Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
September 2016

Listen to Criticism

I 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 criticism.

Oh, 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.

Now, 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.

If 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.

Yes, 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.

Yes, 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 criticism.

No, 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.

At 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 different way.

Never, 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.

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 there.

Even 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.

This 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 revisions.

I’ve 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.

The 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

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