Monthly Archives: June 2014

Absorbing Criticism

As everyday writers, the minute we put our writing into someone else’s hands, we open ourselves to criticism. When asked recently what she would advise her younger self, Hillary Clinton said, “Take criticism seriously but not personally.” This is sound advise.  Especially for writers.

To me, taking it “seriously” does not mean to use everything everyone says to you. You’ll drive yourself crazy! Some criticism is not worth the time. General critical comments are often not helpful at all.  It can get sticky in fiction, too.  I had someone tell me young accountants never went out for drinks!  Or that they never give out that kind of money in the music business. (I, having worked there, against the criticizer who knew nothing about it.)  I’m not sure where these kind of comments come from.  Simply note the source.

Editors, people who have been successful in the publishing industry or the industry you’re writing about, fellow writers, and others you think worthy should be accorded the respect of taking what they say seriously. That means seriously considering it.  Listening to it. Being open to it.

To accept any criticism it must first be filtered through your own knowing.  You are the author and therefore it is imperative that whatever you write stays true to your story, characters or subject.  What you need to say is the most important factor.  As the writer, it is up to you to stand up and protect what you’ve written.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seriously consider criticism. Criticism dismissed because it hurts is unnecessary and a sad waste. There is so much wealth to be found in another’s point of view!

Recently, a fellow writer made some strong comments about my submission to our critique group.  To be helpful, she also made suggestions of how I might correct the problem.  Her ideas did not feel right for my characters or where I want to go with the story.

The first thought my ego tossed out was that she was wrong, she didn’t understand and I had to explain why I hadn’t gone that way.  In the process, it all began to shift and I was able to see it from her vantage point. Suddenly it made sense.  I was able to seriously consider what she was saying.  Maybe I had been just turned off by her suggestions of how to fix it, or perhaps it was the extra work involved. I may well have felt hurt that she didn’t like what I’d written.  As soon as I got enough distance, I could see exactly how to fix it. In the end, I did the work and it was so much better for it.

I believe Madame Secretary had it backwards.  You need to step out of the way of criticism first. When you can disconnect from the comments you have a much better chance to fully absorb it. When you take the “personally” part away, what seems so solid isn’t anymore.  The criticism can be viewed as about the writing, not the writer. From that perspective you can truly hear what the person is trying to tell you.  And incredibly valuable information may be revealed.

We can use this in life, too, whenever we face difficult or hurtful situations. If we find a way to move back, to step out of the gooey personal stuff, we can see what’s really going on.  From there, we can take it seriously, absorb the lesson and find our own way through.

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Writing Tip: Ask Questions

The act of asking questions is a very old and sacred one that can make great things happen.  It is no less powerful in the hands of a writer.

As writers, we need to continually ask questions.  The more questions asked, the better the piece. You can develop a series of regular questions if you like, but be sure that you ask  questions wherever you can.

The first question you might venture to ask is, what am I going to write about?    A better variation might be: What do I want to say about this?  The difference between a topic, say “The Rings of Saturn,” and an angle like how they are, in fact, made up of little particles.  Play with your questions to get to them right.

Probably not on your first draft, but definitely on subsequent drafts, question the words you’re using.  Is this precisely or exactly the word I want here?  There are so many variations in words.  Just look at a Thesaurus.  I found over 70 words that could stand in for Special all with different shades of meaning!  It is the writer’s job to ask questions until the word that rings most true appears.  It’s helpful to take a step further and ask if the word assures understanding or clouds it?

All through the writing process, it’s imperative to ask questions.  Does this follow logically from what I’ve just said? Are my paragraphs holding a single theme?  Too often writers jump around within one paragraph.  We learn in fiction that the action has to flow from one paragraph to another.  If you’re going to change places you have to let your readers know.  Following a path makes it easer to keep attention rolling along.  How is my path to walk?

Question sentences too. Do I have too many short sentences?  Can I combine them?  Do I have too many long, run on sentences, that, perhaps, have too many thoughts, too many directions, too many clauses?  I like to question the last sentence of the paragraph, particularly.  You might ask yourself, what is the thought (and the word) that will linger in the reader’s mind?

And of course, when is the right time to end?  Have I said all I needed to say? Before you conclude ask, Does this say what I really wanted to say? If it doesn’t, you may need to ask another set of questions. Asking if what you’ve written is true to what you wanted to convey could be the most important question of all.

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The Magic of Words

Words can make magic.  They can bring good news and cheer you up when you’re sad.  Words can heal wounds and offer forgiveness. They can express love and wow can they tell a story!  Like magic!

Sometimes, though, words can go awry and bounce off the wrong surface and cause hurt or destruction. They can sting or erupt in wars.  But we know this about magic – some is good, some not so good.

Words are, in essence, just an illusion.  They can only illustrate things and feelings, they aren’t real. Words are just a facade.  A trick of magic.

We can’t forget, though, how powerful they are.  Words can create pictures in your head. Those images can take root. You may not remember where you heard it, or even the exact words. But thanks to the magic of words, you can recreate the picture or the emotion.

As stewards of words, we need to be wary of the words we use.  Not just on the page or screen.  But also in how we talk to the real characters of our lives.

Stay open for ways that you can use words to help and heal others.  Wield words to make others feel better about themselves or encourage them to do more.  There’s so much we can do with our words!  What an amazing and magical gift we have to be able to say what we need to say.

Remember the power of words.  And watch how you use their magic.

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