A Word to the New Writer

Writing isn’t a vocation you can choose like deciding to be a lawyer or a doctor. People who “try” writing to see if they like it generally fail. Writing is a vocation that will choose you, if you are compelled to put your thoughts on paper, if you can’t help but imagine emotional or exciting scenes in a story, if you must communicate your ideas to people you don’t even know.

If writing is a compulsion and you’ve been chosen by the vocation, you have entered a world in which you are naked and everyone else is wearing clothes. Through your writing people will learn your deepest thoughts, your closely-guarded secrets, and all the information necessary to form opinions of you, your craft, your style, and your entertainment value. When art is released to the public, it becomes fair game for relatives, friends, agents, publishers, critics, reviewers, social media trolls, and readers to criticize (or praise). Get ready, because to write is to be judged.

As a result, well-meaning people advise writers to grow thick skin and/or stay true to their craft and vision and ignore criticism. The urge to embrace positive input and ignore negative feedback is powerful but it leads to Einstein’s definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If we don’t listen to criticism, our craft will neither improve nor evolve.

My advice to a new writer is to accept all feedback as potentially instructive but to analyze the criticism carefully to find the useful nuggets.

Friends and relatives are prone to be nice so probe them for deeper reasons for their praise. Why did they like your book?

Agents and publishers occasionally include provide insights beyond “It’s not right for me” or “Keep trying.” When they do, take heed. If they don’t provide anything useful in their rejections, claim them as a badge of courage. Agents and publishers aren’t infallible and they usually have reasons for a rejection other  than the quality of your writing or the quality of your story. Legend has it that Stephen King pegged rejection slips on a nail in his wall and when the nail could no longer support the weight of all the rejections, he replaced the nail with a railroad spike.

Professional reviewers are most likely to provide valuable advice about your craft, your style, and storytelling expertise. Believe them and adopt their advice when compatible with your style and genre.

Social media trolls can safely be ignored unless they have something nice to say about your work. In that case simply thank them and hope their post goes viral.

The last group, readers with verified purchase reviews, provide the input to which I am most sensitive. These people were attracted to my work—the good news—and took the time to provide a reaction after reading some or all of the story—the possibly good news and possibly bad news. If an audience for your thoughts and ideas is your goal, these are the people to whom you should listen. You may find that they “just didn’t get it” and that’s on you as the communicator. On the other hand, they may have liked facets of your work that you can leverage in future works.

The bottom line is, don’t be afraid of criticism, use it to improve your craft. But do as much input-gathering before publishing as possible. Once published, the input can only be used in the next book. So, a final word of advice is to surround yourself with the members of a prepublication critique group, an excellent developmental editor who can furnish advice on content and continuity, and trusted beta readers. The work you do after finishing the manuscript but before publishing it will save the anguish of negative criticism after publication.

Leave a Comment