We’ve all met at least one—the writer who simply cannot take any criticism of his work. Such folk gleefully hand you their writing for review. But when you offer a tiny suggestion about a passage they’ve written, small funnel clouds begin to form over their heads. They’ll have none of it. Their eyes pinch. They are certain you are thick, even dim-witted, and probably don’t floss or exercise. Such writers typically don’t last long in the world of words, because as Justice Brandeis once said,
“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”
Then however, there are those of us at the other end of the spectrum. We are so certain that the opinions of others must be more credible than our own, that we buy into anything anyone says about our work. This can have us constantly scurrying off in the direction of the most recent advice.
So when evaluating a rebuke or criticism, where is the balance? What questions should we be asking?
Was the rebuke from the wrong person? In my critique group we have a few poets. But I don’t get poetry. There. I said it. Thus, any constructive comments from me must be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, I typically find myself saying the same thing over and over again: I don’t get poetry, but I love your imagery. Not very helpful. Our poets would be perfectly sane to pause before taking my poetry advice.
But what if the rebuke came from someone a bit higher up? What if a book proposal to an agent was rejected?
Was it a good idea with a bad pitch? I had a great talk in my roster of workshops but no one ever selected it. Finally someone said, “Yes, we want this talk! But you’ve GOT to change the name.” When they explained why, a light bulb went on. My title had completely misled would-be attendees as to what would be presented. Most hadn’t even read the description because the title sent them packing. The same thing can happen in a query or cover letter. You may well have a great idea, and your writing might actually be ready. But if the agent or editor didn’t catch the fever in your pitch, or if it left them confused, they most likely never went on to your writing.
Agents and acquisition editors aren’t magical. They don’t have a clairvoyant wisdom that lets them know exactly what’s going to take off and what’s going to fizzle. Even with decades of experience and loads of algorithmic analysis, it’s still a highly unpredictable business. Which means they sometimes get it right and they sometimes don’t. (Well, all except for Word Serve Agents. They really do always get it right. Whew. Dodged a bullet there.)
Say what you want about the Harry Potter series; I still cannot imagine anyone reading through some of J.K. Rowlings writing and saying, “Ehhhh. I just don’t see it. This won’t interest a soul.” And yet. . . twelve publishing houses said just that.
Learn to Unpack a Rebuke
Most of the time, we really could improve what we’ve written. Most of the time, our writing needs some work. But don’t chase after every single comment as though it is Gospel. Measure it. Weigh it. Give it reasonable consideration. Develop a mature view of your own work. Most of the time, there is value in the criticism. But in the end, if you think your reviewer got it wrong, stick with the plan a bit longer. Look for the gatekeeper who gets you.
The obvious conclusion of this line of reasoning is that even advice from this writer must be evaluated carefully and perhaps dismissed. I’ll admit, sometimes I get it right. And sometimes I get it wrong. For example, if I had been on the committee to evaluate and select new TV programming, we’d never have heard of World Wide Wrestling or Honey Boo Boo.