Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Ego Versus the Revision

I write a lot about the topic of revising, because a writer is going to find herself doing 10 times as much revising as actual drafting. Writing a book is the easy part. Coming back and rewriting it, restructuring it, and refining it is the part you'll find yourself doing over, and over, and over again—and is usually the most difficult part of the process of writing a book.

The most challenging part of revising is that it's guided by critique. And critique is always hard to take.

boy looking into mirror

They say that good writers are actually good revisers—that great final products are the result of pointed editing, careful finessing, and an eye for delving into elements we've already created for greater truths.

But I would suggest that good writers are actually good at taking feedback. And then spinning it into something wonderful.

Have you ever worked on a book or story for so long that you can't even see it anymore? This is me whenever I finish a draft of a manuscript: the words are just pixels on a screen. I don't know if they're good words or bad words, if they make sense together or if I've completely botched it. Either everything will seem wonderful and perfect, or I'll be convinced it's all crap.

That's the point at which I need an outside perspective. I need someone I trust, someone with just the right amount of objectivity, to tell me whether those words are good, or actually crap. (It's important in any writer's career to have reliable readers that you trust with your raw work.)

The key to writing a better next draft? Taking that feedback and doing something with it.

Our egos are always getting in the way of writing great books.

When you've labored at a manuscript for weeks, maybe months at a time, it's incredibly difficult to hear that it isn't perfect. But I've poured so much work into it! you might think. It's a masterpiece!

Certainly it will help you in the long run to maintain a healthy pool of self-confidence about yourself and your writing, because that pool will naturally drain as you move through the process of improving a manuscript.

But don't let that natural pool of ego get in the way of hearing helpful, valuable feedback. Even if the feedback contradicts what you believe about your own work—but I'm great at characters! but my descriptions are good, even if a bit long! but but but—it's still important to listen to it with an open mind and an open heart.

The things that are hardest to hear are often the things most critical to improving a piece of work, if you're willing.

Strategies for Taking Feedback, and Preserving Your Ego

1. Listen, but don't internalize.

Whenever someone takes the time to read and critique your work, your very first response (even if you don't genuinely feel it) should be to say, "Thank you! Thank you for taking the time, and thank you for your valuable comments." Because it does take time to read someone's work, to thoughtfully analyze whether what the author is accomplishing what they set out to do, and to prepare helpful comments to address the gaps.

Saying "thank you" doesn't necessarily mean you agree. It doesn't necessarily mean you will do every single thing the person critiquing your work suggests you do. Because somebody says they don't like something, doesn't mean it's bad—everyone has a different subjective taste, and your reader's taste may not align with yours.

Don't take negative feedback as a personal insult. Sometimes it's not about you or your writing, but about what your reader expected to see (and then didn't see).

2. Acknowledge what they have to say.

By that same token, it's dangerous to dismiss any and all negative feedback as a "disagreement of taste." You ought to choose your readers carefully, to make sure what you're giving them to read is within their wheelhouse of experience.

It's natural to have a strong reaction to harsh critique. We're wired that way. The defense mechanism exists to preserve your ego, and to preserve that buoying pool of self-confidence that helps you keep writing even in the face of rejection.

But don't take the bait and react. After receiving harsh critique, or any critique, give yourself a couple of days to digest it. Read what you can of the comments when you can, and take frequent breaks to let that self-confidence shore back up again. It doesn't make you fragile that critique is hard to take—it makes you human.

Once you've gone over all your comments, make a list of important points the reader is making. Acknowledge them. Consider what they would mean, should you implement them.

3. Decide what fits, and what doesn't. 

Before you start accepting or rejecting comments, return to your original work. What is its intention? Do you know your own voice? Do you have a cohesive vision?

Not every suggestion is the right suggestion for accomplishing these things—intention, voice, and vision. Especially if you ask other writers to read for you, they will sometimes give feedback that sounds more like what they would write, rather than what you would write. Other times, a suggestion is pointing out a problem—and the solution isn't always the most targeted or appropriate solution. Try to look at feedback through the lens of "what problem is this pointing out to me?" rather than "how do I fix this?"

Give yourself plenty of time and distance from your work while you consider critiques. Try to have as much emotional objectivity as you can muster. Are you disliking the suggestion because it challenges your ego, or because it doesn't fit your vision for the work?

4. Say yes more often than you say no. (But you can say no.)

Not all feedback is good feedback. But most of it is—so you should read any critique with the mindset that your reader is more often right than wrong.

That said, not every suggestion you get is right for your book. Even in professional relationships (between an author and an editor at a traditional publishing house), it's okay to occasionally say "no." Stick up for what's important to you—your voice, your message, your characters. You don't want your manuscript to become something unrecognizable. You especially don't want it to become something you can't be proud of.

But whenever you want to say no, ask yourself: is this my integrity talking, or my ego? Is this because I'm worried about being imperfect?

You want your final product to be the best that it can be—so don't hamstring yourself by turning away valuable, expert feedback. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and distance to see the wisdom in a suggestion. Allow yourself that time to think, consider, and act.

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