Be Kind!

Today’s blog is about critiquing etiquette. Few things rile me more than bullies, and I’m not talking about junior high kids. When we writers put our work out there, we open ourselves up to criticism. Sometimes we solicit feedback and sometimes we don’t, but it’s never easy to swallow negative comments, even when they’re done right.

The catalyst for my writing on this subject was a heavy-handed and unsolicited critique received by a friend and published writer that left her feeling demoralized. It’s difficult enough to break into the world of being a published author without having someone stomp all over your self-esteem. We all are good at doing that to ourselves already.

Here are some of the phrases used in the offending critique:

  • I’m going to give you a lesson in….
  • I rewrote the scene.
  • Your problem is…
  • This makes no sense.

Comments like these are red flags that this person is a thug. My guidelines for setting boundaries to combat this kind of verbal abuse are simple:

  • Never allow anyone to take your voice from you and replace it with his/her own. Suggestions and examples are fine, but to re-write someone else’s work is wrong. As a writer, you have your own distinct style (even if it is not yet fully formed) and you must protect it.
  • Never allow anyone to affect how you feel about yourself or your writing. Do not give them that power over you.

Respect the Writer

I’d like to remind those who critique other people’s writing that it’s an act of courage to show one’s work to others. Remember the old adage: Treat others the way you would like to be treated.

As an editor in the corporate and nonprofit world for many years, I have worked with countless people to help them improve their writing. It’s daunting enough for them to look at a page of red marks without belittling them as well. Most of the people I’ve worked with are not writers. They’re experts in a particular field and are expected or required to produce reports documenting their findings or research. They are usually highly skilled and knowledgeable about their areas of expertise, and yet often feel vulnerable and insecure when it comes to writing. A good editor handles those communications with tact, consideration and above all, respect.

I recently reread Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing. Two of those are especially helpful in regard to what other’s think about your writing:

  • Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  • The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

And finally, if a writer asks for your feedback, be honest. Honesty and kindness can go hand in hand.

Inspiration Comes in Three’s

The first inspirational boost I received this week was a blog by Kristine Kathryn Rusch sent to me by a friend who knew I was struggling with making changes to my mystery after it was critiqued by an editor. If any of you are now or expect to go through the critique process, Rusch’s blog will set you free, especially if you are unpublished and vulnerable and hell-bent on perfection. By the time I finished reading Rusch’s blog, I was ready to let go of some of my anxiety. In fact, I immediately wrote a flash fiction story for Writer Unboxed. I wrote it, quickly edited and sent it—a big deal for a person who has been working on the same two short stories for several years trying to get them just right.

The second nudge

I read a piece by Andrew Porter in Glimmertrain, a literary magazine that’s been publishing short stories since 1990. Porter wrote about how writers have a tendency to discount their early work and then told about how a story he’d written years earlier, once unearthed, went on to win awards and became his most successful piece to date. His article reminded me that I have a box of old stories I haven’t looked at in years because I assumed they couldn’t possibly be relevant now. His article inspired me to take a look at those early efforts. I hope you’ll read Porter’s article and revisit any work you might have stuck away in a drawer. Who knows? Maybe a gem is hidden there.

Rooting through my memory archives 

After reading the Rusch and Porter articles, I recalled a Joan Didion interview discussing her famous book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, gathered from articles she’d published in a number of other places. She said they were never intended to be compiled into one piece and she did not consider it her best work. They were articles written for money usually on deadline and not labors of love.

The combination of those three articles reinforced my belief that as in most things in life, all we can do is our best and then let go of the outcome. Whether what you’ve written is different than the current trend in publishing, or because you wrote it years ago, or have never thought of compiling previously published freelance articles, I sincerely hope this blog post may help inspire you today.