay for it.
Years ago I was asked to write an article for the magazine section of a major newspaper. I had written for other departments at the paper and always received praise for my work. However, it felt like the editor of this particular section had it out for me. She was always asking me to rewrite something. One day she asked me to do a piece about a jazz band. She told me she thought the band was similar in style to Harry Connick, Jr. I went out and interviewed several of the band members. None of them mentioned Harry Connick, Jr. Therefore, I did not include any references to Harry Connick, Jr. in the article. The editor asked me to rewrite it and compare the band to Harry Connick, Jr. I explained that the band members did not think of themselves as having a style similar to the aforementioned singer. She grunted and said, “File the story”.
When I read the story in the paper the next day she had rewritten the lead, which included these words, “If you love Harry Connick, Jr., then you’ll love this band.” Clearly, I had something to learn here. If an editor or publisher tells you they want something, give it to them. It’s that simple.
All Good Writing is Rewriting
I heard this phrase early on in my career and it has proven true over and over again – “All good writing is rewriting”. Currently, most of what I write is for television. Time is always an enemy. What I write has to fit into a certain time frame whether it’s a 30 second TV commercial or “46:56” which is generally the content time for an hour long special without commercials. Sometimes, I’ll pen a phrase I think is absolutely brilliant – so catchy and lithe that it could literally sprout wings and soar into the stratosphere. Then, I time the script and find out my copy is heavy. I have no choice but to cut something. But I love my brilliant phrase so much, I’ll try working and reworking the sentences before and after it, to keep it in the script. The whole thing ends up a jumbled mess. I’ve learned at that point it’s best to step away from my writing for a time. When I come back, I see clearly, my brilliant phrase has to go. And guess what? I’ve never missed it.
Don’t be so attached to your writing that you’re not open to changing it. Every time you go over your writing you can find something to streamline or some phrase to improve.
You’ve Got the Power!
When it comes to accepting criticism, it all boils down to this: you have a choice. You can take what the person is saying and choose to make improvements, or not. It’s that simple. It doesn’t have to be emotional or heart wrenching. Knowing that you have a choice to accept or not accept it, is where you gain your power. Either you love your story, or it needs work. I heard someone once say, “Take both criticism and praise with a grain of salt – and don’t believe either.” You decide if your work is ready to be read. If you have doubts then maybe your manuscript needs some work. In that case, share it with someone you trust. The truth is, writing is hard work and only you will know when it’s done.