I remember myself proudly, even smugly, slipping my draft into a 9” x 13” manila envelope addressed to an editor for her feedback. I expected a few corrected semi-colons.
Instead, the editor wrote that my story didn’t go anywhere, and that a word I had used wasn’t even a word. I could send it back to her after I’d vigorously revised it. Okay, maybe she didn’t use the word, “vigorously,” but that’s what it felt like to me.
I felt trashed. I was so shocked and paralyzed I couldn’t write anything for months afterwards.
Decades since that experience, I realize that I wasn’t prepared for negative feedback. I just wanted my work praised.
Now that I teach creative writing, I see that a lot. The startled look on a student’s face when classmates ask gentle questions after the student’s read an excerpt, or when I say, “I’m a little confused by . . . .”
The fact is, new writers ask for, but don’t welcome comments that challenge their efforts. It can be difficult for them to accept that their writing falls short of perfection.
I’m thinking of one of my students who began by calling me “a jewel,” and praising me for giving her guidance she’d never gotten before on her writing. Months later, she let me know that she really only wants to be told that everything she writes is fine, as is.
Now that I’m an editor (as well as a writer and instructor), I sympathize with the professional who edited my early writing. It’s awkward for me to tell a client who’s asked which publishers he should send his writing to that the work is nowhere near ready. (As I fretted over this one day, my husband said bluntly, “It’s your job to deliver the bad news.”) You see weak writing all over the Internet: rambling, pieced-together narratives with no story line, laden with unrelated digressions, undeveloped characters, and poor punctuation.
It might help aspiring writers to know that experienced writers’ work suffers from some of those weaknesses, too. But we call them what they are: early drafts. We know there’ll be a dozen more revisions and drafts, and that we’ll feel as tattered as the drafts look by the time the work is presentable or publishable. But we soldier on, seeing our drafts improve with each rewriting.
If you found this post helpful, you might want to read Reasons Writing Gets Rejected.
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