When Criticism is the Best Medicine

When you start writing, you have the ambivalence of a toddler who both wants help down the stairs and wants to do it himself. You know you need critical feedback, but you’re inexperienced, unsure of your work — which we authors often conflate with our selves — and therefore wary of the sting. Those of you afraid of needles will know that feeling, that sometimes the best medicine hurts.

And constructive criticism IS the best medicine. I’ve said multiple times now (and will go right on saying) there is only one bit of writing advice in the whole entire world:

Solicit constructive feedback
Critically evaluate feedback

That’s it. You really don’t have to read another “Top Ten Tips for Writing” article ever again.

But that second step can really sting, especially when you recognize the feedback is valid. (If you rarely have that experience, it’s not proof of your talent. It’s proof of your ego.) And I know quite a few folks who are afraid of it.

I don’t know what to say to them except you gotta get over it. It’s like learning to swim: at some point you’re just gonna hafta go in the deep end. There’s not really another way. Wade up to it if you want, but it’s not gonna get any shallower.

This is especially true because the sting never really goes away. Just like the pinch of the nurse’s needle, the hurt is still there, but eventually it happens enough times that you internalize there’s nothing to fear.

Or so I’ve been saying. But this morning I got my first few bits of feedback on the (new) Episode Six, and a very good point was raised, and I genuinely surprised myself when my legit first reaction was Yuss! Schweet. No sting. Just excitement.

Please interpret this correctly. I’ve not “leveled up” or anything. In fact, I’m sure I’ll still feel the pinch sometimes (as well as the frustration that comes from recognizing the manuscript you worked on for months needs a major rewrite), but I think I’ve iterated the feedback process enough that I can quickly parse what is useful from what isn’t — where any single person’s feedback will have a mix of both.

Because here’s the deal. I don’t just wanna be good. I wanna be EXCELLENT. World-class, even. And I don’t think you get there by smiling weakly and hoping for praise. At the same time, I’ve learned there’s not much value in asking people to “bring the pain” either. If you ask readers to go fishing, they’ll come back with a whopper of a tale.

What you want is their legitimate top-of-mind reaction. As such, critical feedback can only identify flaws. But there’s nothing that says a flawless plot, for example, is an enjoyable one. Excellence is not the mere absence of fault. In fact, we’ve all read books that we thought were excellent, timeless even, that had a few faults.

I suspect excellence comes — if it all — only from that last step: Repeat.

cover image by Esao Andrews