Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How to take criticism

with one comment

Raymond Carver

I hate getting notes. I’m well aware that they’re an important part of the writing process, and I’ve learned from hard experience that you ignore them at your peril, but still, the moment before I open a letter full of editorial comments is always an uneasy one. The great editor Walter Murch, talking about movie preview screenings, describes feeling “skinless” beforehand, and that’s as good a characterization as I can imagine. You’ve spent weeks or months living with a story, and by now, you’ve been so thoroughly exposed to every word that you take it all for granted—but that feeling goes away as soon as an outsider presumes to give you feedback. At this point, I have a trusted circle of readers whose opinions I seek out for every novel I write, but even now, whenever I’m about to look at what they’ve actually said, I’m already telling myself that these are only suggestions, and maybe even preparing myself to pick and choose which notes to really take seriously.

The short answer, at least when it comes to notes from someone with a direct stake in the novel, like an editor or an agent, is that you should listen to every goddamned one. And I say this as much from an artistic as a pragmatic perspective. You may feel that their comments miss the point, that they’ve overlooked important subtleties in the story, that the changes they’re suggesting would irrevocably alter the fine web of narrative you’ve constructed. But I’ve invariably found that there are always ways to address an intelligent reader’s specific concerns while maintaining the heart of what you want to express. To admit anything less would be to confess to a failure of craft or nerve. Sometimes you’ll need to split the difference, or give certain comments more weight than others. But I rarely feel satisfied until I can look back at an editorial letter and confirm that I’ve crossed every last point off the list. (And as an aside, I should note that if an agent tells you that a novel needs to be cut, he’s almost certainly right.)

T.S. Eliot

When it comes to other readers, you can exercise greater discretion. Of my usual circle, a few have been recruited primarily to check the text for obvious factual or continuity errors, or to give me their overall impressions rather than a detailed response. When one of them comes back with a question about how a certain line is worded, I often ignore it: at this point in my life, I’m reasonably secure in my basic writing skills, and if I think a sentence works, I’m likely to keep it. But not always. If the fix is an easy one, and I don’t feel strongly one way or the other, I’ll sometimes make the change. After all, I can always go back and restore it. In practice, however, I tend to forget, and in the end, the change is absorbed imperceptibly into the larger text. It helps, of course, that I’ve chosen my readers carefully, that I’ve worked with them in the past, and that I’m reasonably confident that they’ll heed T.S. Eliot’s sage advice: “An editor should tell the author his writing is better than it is. Not a lot better, a little better.”

Which is the most important point of all. You need to choose your readers wisely, not just for the quality of the feedback they provide, but for the trust they inspire. And not every potential reader will qualify. It won’t be true of everyone in your writer’s group, or in your short fiction class, or on the board of your college literary magazine. Part of being a writer is knowing which readers merit your unqualified respect, and giving it to them once they’ve earned it. When you look back at the famously combative correspondence between Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish, you can sense the initial positive emotions begin to shake, then sour, then boil over:

Now, I’m afraid, mortally afraid, I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story…I think I had best pull out, Gordon, before it goes any further. I realize I stand every chance of losing your love and friendship over this. But I strongly feel I stand every chance of losing my soul and my mental health over it, if I don’t take that risk.

Yet Carver stuck it out, and we’re all the better for it. But not every reader is worthy of such trust, as much as they should all strive to deserve it. Tomorrow, I’m going to delve into an even more difficult topic: what to do when someone asks for your thoughts on a story.

Written by nevalalee

February 13, 2013 at 9:50 am

One Response

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  1. Well, at least it’s not double-blind (no pun) peer review.

    drewberthu

    February 13, 2013 at 10:25 am


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