Wake up! Could you be taking your writing skills for granted?

I don’t normally blog about my day job, not least because I already mix genres enough as it is; why add business-to-business content marketing to the jumble?

In fact, I’ve thought for a long time that marketing and fiction, for me, make each other better. Fiction makes my marketing content more creative; business content makes my fiction tighter. Writing against a deadline is one thing; writing against a word count is something entirely different. I’ve learned how to say what I want to say, and to engage people while doing it. For me, the two forms of writing are intertwined.

I’ve become so used to receiving praise, however, that it’s jarring to receive more critical feedback. To go from “Your writing is so tight that I only needed to make minimal edits” to “This feels like padding” is tough to absorb.

Why I’m reexamining a few things

Less-than-effusive feedback is tempting to dismiss. I’ve written professionally for 17 years; I wouldn’t have been able to make a living doing what I do if my skills were poor (indeed, I’ve been told that my “C” is still better than other people’s “A,” that it’s OK to turn in a “C” every now and again — something I’ve never been able to do, if I’m to stay true to the standards that got me where I am).

On the other hand, I write almost constantly. I’m writing for work, I’m writing for my side gig, and I’m writing things like this blog to help market my side gig. I cranked out a 30,000-word novella in six weeks; at work, time-sensitive projects might get turned around in a matter of days. I can’t afford to be a perfectionist about anything I do, yet I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. The work I send out, therefore, is as close to perfect as I can get it within the limitations of time and space (writer’s TARDIS notwithstanding).

Most feedback is, of course, meant to improve something that’s already pretty good. But what happens when it signals that something beyond the piece itself needs improvement?

Taking a step or two back

Writers are like anyone else: it’s entirely possible to get too comfortable in your own abilities. Just as we take for granted that we’re such good drivers that we’ll be able to react quickly enough, or that our cooking skills are so great that we can totally “adjust” that recipe, we get to a point with writing where, if we’ve been doing it for long enough, it can feel like breathing to us.

That’s dangerous. We can start taking liberties with the speed limit or with the recipe, forgetting that greater speed decreases reaction time or that “near” substitutes aren’t exact. And that’s when it all goes to hell.

On the flip side, of course, is whether it is in fact possible to justify what you’ve done; whether someone’s stylistic preferences risk you changing your own voice and style. Is it redundancy, or a needed twist on an earlier point, a different way to say the same thing to help reinforce a message? Incorporating a piece of feedback in the wrong way can ruin your entire vision for a project.

Indeed, it can be difficult to differentiate legitimate, constructive criticism from an ego play, a need to control, or insecurity about one’s own writing style (if the critic perceives that your writing is better than theirs). This makes it all the more important to find trusted beta readers and editors.

Sometimes, however, the only feedback we can get comes from people we don’t know well enough to trust yet. At that point, it’s important to take a step back to weigh everything together:

  • What is the criticism of this piece?
  • Does it reflect other criticism of other pieces?
  • Are different people saying the same things, or are the same critiques coming from one person?
  • What is the goal of this piece, and what am I trying to use it to say?

I’ve learned that it’s okay to disagree, that often it’s possible to compromise in a way that fulfills both (or all) perspectives, and that sometimes it takes negotiation. Most of all, the ability to separate self from piece is what makes the difference between a battle of wills — and making a piece (and its writer) the best it / she can be.

How do you handle critique when it’s unexpected?

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