As Erin and I face down the editorial notes on Starling, which arrived about fifteen minutes ago, today seems like a good day to talk about trust. Because trust is really critical to doing the thing.
You need to trust that the people whose job it is to provide you criticism are on your team. If you are a writer, your editor is on your team. If you are an actor, your director is on your team. If you are an athlete, your coach is on your team. They are not there to make you feel bad; they are there to make you step up.
Even when you read some of the notes and go, “Not on your life.”
Because let me tell you, every time I get editorial notes, that’s my first response to 80% of them. And then on the second read, I’m like “No, no you are totally right,” about most of those. Read three? “Well, I don’t even care about that issue, so I’m going to trust you on this,” which then leaves me with a few things I’m going to push back on. Often that act of pushing back, even if I don’t take the original note, strengthens the piece.
So to Do the Thing trust the people whose job it is to criticize you. Also trust yourself to both know when to put your foot down and fight for your vision, and trust yourself to realize you won’t break from getting notes. They’re just notes. If your story and your characters and your ego can’t stand up to them, you’ve got bigger problems.
Next week we’ll talk about dealing with the critics who aren’t on your team, finding what’s useful there and letting the rest of it stop you.
But for now, tell us your woes regarding constructive criticism. While we’re staring into our own morass of track changes, we are totally here for you.
I love criticism. People often view me as a fragile person, but I crave criticism the most. It lets me know what people who have not been living in my brain, and likely the larger audience, will immediately assume or read from my work. However, trust is absolutely the issue. I have yet to tap into professional criticism. So, I have only gathered opinions from acquaintances who share the need for creative endeavors.
So, I am always left wondering if, when one says, “You are leaving a lot to be inferred. You need to tell the reader more,” is that legitimate advice I need to work on, or is it because I love stream-of-conscious stories that leave readers to fill in the blanks while he writes straight-up zombie action stories? (Which, interestingly enough, make me want to pull him back and say, “Whoa. You don’t have to tell them everything.”)
I know I have failings as a writer (and artist). So, I do not really think it is a prideful thought that I am masterful and do not need to change things. I desperately want help to know where I can work on the thing more and where I should leave it because I have lost ability to know for myself which parts are the good or the bad ones. The problem, as you said, is trusting. Do they just not understand what I am trying to accomplish? Do they not share the same style? Or are they right? Am I just going to have my story molded into their style instead of my own, in the end?
Well, I think if as creatives we are trying to convey a thing and no one is getting the thing, than maybe we are not doing a great job.
But everyone is not the audience for every story or creator. So there’s always that sense of am I conveying what I want to the audience I want,and do I want to alter or enlarge my audience,and to do that,what do I have to do?
So it’s always some of both. I think over time it becomes easier to see the difference between, “If you want to do what you already seem to be trying to do better, try this” and “here’s my advice because I want something different than you are doing.”
But it takes a long time.
This raises the question of how to pick your critic/coach/editor (if you’re in a position to do so) to actually get useful – and trustworthy! – feedback… What makes an editor/coach/critic a good (read: trustworthy) editor/coach/critic for you (or me)?
I think you already mentioned the most important question to ask: Do they understand what *I* want to do? (Alternatively: Do they have an even better suggestion that I can and want to make my new goal?) I would add: Does their input help me get there? Which of course begs the question of how to measure that. Especially if you have no experience with that person/in that field/with that kind of Thing yet.
Any ideas/suggestions anyone?
My experience is mostly of coaches – I was an athlete for many years and now I’m a coach myself.
It is hard to tell, and I think the best advice I have is, don’t trust blindly. The coach who’s unambiguously on your side is a rare thing – maybe more common in a less competitive setting, but don’t assume. Be extra careful if the coach also acts as the gatekeeper somehow, this seems like it could be an advantage, and it can be, but you’re also creating a bunch of difficult conflicts of interest.
So listen. But use your head, and if you can, always listen to more than one person. Oh, and the guy that thinks his way is the only way, that everyone else is wrong and listening to them will ruin your technique? He is the wrong choice.
I have no woes with constructive critics who are on my team, except perhaps that there have been too few of them in my life. In fact, it never occured to me that NOT everyone would jump at the chance of having someone capable of judging what you do give of their time, energy, and expertise to help you get (even) better. Because for me that’s the ultimate sign that someone believes in me and what I do, and that they are indeed on my team (provided I have processing capacities left to actually take in what they offer).
And while it’s nice (and necessary) to ALSO hear some “that’s good” and “yay, you!,” I am highly suspicious of editors/coaches/teachers/etc. who regularly have nothing BUT praise to offer. Because I KNOW that I haven’t reached my personal best yet, so there must be things for me to improve, and I want to know what they are and what I could do to get better. And then I can either go on to do what I need to do to improve or decide that I’m not willing to pay the price of getting better (which totally is an option!). Or I can decide that I actually don’t agree with their judgment that THIS part is where I should/could improve (now) and act accordingly (e.g. by pushing back).
TL;DR: Constructive criticism from people on my team? Bring it!
P.S. For the current Do The Thing! thing I mostly have to be my own critic and cheerleader due to time restraints of other people (and migraines of my own that caused the time frame to be smaller than I had hoped). Not ideal, but probably sufficient.
So I have to ask, because as I think you know I deal with people from the German-speaking world often in my desk job: Do you think the German attitude towards constructive criticism is different than the U.S. attitude? Because my sense is that it is, quite significantly. Because the feedback I get is much less the U.S. style of “compliment before the criticism” and just straight to the criticism, which is _clearly_ an act of caring or else why would you waste the time. Thoughts?
I wouldn’t be surprised if that difference was indeed more than anecdotal.
My own unthinking default (especially in speaking and informal interactions with people I know) is to jump directly to what could be improved, which generally seems direct but not rude by German standards (although it would be considered even less problematic if I was male). I did learn the “praise-criticism-praise” technique of criticism for a job I used to have, so I’m able to do that when people/contexts seem more sensitive. But it remains a conscious effort.
To me, criticism style seems highly context-dependent rather than universally German. If you are in people-centered environments, you’re expected to be a lot more (emotionally) gentle with your criticism than in fact-centered environments. I also perceive a difference between women-on-average and men-on-average, where my default criticism style is often read as more masculine than that of the average woman.
So I generally wouldn’t be worried if the average German guy skipped the compliments before the criticism of a fact-centered thing I did. Especially not in a work context. When you DO get praise from the average German guy at work (and they’re not just a manipulative asshole), however, you can usually be certain that it is genuine, which can make it all the more effective.
In short: Yes, Germany is pretty much BYOC (Bring Your Own Cheerleader). And yes, we do criticize to show we care.
I pitched one of my favorite online publications ages ago, and I finally sent the long-overdue essay in this morning. It’s already been rejected, but nicely, with a suggestion for somewhere else to pitch it. The editor was very nice, and if I have something in the future that might be a better fit for her I won’t hesitate to send it. I’m thinking I’ll try the suggested outlet, and then maybe one more after that before I just publish the piece on my own site. I can only take so many rejections, right?
On that note: how do you decide what to pitch elsewhere and what to just publish yourself? I’m just starting to get into this freelance-on-the-side thing, and I don’t have much of a platform for myself, but I also don’t have a lot of clips to convince an editor that yes I can do this. I’ve got one outlet where the editor seems to love me, and will publish most things I send her way, but she also doesn’t provide me with any editing or feedback at all, and that’s not going to help me grow as a writer.