Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Writer Tip # 18 -- Getting and Using Criticism

Most people would rather die than to willingly subject themselves to criticism. We get it enough as it is; why ask for it? I’ll tell you why. It will make you a better writer.

I can’t even tell you how many times I have come to the end of a manuscript, thinking it was absolutely perfect, only to turn it over to my friends and family for critique and have them point out countless errors. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop sending my work out. It means I have some editing to do.

You do not want to put your book out in the world full of errors. You want your reader to trust you, to believe what you have to say. When they see facts running amok and typos left and right, they lose their trust in you and they don’t enjoy the book. When everything in the book jives with things they already know, you build a foundation of trust with the reader and can then interject things that perhaps they did not know, and they will accept it from you more easily because they know you got your other details straight.

Authors get blind to their own work. By the time you see a book sitting on the shelf in the store, it has already been through countless revisions. Just as an example, let’s look at the life of a book.

-- Outline. Some authors write a detailed outline, some, a skeleton outline, and some don’t outline at all.

-- First draft.

-- Second draft.

-- Third draft. This is usually where the author feels good enough about their work to let others read it.

-- Fixing mistakes from reader #1.

-- Fixing mistakes from reader #2.

-- Fixing mistakes from reader #3.

-- Reading the whole thing through for continuity.

You see how many times the author has read through the book? Many books take more than three drafts before going to readers; this was just an example. But if you read the same thing over and over again that many times, you’d go blind too. Gaping holes in plot, silly sentences, bad grammar – after a while, it all blends into a big pot of mush in your head and you become desensitized to what your book really needs. Call in a fresh set of eyes.

Be sure to ask someone you trust to read for you. It needs to be someone who is perceptive, who will be honest with you, and who won’t try to write the book for you. Nothing drives me more nuts than to have someone say, “This paragraph doesn’t make sense. Why don’t you rewrite the whole thing like this –” and then they change it into their own words. That’s not editing – that’s interference!

Sometimes you’ll get advice you really don’t want to get. Be willing to listen to it. The most painful advice is usually the most true, and painful because it’s hitting home. Cast your pride off to the side and think about it. Ask yourself, “Is this criticism accurate?” If it’s not, pitch it out the door and forget about it. If it does have some truth to it, use it to make the book better. Don’t be afraid to humble yourself and make suggested changes. It does not make you weak.

In summary, we can’t edit ourselves. We’re too close to the project and we lose objectivity. Ask someone to read it for you and take any advice they give that makes sense to you. You will be a better writer for it.

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