February 1, 2010

Listening to Criticism

I was reading an article on Justine Lee Musk's blog on what it takes to be successful as a writer. A lot of the advice seems obvious - read as many books and write as much as you can, which I think already applies to any aspiring writer who is actually serious about writing. What struck out at me was point number 3 - Seek out the best constructive criticism and revise accordingly. The truth is we are not going to be good from the get go. Every writer makes mistakes when starting out and writes a lot of crap. We all have those early writings. I have a folder marked with work I wrote at 15 and cringe when I look at it.

“The first draft of anything is shit” - Ernest Hemingway 
 This famous quote also hits home the truth. You can write a wonderful story but unedited it sucks. Editing is a skill that is just as time consuming - if not more so - than writing. Anyone can write, but not everyone can edit. I still have a lot to learn about editing and sometimes I just get to a point where I don't know where to go with my work. Sitting and going through a single piece over and over again saturates your clear vision and it's hard to see any more what is good, what is bad, what is clichéd and what is confusing to the reader. You can either put the story or novel away in the draw and look at it again in months time from a fresh perspective, or give it to someone whose opinion you value.

Getting your work critiqued by someone who knows about writing and editing can be a valuable source for improvement. You see how your story comes across to them - did you succeed in telling the story the way you wanted or did it come out differently? Could they visualise the world you created? But also most importantly they will probably see things you missed in your writing: repetitions, clichés, points of view problems and other weaknesses you either overlooked or didn't know were there.

But getting critique means nothing if you don't listen or think about what's being said. It is important to put vanity aside and think about the points made. Criticism is perhaps the best tool out there to improve your writing because you actively see what works and what doesn't. Becoming defensive about criticism is a natural reflex, but it needs to be overcome so something can be learned. Revising and re-writing is a big part of getting ahead as a writer and as well as being prepared to take good advice and implement it.

There is a danger when it comes to criticism - not everyone is qualified to critique your work. It's best to find a writers group or network online with other writers. The ideal critic is someone who knows what they are talking about and are afraid to be honest. Being afraid of bad criticism will only prevent you, and me, from improving. Writers need to grow a thick skin because we will all get rejected at some point - bad criticism and rejection is all part of the parcel of being a writer. Learn to love criticism, use it to your advantage so you can be even better than you are now. Clinging onto your ego and delluding yourself your work is above criticism will only end in disappointment.

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