I subscribe to Stephanie Hale’s “Rich Writer, Poor Writer” newsletter, and today’s article has given me much to think about, so I thought I’d share it here.
One thing that never ceases to amaze me is successful writers’ attitude towards criticism. They are hungry – if not ravenous – for feedback. What’s more, they don’t want pats on the back or compliments. They often seem happier when you’re offering criticism that would crush the majority of writers.
This was first pressed home to me when I was invited to afternoon tea by the world-renowned author Brian Aldiss.
I confess that I was a little star-struck at the time. It was around 15 or more years ago. I was still working as a newsreader, but I was in transition: I had just had just been appointed director of a small, but prestigious, poetry festival.
I remember feeling nervous and out of my depth as Brian ushered me into a room where every shelf seemed to sparkle with the trophies and awards he had won for his writing.
I’d had a few poems and short stories published at this time, but nothing significant. Yet, here I was in the home of a former Booker Prize judge whose work was being made into Hollywood films.
I was worried I might put my foot in it by saying something downright stupid or ignorant.
Then, Brian did something that I remember vividly to this very day. He pulled a bundle of paper from his shelf and gave it to me.
“Would you mind? I’d really like to know what you think of this?” he said.
It was a small collection of poetry he was preparing to self-publish for friends and family.
There was a vulnerability in his eyes and his expression was humble. He genuinely wanted feedback on his poems to make them the best they could be. I was blown away!
As the years have passed, I’ve noticed this trait again and again in best-selling writers.
The more their work is pulled apart and criticized; the more the flaws are discussed; the more faults exposed, the happier they appear to be.
Showing your manuscript to another person can sometimes be an uncomfortable and unnerving experience. It can make you feel very exposed – especially if your writing is in an early draft and less than perfect.
However, the feedback is invaluable – as it’s likely to expose faults and inconsistencies you may be blind to.
The question is: would YOU hand your writing to a stranger? And if you did, what would be YOUR motive? Would you be looking praise or criticism? Which would you be happier with?
To your success and getting the publishing deal your deserve.
Rich Writer, Poor Writer Newsletter
When I uploaded “New Beginnings” to the Authonomy website, I was in effect giving my book (or a very large extract from it) to thousands of strangers. It was an exhilarating and terrifying experience as I waited for those first comments to start appearing. Prior to that giant leap of faith, I’d only shown my manuscript to trusted friends who had been honest with their feedback and had helped me knock it into shape. Opening it to the scrutiny of other aspiring authors on Authonomy, all of whom were in competition to grab the attention of the Harper Collins editors, felt like the next stage in obtaining unbiased and critical analysis of my work.
Unfortunately when I took the decision earlier this year to withdraw from Authonomy, I lost all 300+ comments that my work had attracted. Most of them were complimentary, many of them were constructively critical, and one or two were just plain odd, but they all helped me through a very important re-editing process.
Even now, I regularly invite feedback from my readers and I make it clear that I want absolute honesty, whether it’s positive, negative, or indifferent. However, I still find it difficult to accept praise for my novels, and I’m constantly expecting negative comments and criticism! It’s not that I think my novels are bad: I’m very proud of all three, and I certainly wouldn’t be trying to find an agent if I felt otherwise.
I love praise – I’m only human! – but I want criticism, too. If something in my novels doesn’t work for just one reader, then I need to know what it is, and why. I need the opportunity to fix it, and to ensure that it doesn’t recur, because that one reader could be representative of a huge section of my potential audience and I don’t want to alienate them.
Is it that, then, that makes us writers so insecure about our work? Is it a worry that readers hate what we’ve written but are too polite to tell us? Is it a niggling anxiety that we’ve overlooked errors or inconsistencies which should be glaringly obvious? Is it a fear that we haven’t quite achieved the highest standard, that there’s still a lot of work to be done to make the work absolutely perfect?
What do you think?
And, to echo Stephanie Hale –
“Would YOU hand your writing to a stranger? And if you did, what would be YOUR motive? Would you be looking praise or criticism? Which would you be happier with?”