In my years of being a writer, writing teacher, and friend and confidante to many a writer, I’ve often had to respond to criticism of my own writing and help writers both give and receive criticism. I tell my students to ask one question of the criticism they receive (after a 24-hour cooling off period): Does it help me move forward in my writing? If it does, find a way to respond to it. If it doesn’t, junk it.
It’s only constructive criticism if you can construct something with it.
But what do you do when the criticism (often accompanied by the carping voice of doubt and self-loathing) comes from within? Or as a writer-friend recently asked me on a walk, “What if a little voice keeps saying it just sucks?”
My instinct has always been to say, “Of course it doesn’t suck!” but when my friend asked this of me recently I paused for a moment and considered what I actually do when I have similar doubts. Just telling the troublesome thoughts to go away usually doesn’t work and besides, another even more ominous voice asks, “What if there’s something wrong that needs fixing?” So what I actually do in these moments is that I write down some version of the thought on the left side of my notebook.
Putting the self-critic in its place
First, let me explain my notebook. I handwrite all first drafts in a composition book. I number the pages (usually in a moment of writerly procrastination) and write only on the right side of the book. On the cover, I put the name of the book I’m working on, but if I start something new or have a note for an idea I just turn the page and start the new thing, using arrows to indicate where the “other thing” continues.
For instance, I began this essay on page 75, then wrote a note for the novel I’m working on page 76, then continued this essay on page 77 with a note indicating where it started and how many pages (+1) I’ve already written. It’s a pretty simple system that enables me to work on different projects at the same time while simultaneously keeping notes for future projects.
It also leaves the left side of the book blank and available for notes, questions, and general kibitzing. For example, as I wrote the previous paragraph I thought to myself, “Wow, this is really going on for a long time! I’m probably boring my readers and exceeding my word limit.” So I wrote on the left-hand page: “Too long? Necessary?”
By writing this note, I deferred the decision about whether I need such a lengthy explanation. Later I can judge what’s essentially a pacing issue with a cooler editorial mind and a final word count. (I’ll let you know what I decide.)
Looking back through this notebook alone I find on the left side pages timelines, maps, tide charts, inserts, quotes from Wikipedia, fact-checking questions and notes like this: “Extend this part—get them to room facing bay and then add this…” and “Get here at the idea that …” Sometimes I just write “Rework” or “Make Better.”
I’m dividing the writing mind from the editing mind—or as that Hemingway quote kids like to hang in their dorm rooms says: “Write drunk; edit sober.” Only I do it without the booze.
But when my friend asked me what to do when hearing that nasty voice suggesting her writing sucks, I realized my left-side jottings accomplish something else. They consign the fear and self-loathing endemic to writers to the left side of the page.
I am acknowledging the possibility that what I just wrote might not be good enough, but I’ll deal with this later.
I’ll make it better—I’ll tighten or expand, find a more apt word, fashion a smoother transition, think of the perfect metaphor, recognize the larger truth I was getting at and manifest it in the cooler gray tones of the typed manuscript (or at least by the time we get to galleys). There’s time.
For instance, when I wrote this in longhand I jotted on the left side of the page: “Add more about the real need for criticism and editing.” So I will do that now that I’m typing this up.
First things first
How to respond to criticism (from others and from yourself) and revise your writing is probably the second most essential skill of any writer. But the first skill is to get those words down on the page and not let any voices of loathing and self-doubt stop you.
Those left-hand side jottings are not just editorial notes; they are propitiatory offerings to the muses. When I started talking about this with my friend, I was reminded of something I saw years ago at a Shinto shrine in Japan. For a five-yen coin you could withdraw a slip of paper with a fortune written on it. If you liked the fortune, you could tie it to a tree to give it more power. If you didn’t like it, you could spear it on the branch of a pine tree in the courtyard. As I just read in Wikipedia (my left side note told me to look it up) this practice is a pun on the Japanese words for “pine tree” and “to wait. The idea is that the bad luck will wait by the side of the tree rather than attach itself to the bearer.
That’s what I’m doing, I think, with my left side jottings. I’m asking for the criticism to wait on the other side of the page while I finish what I’m doing. I’m warding off the negative voices that often accompany that criticism. When I wrote at the beginning “Too long? Necessary?” there was a second thought whispering on the margins. It asked, “Who am I to give writing advice?” followed closely by the siren song of writers everywhere, “Who cares what I have to say?”
There’s no editorial answer to that last question—except to ask back, “Does that thought help me keep writing?” Since it doesn’t, I spear it onto the pine tree to my left. (Note: find out if the bad-luck pine trees are on the left side of the shrine!) Let it wait there and not attach itself to me. I have places to go, stories to tell, and more notebooks to fill.
How do you set aside doubts and quiet that critical voice? Join the discussion on Facebook.
Carol Goodman‘s novel, The Widow’s House was the 2018 winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Carol is the bestselling author of twenty novels, including The Lake of Dead Languages and The Seduction of Water, which won the 2003 Hammett Prize, and, in collaboration with her husband Lee Slonimsky, the urban fantasy Watchtower trilogy. Booklist named The Demon Lover, written under the pseudonym Juliet Dark, a top ten science fiction/fantasy book for 2012. Her YA novel, Blythewood, was named a best young adult novel by the American Library Association. Her books have been translated into sixteen languages.
photo credit: Franco Vogt