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It's Gonna Hurt, But In A Good Way

Tayari Jones on how to take criticism from an editor.

I’ve just finished a new novel, The Silver Girl. For this post, I am going to share with you something I wrote when I received my editorial letter. It’s is a long document-- about five pages, single spaced, telling the writer what to do to make the book stronger. Some of it is praise, but most of it is criticism.

No matter how much you know that it's necessary to receive criticism, it's never exactly fun. (Girly metaphor: It's like getting your eyebrows waxed. You want it, but it's gonna hurt.)

When I got the letter, I scanned it. I didn't have the nerves to read it closely yet. I just read it really quickly to see what jumped out at me. I saw mostly plot type issues. Then, I put the letter away and started going through the manuscript with my green pen. I made a lot of changes, listening to my own impulses, rather than being guided by the editorial letter's specific concerns.

The next step was finally reading the letter closely. I used my pink pen to write my comments and questions on the letter itself. I really analyzed and digested it. Some of the issues I had resolved already, which made me feel sort of happy. Others still needed tending to.

For a month, I went through the manuscript AGAIN, chapter by chapter, consulting the letter as I went along. This is MUCH harder. The biggest challenge was learning to read the letter. Editors are not writers and they don't exactly know how we do what we do. Because of this, it's hard for them to give instruction. It sort of reminds me of when I go visit my dressmaker. Sometimes, the dress hangs funny or is too tight, or gaps somewhere. I will say "The sleeve is too small!" And she will then fix it by doing something with the dart at the bust. Because I don't sew, I can't quite tell her what needs fixing, but I know something's off. Or it's sort of like going to the dentist. Sometimes I am sure that I am having pain in one particular tooth and my doctor eases the pain by treating a whole 'nother tooth. Editors are good at knowing when something is off, but they can't always tell you how to fix it. It gets tricky because unlike dentists, writers can get prickly when someone tells you what's wrong. Even professionals have feelings. And editors don't mean any harm, they really want you to write a better book. But they can still hurt your little feelings.

My pet hang up is the phrase, "I'm not buying" this or that thing. I always want to snap back, "It's not for sale! You don't have to buy it." Still, I have learned that "I don't buy the mother as a thief," really means, "Can you provide clearer motivation for the mother's stealing." The first sentence gets my ego all riled up and the second makes me want to work. But here's the thing. A professional writer doesn't have time to be all sensitive like that. You have to do the translation and go forth to improve the book. Of course, there are going to be some things that you just won't change. (For me, it's the Al Green chapter. I need it.) But I am going to try and make the connection more relevant. But that chapter stays.

My editor doesn't like a technique I applied at the end. I dug it but I can see how it might not be working. I am going to try to apply her suggestion because nothing is lost by trying. I think that's the thing to remember. You don't lose a thing by taking advice. Before I start making changes, I email the file of the original to a really good friend. It take a lot of comfort in knowing that no matter what changes I make, I will still have my original. (I picked the image above because the editorial letter can be such an ouchie, but then I laughed because, truth be told, I can be sorta prickly too.)

But my question, SheWriters, is how do you deal with constructive criticism? How do you keep your ego from getting in the way?


* This post was originally published in September 2010.

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  • Sarah Neustadter

    Thank you Tayari; all so true, so true. After all the hard work, love, time, and energy I've already put in on multiple drafts, I think I just want to hear the editor say, "It's perfect, you have no more work to do." Going back and doing more rewriting -- that's the kicker for me.... Why can't it just be perfect as is ??

  • Hollye Dexter

    This is great Tayari. Thank you for sharing your process. I've just sent my manuscript out to several writer friends and am getting "notes"...most of it I appreciate, because it's so hard to be objective about your own work and they catch things I wouldn't. But some of it gets me prickly too! And some of it, you have to stand by your original intent even if someone doesn't like it. You just know in your heart it's right.