I don’t like being told what to do—be it sketching a grouping of cylinders for Introduction to Drawing, analyzing the works of Jane Austen, drawing parallels between historical events from various eras, or deciding what comprises perfect balance in a black and white photograph. There’s only one arena where I’ve learned to graciously accept, evaluate, and apply constructive criticism: writing.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t start out with such an easy relationship between myself and writing advice. I spent years squirreling away every thought in one notebook after another—along with any dreams I had of becoming a “real” writer. Though the fear of being ripped to verbal shreds was the largest obstacle to sharing my work, the possibility of someone else dictating how or what I wrote weighed almost as heavily on my mind.
None of this became any easier after I read articles featuring successful authors who claimed it imperative that mind the demands of their audience. I took such offense that when first venturing into the world of peer review, I fought back like an enraged bull charging the flag-wielding matador. Every comment—good, bad, or indifferent—was a summary judgment, not just about the piece being workshopped, but on my entire worth as a human being. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I wondered whether or not I was truly up to the demands of seeking publication.
Grace came when I needed it though, in the guise of an editorial position at a locally produced literary magazine. While there I read around a hundred manuscripts—some were great, others were good, many were close but “not quite there,” a few showed their author’s potential, and a handful were God-awful.
My fellow editors and I agonized over the choices: whose work was in or out, did it fit with our overall theme, would readers take offense to this poem or that short story, should we send letters of encouragement to those whose work we came close to choosing but ultimately decided against? And it was through this process that I learned my greatest writing lesson: critique, rejection, praise, acceptance, awards, sales, hurt feelings—none of it matters. Everyone’s first duty—be they an agent, editor, publisher, or writer—is to the story itself; to make every piece the best it can be.
Under the best circumstances, none of us offer criticism because we want to hurt someones’ feelings or because we think their work is garbage. We comment because we want that story, that writer to reach their full potential—and hopefully, receive the same support in return.
Thanks Catherine James!