I wrote a post a couple weeks ago for readers on one aspect of offering feedback to writers, and that got me thinking about what I’d most want to say to my fellow writers — currently published or aspiring — on the subject of suggestions and criticism.
Getting critical feedback on one’s writing is one of the hardest parts of any creative career. In how many other jobs are you are expected to hear what you’ve done wrong and how you can do it better with every step in every piece of work? But it’s a necessary discomfort. We need outside feedback to make sure our stories are as good as they can be. The story in our head is never going to make it perfectly onto the page, and that story in our head can stop us from seeing clearly what really is on the page. Hearing from others what they see allows us correct weaknesses and errors that escaped our notice, and to adjust and revise so that we’re getting across the story we wanted to tell as accurately as possible.
To me, that last part is what’s most important. Sometimes, yes, you’ll realize that an element a story isn’t actually as strong as you thought, or you need to take your characters in a different direction than you originally intended to avoid a plot hole, or you’ve unintentionally included content that’s problematic, all of which you’ll want to address. But ultimately the best thing you can do is focus on that story you want to tell. Writing and revising can’t be about pleasing others. That’s the lesson I wish I’d learned sooner:
You can’t win.
You are never going to write a story so wonderful and flaw-free that everyone in the world adores it, or even likes it reasonably well. No such story exists. What’s the best-crafted book you can think of? What’s the most innocuous? Look them up GoodReads and if they have at least a couple dozen reviews, I guarantee there’ll be someone harshly criticizing them.
And it isn’t even a matter of perfection being just out of reach, if only you’d thought of X or done Y, you’d be okay. One of the first things you’ll notice (or will have noticed) when you offer your creative work to the world is that not only will there inevitably be people who are critical of it, the criticism you get from different sources will inevitably clash. Someone will say the pacing is too slow, and others will say it moves too quickly. Someone will find it too complex and others too shallow. Some will see this character as too selfish and others as too selfless. And so on. At this point I honestly believe that any criticism that can be leveled at a story, at some point there is someone who will make it at this story.
You can’t please everyone — it’s impossible, when your audience is made up of people with a huge variety of often-conflicting backgrounds, interests, and perspectives. You can’t win. At least not at that game.
You could see that idea depressing. But to me, and this is why I wanted to share it, it’s freeing. Once you accept that you can’t win, you can let go of trying to. Step away from the “game” of trying to please every editor, every critique partner, every reader. And let yourself delve into what really matters to you about whatever you’re working on. Write and revise not as an attempt to eliminate every hint of anything anyone might criticize, but to bolster the parts of the story that you feel are worth celebrating.
I think you’ll find that not only are you happier, but your work will be better for it. Stories aren’t loved for what they avoid doing, but for what they do. Read a few ecstatic reviews from readers of a popular book or series, and you’ll know that people can absolutely adore something no matter how many problems they notice it has. Make people think and feel, give them an experience that affects them, and that’ll matter more to them than almost any flaw.
So the advice I’d most want to give every writer is this: Make sure you’re telling the story you want to tell, and then tell that story with all the passion and conviction you have in you. You won’t win with everyone, but no one does. When you accept that, you won’t really be losing either.