Develop Your Writer Callouses

Inviting Criticism Improves Your Writing

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

At the University of Edinburgh, where I did my graduate work, my PhD. thesis culminated in something called a “Defense.” There was one person picked from my own university (called an Internal Examiner) and one person picked from outside of my university (called an External Examiner). They read my thesis and ripped it to shreds, remotely, until the day came that I entered a tiny room where my Internal and External Examiners, along with a Moderator, sat facing me. Then they ripped it to shreds in front of me. It was all done very politely, and, because it’s Britain, there was tea. After they pounded me into the dirt for a few hours, they told me what I had to fix in order to earn my degree. Then, also because it’s Britain, they took me to a pub and poured booze down my throat.

In many ways, it was a horrendous experience. But it wasn’t all that bad because, at that point, I was used to such treatment. The whole system is built to prepare you for that one day of hell. So my various supervisors would approach every rough draft of a chapter I handed to them as if it were being submitted for its defense. To do so, my supervisor would cover every submission from me in what looked like cuneiform, which, when translated, read things like, “Why?” “How are you defining these terms?” “What does this really mean?” When he was beyond exasperated with me, all he could do was pencil an enormous question mark in the margins.

(He’d also write things such as, “flabby,” “loose,” and “awkward,” but he insisted he was talking about my syntax.)

I was reminded of this recently, when I had a talk with my agent about my current project. It’s still very rough and nebulous, and I’m figuring out what it should be. But I’m already soliciting feedback because I know that feedback is a writer’s best friend.

It’s not that I find receiving feedback fun, exactly. Whenever I would sit down in my supervisor’s office and he started in on my work, my gut would clench, and then a palpable wave of heat tinged with anxiety and shame would roll through me. Shame that what I did was “bad,” and anxiety that what would never be good enough.

Upon receiving criticism, my reactions aren’t as extreme. But I still feel a wave of anxiety, and I have to self-talk away those negative voices whispering “maybe you’re just not good enough.” I also balance that anxiety with feelings I’ve cultivated since those days in my supervisor’s office: excitement and gratitude.

Basically, I’ve cultivated my masochism. I look forward to opening up an edited manuscript and seeing a flood of red. That’s the excitement part. I see all of those red squiggles as opportunities to make my book (or essay, or whatever) a better product. Because my goal is just that: a better product. Yes, I enjoy the process of writing, but I want to publish stuff that gets read and enjoyed. And every single red squiggle (even the ones that read “flabby!”) help me get closer to that goal.

And then comes the gratitude. After I shake off that first hot flush of disappointment in myself, I get soooo into editing. But not before I acknowledge how lucky I am to have people in my life who care about me and my writing as much as I do. I’m grateful to have people in my circle who are not afraid to articulate exactly where I went wrong. Just like my supervisors at the University of Edinburgh, my critique partners, my agent, and the editors I really cherish say things like: “Now, there’s a lot here that’s good, BUT . . .”. Then they proceed to shred my work like lettuce. I take every glorious blow as if they were rained down from heaven.

Because readers are going to do far worse. They rarely have any investment in me. They don’t necessarily want me to succeed. They are going to judge, and they are going to do so at a point where I can’t fix the problem. When they say, “I hate how your character did _____,” and I meant for that character to have done something entirely different, I can’t email them and explain what I really meant to write. What’s on the page is all the reader has to go by, and if I’ve screwed up somewhere by not explaining something correctly, or letting something slide that’s important to the development of the plot or the characters, I have failed. Not the reader.

It’s my responsibility to create a coherent story, whether that’s in a novel or an essay. It’s my responsibility to anticipate reader reactions and to recognize weak links where they threaten to break everything apart. It’s my responsibility to take the reader by the hand and guide them through my on-page worlds. That responsibility is a lot less burdensome if I’ve done due diligence soliciting feedback from people I trust to tell me like it is.

Basically, I need all the help I can get. That’s what my editors, my agent, my critique partners, and my beta readers are there for. I’m grateful for them every day, and I’m excited for them to tell me everything I’ve done wrong. Because once you de-personalize constructive criticism (when you recognize it’s about your work not about you), you can see every one of those red squiggles for what they are: opportunities.

So invite feedback! Form a critique group with people you trust, or with strangers who you’re not afraid to jettison if they don’t take writing as seriously as you do. If you’re not sure where to find such people, try taking a class in writing. If it’s online, make sure you interact as a class in the course. If it’s in person, even better. Approach the best, most serious people and ask them if they want to form a critique group.

Also, Write stuff for journals or magazines, digital or print, and submit it! Maybe you’ll get accepted and edited. But form rejections are their own type of feedback. Take anything people give you, and learn from it.

Got other tips for aspiring writers looking to grow their writer callouses? Please share in comments! You can also see my larger essay on my process (and why I don’t trust it!), here. And don’t forget you can share this article:

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