Episode 294: October 6, 2011
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Advice from Roy Peter Clark:
Some good advice or criticism may be hard to take because of the way it is delivered. Editors and teachers have been known to savage writers, bleeding over texts in rivulets of red ink. Even when a critique is rendered with the writer’s feelings in mind, it can hit a wall of resistance. The writer is oversensitive, or controlling, or a diva, or maybe an oversensitive-controlling-diva jerk.
Without constructive criticism, the writer cannot grow. With it, the writer can improve a particular story and all the work that follows. The writer must learn to accept criticism – even when it seems harsh or uninformed – as a reward rather than a punishment. If writing is about cause and effect, criticism reveals the effect and allows the writer to evaluate the power of the cause.
So if all that criticism and pencil-editing gets you down on deadline, Bunky, here are ten lifelines to grab onto:
1. Reflect on how you handle criticism in other areas of your life.
Each of us brings our personal history to the table of writing, revision, editing, and criticism. Without getting all Freudian, we can easily imagine that harsh parents or tyrants in the classroom can create forms of aversive conditioning that stick with the would-be writer.
A good teacher or editor can help neutralize that poison. Keep looking for someone who can see the unrealized potential in your work and who can become an ally and partner in walking a story through the minefield.
2. Reward the kind of criticism you need.
Imagine a conversation with a supportive editor. It requires no butt kissing or kicking, only honest appraisals of good work accomplished. You might begin with something like, “You were right about that ending. I’m glad you encouraged me to make one more phone call. It worked.”
Lane DeGregory, Pulitzer-Prize-winning feature writer for the St. Petersburg Times, gives public credit to her editor Mike Wilson. Lane admits to being a person who is often “blinded by the good.” Mike reminds her to look for the “bruise on the apple,” the shadowy parts of characters that reveal the moral complexities of life.
3. Pick your battles.
It won’t help you to be one of those writers who argue over every comma and semicolon. There are such writers, and when they appear in the office, editors cringe and avoid eye contact. Learn to distinguish between changes to your copy you can live with – and those you can’t.
4. Be willing to share control of the story.
Anyone who has played tug of war with a golden retriever knows what it means to share control. It stops being fun when one of you “wins.” Think of that as an analogy for the writer-editor relationship. It is a give-and-take, a deal, a transaction, a dialogue, a debate, a conversation, an argument, a consultation, maybe even a seminar in which each party learns from the other. Sharing control turns a potential adversary into an ally, someone who can shepherd your work past the wolf packs that threaten to devour it.
5. Encourage editors to bounce problems back to you.
Cynthia Gorney once said this about Shelby Coffey, her editor at the Washington Post: “Usually I know that a story is flawed. I just send it in anyway, because I’m confident that they’re going to help me figure out what’s wrong with it. A great editor will make you feel like a real trouper, a truly talented person for being able to fix a story, for being able to send something in that’s flawed and then make it better.”
6. Establish personal relationships with anyone who influences your work.
The more anonymous you are to editors, the easier it will be for them to change your work without consultation. If you have the emotional intelligence of an old tennis racket, go ahead and hide in your locker. If you want to get the best out of those assigned to help you, learn their names and faces. Ask what you can do to make their work easier. Bake or buy them some cookies.
7. Avoid guerrilla warfare tactics.
Never making eye contact with an editor.
Picking up a phone when the editor approaches.
Always having a story you are “working on” to avoid assignments.
Waiting for the mean editor to take lunch and then hand your work in to the nice lady.
Staying out of sight, so you’ll stay out of mind.
Handing in your story as late as possible so no one has time to muck it up.
These may work some of the time, but they also can create so much uncertainty and drama that they suck the joy out of the craft.
8. Argue about purpose, not preference.
You will never win an argument with an editor or teacher who is dogmatic in approaching the craft: “I hate stories that begin with anecdotes.” Or “Readers never read footnotes.” Those are not rules, they are preferences.
Rather than challenge those, turn attention to your purpose: why you introduced a new character late in a story or why you hooked the ending back to the beginning.
9. Prepare yourself for tough conversations.
Everyone knows Mabel is a disorganized wreck of an editor; everyone, that is, except Mabel, who might be able to change for the better.
Diplomacy softens the blow of a tough conversation: “Mabel, you want me to get my stories in by three o’clock so you have time to edit them – and I get that. But then the story just sits there with no one working on it. I could use that time to improve it. What if we changed the time to 4:30? That 90 minutes would mean a lot to me.”
10. Become a productive critic of other writers’ work.
Editing another writer’s work can help you think like an editor and be more receptive to your own editor’s editing. So to conclude, here are some tips on how to be a good editor:
Ask how you can help the writer.
Ask when you can help the writer.
First tell the writer what works in the story.
Ask the writer her opinion on the status of the story.
Get to what needs work.
Don’t disguise statements as questions.
Help the writer find other helpers.
Ask questions about the writer’s process.
We hope these 10 tips will help you deal with editing, which can be painful for some people, but almost always makes your writing better in the long run.