Accepting Criticism

Happy Friday, everyone!

Things are getting back to normal of a sort in my household, and we’re preparing to have the pseudo-housewarming we never had now that there are bold new colors on the walls and our eclectic furnishings are front and center. Being the homebodies that we are, and relatively ‘house-proud’, we’re also preparing for these things to not be to everyone’s taste. That’s why I wanted to take today to talk about criticism – namely how to be better at accepting it, and when to politely pay it no mind.

You might tell yourself that there’s no point in contracting an editor if you’re not comfortable with accepting criticism. Often, though, we may think we’re good at it but when it’s staring us in the face, it becomes a little more difficult. Naturally one would hope that any editor worth their salt – particularly with a client they’ve never worked with before – would provide constructive and courteous commentary rather than the clinical, bleeding-red ‘hacking and slashing’ reminiscent of a worn-down schoolteacher from our childhood. There’s a time and a place for the clinical, mind you, but ideally there should be a balance – ‘criticism’, after all, means both the good and the bad. So what do you do with criticism that appears a little harsh? What if it’s your first time getting something back from an editor and now you’re regretting it?

  • The first phase is context: remember that the vast majority of editors have your best interests at heart, and want your document to be the best it can be. Egos and personal tastes shouldn’t be part of this. Also, consider what type of editor you’re working with – a proofreader should not be expected to provide the level of commentary of a development editor, for example (with vice versa being true, too).
  • The second phase is to evaluate the document holistically for understanding:
  1. Read through all the comments, and the material to which they pertain. Refrain from judgment at this point, but get as happy or angry as you want! If you have to respond to your editor at this point, a simple “Thank you for sending this, I’ll be looking through your suggestions in the next couple of days.” will suffice.
  2. Once done, put the document away. Don’t make any changes yet! Just as writing and editing require specific conditions in order to be effective, reviewing suggestions and making changes of your own need the same kind of clear headspace.
  3. When you’re calmer and ready, look through the suggestions again. At this point, if you have any questions about anything your editor has written, ask! Keep your questions centered on clarity rather than vague, subjective topics such as “Why didn’t you like this?”.
  4. Tackle the small, black or white things first – typos, grammar, formatting, etc – so that not only do you get used to looking at the criticism, but you get the clutter out of the way so you can focus on the big, maybe gray things. You can have a separate session for the little black or white things and the big gray things, if it makes it easier! Don’t feel like you have to tackle everything all at once.
  5. Save your edited document under a separate file name, so that if you need to compare or revoke changes later, you can.
  • The third phase is to evaluate yourself, and which pieces of criticism may still bother you:
  1. Read through the document again. Make notes on what suggestions you don’t agree with.
  2. Ask yourself why you don’t agree with them, and be honest – is it because it just gave you a whole lot more work to do? Was it something you didn’t want to hear, or were you expecting more flattery than you got? Has it meant that you have to completely rework something you loved? If the answer to any of those was ‘yes’ – don’t worry! These are fair, if tough, criticisms. There are solutions to all of them! Make a note and put it aside. You don’t have to tackle it right away.
  3. If a suggestion bothers you and it doesn’t feel like it’s a fair criticism, seek a second opinion – a friend, another editor, a stranger. They can help you determine if it fits into the ‘fair’ category above, or the ‘unfair’ category. If it’s the latter…
  4. If, objectively, both you and your second opinion feel that a suggestion is unnecessarily harsh, unrelated, or plain doesn’t make sense – bring it up as calmly as you can with your editor! Mature, constructive conversations may resolve the suggestion entirely, or provide further elaboration to make it fairer and worth working on.

It takes practice. Another important thing to remember is that once you and your editor form a relationship, this process becomes far easier: you both begin to understand how the other works and thinks, and lines of communication are more open. Your editor does not exist to merely give you compliments; however, if after a couple of sessions the relationship does not seem to be improving (and be honest with yourself – is it you or is it them?), or isn’t constructive at all, this may be a sign that you need to find a different editor.

And lastly, remember you can always ask me if you have questions! Have a great and productive weekend!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Ten Ways to Build Writing Confidence

Happy Friday, everyone!

In previous posts, you may remember me mentioning the importance of creation before you can even begin to contemplate editing. Sounds obvious, right? Maybe even easy? A second glance, however – or a second sit-down at the desk to stare at a blank page – reveals that often, it’s the exact opposite. In today’s post I want to take a little detour from our usual fare of editing and the like to talk about writing.

First, let’s get a misconception out of the way – there’s no ‘magic cure’. There will be days where the words just don’t flow, and everyone has them. There’s no hard science that will instantly make everyone prolific. Much of it boils down to practice, experience, and discipline. Yet there are some factors that you can influence in order to make practicing – and thus discipline – come more easily, and lead to experience. Many of these will overlap with those I’ve mentioned in ‘When Editing Is Bad’.

  1. Give your writing – and yourself – due respect. Recognize that this effort is just as important as any other pursuit. Often we become inhibited by thoughts such as “I’m not good at this, so why should I bother?” or “But this has already been talked about.”. They’re often grounded in falsehood and sabotage you before you even begin. Own what you’re doing.
  2. Following on from the above, build an environment that will best cultivate this fledgling habit. This could include setting aside a particular time/day, setting deadlines or goals if they help you or removing them if they don’t, finding a dedicated space in which the writing happens, noise levels, and so on. You may find that this is a work-in-progress in of itself, or that it varies depending on what you’re working on.
  3. Find a support network. There are an unbelievable amount of writers out there and just as many readers, but instead of finding this daunting, know that there are a nearly equal number of groups where you can share your writing and get feedback and encouragement. Likewise, enlist the help of friends and family for additional encouragement (I promise you, I get more encouraging remarks than sneers when I say I’m a writer). No one does this alone, and feedback will be crucial to your improvement.
  4. Find a method that works best for you. You could be a plan-it-out-to-the-last-detail writer, with oodles of notes and bullet-pointed frameworks, or you could be a “I’m going to start in the middle and see what happens” sort. You could prefer writing by hand or by typing or by dictating and transcribing. Everyone works differently and no method is better than another.
  5. Gather what external resources you need for the particular work. If you need to write webcopy for a client, make sure you know what they want; if you’re contracted to write an article on growing tomatoes, read up on tomato-growing; if you’re writing a historical novel set in Jamaica in the 1800s, do your research; if you’re experimenting with ghazals as a poetic form, study lots of ghazals; if you’re writing the next best sci-fi novel, watch a bunch of sci-fi movies or spend an hour or two on Pinterest to get inspired.
  6. Practice. Scribble thoughts in a notebook or on post-its as you go about your day. Keep GoogleDocs open. Write down all your thoughts at the end of the day. Journal. Whatever works best for you. The idea is that the more accustomed you grow to physically articulating your thoughts and seeing them there on the page, the more normal the action will become for you.
  7. Read widely. The truth of the matter is that, if nothing else, reading widely will show you what’s possible.
  8. Try not to pigeonhole yourself – or be too strict – in the beginning. Started a romance novel that ended up wanting to be a mystery? Got halfway through your essay and ended up changing your own viewpoint? What was supposed to be mere tangential evidence in your thesis becomes the thing you’re actually interested in? It happens! The important bit is that you wrote.
  9. Try not to get too caught up in making it perfect the first go round. Editing can come later. Just get it out for now.
  10. You cannot make everyone happy. There are going to be people who love your work, and others who can’t stand it. Building up a thick skin is part of being a writer. The most important thing is, as Philip Pullman says, to write to please yourself. Write the novel, or poem, or critical article, or biography – whatever it may be – for you.

I know not everyone is aiming to make writing into a fullblown career. Some folks just want to be more confident when it comes time to write up that quarterly report for the boss, or feel pretty good about their college entrance essay. All of these are valid reasons to improve one’s writing skills – humans are social creatures that, introvert or extrovert though we may be, need communication in order to feel fulfilled. Writing is just one of those ways, and it opens so many doors.

In a year, you’d wish you’d started today.

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

When Editing is Bad

Happy Friday, everyone!

As all you poets are no doubt aware, tomorrow begins 2017’s Poem-a-Day April! As it says on the box, the goal is to write a poem a day for the entirety of April, which  – even as a poet who’s semi-successfully managed it a couple of times – I have to admit is pretty daunting. Not only am I writing this in solidarity and as a salute, but also as a chance to point out when editing can sometimes be a hindrance.

If you’re not a perfectionist, in a way I envy you. The fact of the matter is that sometimes – no matter what you’re writing – you can become preoccupied with making your first draft perfect on the first try. This can lead to a lot of false starts, over-writing, a sudden block partway through, or worse – never starting. If this happens enough it can even have longer-lasting effects on your overall confidence. All of these are killer if you have deadlines of any kind.

So say it with me: “It’s okay if it’s not perfect on the first try. Or the second, or the third, or…”

Say this, too: “What matters is that there’s something on the page. I can work with that ‘something’. I can’t work with ‘nothing’.”

Always keep those two things in mind, because I promise, you will get stuck otherwise. It happens to folks who have just started writing, and to folks who have been writing professionally their whole lives. You will get stuck on worrying whether you’ve got the right word, that you’ll forget all the others you were going to write after it. You’ll take a break to figure out the right metaphor or a good name, and you’ll get distracted for the next two days. You’ll pause to fact-check and end up down the rabbit-hole of the Internet.

Here are a few tactics to help you curb the tendency to become distracted by editing:

  1. Know there’s something you’re going to have to go back and change or check? Put in a placeholder or highlight it. One method I’ve heard of is the ‘ELEPHANT’ method, where if you can’t think of a word right then and there, just type ‘ELEPHANT’ and keep going – when you’re done drafting, you can search for all instances of ‘ELEPHANT’ and replace them when your mind is clearer. This helps you keep your flow.
  2. Set realistic deadlines if they help you, or remove them if they don’t. If you do choose to have deadlines, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet them. For example, you can start with something small like ‘write a poem before you have your second cup of coffee’ – it’s a deadline with a built-in reward. The idea is that when your brain grows accustomed to achieving small goals, it’s in a better position to achieve slightly larger goals, and so on.
  3. A friend of mine hand-writes her work and covers her prior lines with a sheet of paper to stop herself looking back and thus getting distracted by editing. You can feasibly do this with window-resizing on a computer, too.
  4. Devote specific times to writing, and specific times to editing, e.g. – ‘during the week I’ll write, but Saturdays I’ll edit’, or ‘I’m not going to look at these poems again until May, when Poem-a-Day April is over’. Knowing you’ve allotted time in advance can help put your mind at ease, as it’s no longer worried about missing the opportunity and feels bolstered by your organization skills.
  5. Remind yourself that beyond a simple spelling/grammar check, you can always leave the editing to – guess who! – your editor. That’s why this tag-team exists in the first place! Knowing someone else has your back can be instrumental to your process.

Although editing is still part of the creative process – and some would argue that it’s the most rewarding part – they are different modes of thinking and sometimes jostle for elbow room, to the detriment of each other. The fact remains that you cannot edit what isn’t there, therefore you should prioritize creation in the initial stages.

What are some of the hurdles you’ve encountered? Any other tactics for overcoming them that you’ve found useful?

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

P.S. – Good luck, poets! I’ll be writing alongside you this season.