Monday Writing Motivation: Welcome criticism even when it hurts
How do writers improve? They write. They read. This is not contentious. It’s how writers have worked since the stylus was invented and the first papyrus scrolls hammered into existence.
And they invite criticism and then apply what they’ve learned to their ongoing writing. Now this is the problem area. How are you to know what advice to heed and what to ignore? And how do you handle criticism that… hurts?
It’s a problem. In the film industry where I grew up as a writer, producers, directors, actors and sometimes even the tea-lady will make comments about your work. It always paid to listen to the tea-lady, since her criticism was unfancy, unpretentious and it probably reflected what the audience as a whole thought.
But it was more difficult to judge how seriously you should take the producer’s notes. On the one hand, she’s the boss, right, so you have to do as she says. But on the other, you’re the writer, and writers often have better judgement than non-writers about many of the technical aspects of writing.
And besides, producers are notorious for their callous and unfeeling lack of regard for the finer feelings of writers. One producer I wrote comedies for told me flatly, on more than one occasion, to “Make it funnier”. Producers are quite capable of saying things like, “This character doesn’t work. Get rid of her.” Or: “WTF is that sub-plot all about? It’s a bloody cliché.”
And so on.
So what television writers have learned (apart from growing thick crocodilian skins) is to read the notes, ask whether they’re useful, and discard the advice that seems ridiculous. Perhaps that character doesn’t work – but a better solution than editing her out is to make her more interesting, or more complex. Perhaps I do need to think of one more comic situation, trim those that I’ve written and make them all canter along at a pace that doesn’t give the audience enough time to wonder whether what they’re watching is as funny as they think it is.
When you’re invited to give writers notes – as we are, on our mentoring programme – then we are acutely aware of the fact that criticism can sting, even if it’s constructive and offered as generously as we know how.
After all, if you’re told that your character doesn’t develop over the course of the narrative, it’s understandable if you were to go into a decline, question whether you have a novel in you, and wonder what the least messy method of committing suicide might be.
And someone who passed that sort of judgement on your work without suggesting how to fix it should be charged with criminal malfeasance.
But, here’s the thing: advice is useful, even if it comes without sugar-coating, even if it causes our egos, those fragile constructs, to quiver with shock. And even if you disagree with the criticism – even if you think that the end of our novel is quite satisfactory, thank you very much, it’s worth thinking about it. If your critic felt your story ended with a whimper and not a bang, then perhaps other readers would share that disappointment. Perhaps there is something you could do to add sparkle… Perhaps a surprise would be in order… Or perhaps the pace is wrong…
So here’s my advice. If someone you respect gives you critical notes on your work, read them, and then, after you’ve picked yourself up from the floor, read them again. Ask yourself how you might use them to make what you’ve written better. It’s always possible to improve your work.