Listen to Criticism
was talking to a freelance editor friend recently and listening to
her stories about writers she had worked with who failed to find
publication. It was frustrating to her that so much of her time and
theirs was wasted for a simple reason: They wouldn’t listen to
sure, they would change commas here and there. They would cut
sentences that were unnecessary. They might even change the order of
a chapter or add description where she said it was needed. But they
didn’t really listen to the depth of her criticism. They wanted
to do the easy changes, not the harder ones that demanded that they
rethink the whole of their manuscript.
as my editor friend was talking, a part of me wondered if she, who
had seen a couple of my manuscripts, was trying to hint to me that
this was one of my problems. And then I realized—of course this
is one of my problems! This is every writer’s problem. Which is
why I decided to write about it for you.
you find yourself ignoring the criticism you’re getting from
writing group members because you think it would make an entirely new
book—think again. If you only take the easiest revision
suggestions on a sentence level, you are missing the chance to
improve your manuscript in any real way. And if you talk to an editor
who describes to you the problems that other writers have,
realize that the editor may well be talking to you about your
problems in the kindest way possible.
you have to have your own voice and your own vision for your work.
Yes, I have seen (and been) someone who ended up writing to the
committee of the writer’s group and this isn’t a good
thing. I eventually learned not to bring anything to the group that I
hadn’t finished writing and had a good handle on, so I didn’t
get criticism too early.
I’ve also been in writing groups where one person says the same
thing every time or isn’t very aware of the current needs of
the marketplace. I’ve also been in groups where everyone
praises a certain writer so they don’t get any criticism and
another writer is taken down in every group session. These are
problems with the writing groups, not problems with the idea of
you don’t have to take every suggestion an editor offers you.
No, you shouldn’t be writing to committee. You probably
shouldn’t be revising a manuscript in the days right after
getting criticism, either. You need to spend some time thinking about
the book and getting a little distance from it before you dive back
in and start making assessments and whole sale changes.
that point you might realize that the changes someone suggested are
needed in a more wide-spread way. And that you’ve got to do
more revision than you expected, not less. Or maybe you will
realize that the change suggested actually would work better in a
ever, let yourself off the hook because the change suggested is too
hard or would take too long. In a recent discussion with my writer’s
group, we discussed the danger of word processing programs, and with
Scrivener in particular, which allows you to save hundreds of
different versions of the same project. You can spend far too much
time looking over all your drafts when you should be moving forward
and writing a new one.
of the most valuable things I’ve learned to do when I realize I
need a big revision is to open a completely new document. I don’t
look back at the old document at all. This is because the new vision
of the book in my head is much better than the old vision, and
re-using even a phrase here and there will weigh the new version
down. And I will always be tempted to use more than a phrase here and
now, after fourteen years of being a published author, I am still
learning how to write. I am a better writer now than I was last year,
and probably better than I was last month. I’m certainly a
better writer than I was when I conceived the idea for a book I’ve
been working on for a long time.
is why I find myself frequently advising people to move on to a new
project. Because it is so difficult to really let go of the old
version and rewrite the old book the way it really needs to be
written. It can be easier to write a completely new manuscript. But
you also can’t believe that your new manuscript will need no
never done fewer than ten edits on a book I’ve published, and
it’s usually more like twenty. And yes, many of those are after
the book has sold. Book 3 of the Linda Wallheim series has gone
through 13 edits since January of this year. One of those was a
complete rewrite, opening a new document and working from there.
Others included massive restructuring, deleting several chapters, and
including the original first chapter.
difference between writers who get published and writers who don’t
get published is largely a question of who can listen most carefully
to criticism and understand that their work will require changes on
many levels. If you do get a contract for publication (which will
likely only happen after several drafts of this type), you are still
going to have to make several more passes before you’re
finished. Might as well start now.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison