Excuses, excuses: how to stay a bad writer

I’ve been critiquing creative writing in various forms for a pretty long time. I don’t say that to establish my credentials, but to explain that I have been around the proverbial block like a bus driver. I know the potholes, the cracked curbs, the overgrown lawns and the omnipresent graffiti. I see the same people getting on and off at the same stops–the kid with headphones riding to school, the lady in a suit whose heavy perfume can’t mask her sweat, the old guy whose daily victory is making it up the steps without his knees giving out. Sometimes there’s an accident mucking up traffic, or a passenger gets uppity, but mostly it’s the same thing over and over. Good writers rarely start out good, and if they do, they probably aren’t on the bus, they’ve got a car and they’re driving themselves around.

But enough with the belabored metaphor. The thing is, for every burgeoning writer who wants help and criticism in order to get better, there are ten, twenty, maybe a hundred others who want their egos stroked. There is nothing wrong with writing something for yourself, or your friends, or your therapist, or any other reason that your bloody viscera desires. But if you ask someone to critique your work, ostensibly so you can improve it, then by golly gosh darn you’d better be prepared to have a sunshine enema, sweetiepants.

With that in mind, I present to you the most common responses of wannabe writers, when confronted with criticism:

1) You just don’t get it.

There are two ways this can go. Either yes, I certainly do get it, because your poem or story is about as deep and nuanced as a playground argument; or no, I don’t get it, because your work is so obscure or vague that there is nothing to get. Questioning my ability to understand your writing does not actually improve your writing. Assume that unless I tell you that I don’t get it, I do. And I still think it needs revision.

2) It’s exactly how I intended it to be.

I can intend for my lasagna to taste like dog poop, but my husband still won’t eat it. Go figure. Intent is useful to consider when revising, in that writing is generally meant to communicate and so you may want to work on getting your message across better, but you don’t get to mandate how your reader interprets something. If there is a disconnect, and you don’t like it, you’re the one who needs to make changes, not the reader. And if you intended that your work be dog poop, I’m not sure what to tell you. Not to mention, why are you asking for critique if it’s everything you want it to be, and more?

3) You’re too narrow-minded about poetry/dialog/plot/whatever.

You’re not narrow-minded enough. We can all sit around and argue about what constitutes a poem, or how normal people talk, or how experimenting with different colors and typefaces is so totally edgy, man, you don’t even know… or you can accept that standards exist, and no amount of whining about where the goalposts are will turn your bad kick into a field goal. Look, you’ve made me use a sports metaphor. Terrible.

4) You have no feelings, so you can’t feel what I feel.

It’s true! I’m actually a complex computer program that my creator has unleashed on the unsuspecting amateur writers of the world. If I had feelings, I’d be watching Lifetime original movies and signing petitions to end animal cruelty. Guess I’ll go back to the binary bar to hang out with the other internet outcasts: Viagra spam and MySpace.

5) You’re being mean because you have personal issues.

Your tears and impotent rage are my champagne and caviar-stuffed lobster. I spend my little spare time seeking out terrible writing and critiquing it because my parents never hugged me when I was little. ALL I WANTED WAS SOME LOVE. WHY YOU GOTTA MAKE ME HIT YOU, BABY?! My “personal issue” is that I have this delusional hope that I might be able to help people. If you don’t want my help, jog on.

6) You’re not an authority, so your opinion doesn’t matter.

My dad has a saying about opinions, but it’s not suitable for mixed company. Suffice it to say that everybody has them, and indeed, some can be more valid than others. But my credentials, or lack thereof, don’t automatically render my opinions right or wrong, anymore than your credentials, or lack thereof, automatically make your writing good or bad. Your work isn’t only going to be read by people with a degree in whatever you deem worthy to make them fit judges of your work. You don’t get to hand pick your audience like a bouncer at a bar letting only the beautiful people in.

When someone critiques your work, maybe you feel attacked and hurt and angry and all sorts of other unpleasant things, but take a step back and recognize that the person may not know you very well, and/or is very unlikely to have a personal vendetta against you. They are probably not out to show how amazing and awesome they are by putting down your work. People are trying to give you honest feedback, and you are rejecting it because you don’t like it. Bad idea.

Should you take every criticism to your bosom like a cuddly asp? Of course not. But listen to what people have said, whether you like it or not. Step back and try so see where they’re coming from, and then decide whether to use or discard what they’ve offered to you. Try to consider each criticism carefully, especially if more than one person has offered it. Be just as wary of the person who says “It’s great!” as the one who says “It sucks!” because neither statement is helpful.

And always, always remember to thank the bus driver when you get off at your stop.

3 Responses to “Excuses, excuses: how to stay a bad writer”

  1. Edcrab says:

    Look, the lobster is metaphorical. If you keep that in mind it all makes sense. Go back and read it again.

  2. Good points, all of ’em. A bit of tough love for our fragile egos. Tough but necessary. Thanks!

  3. Valerie says:

    Thank you guys for reading! I’d like to stress again that this applies only to people who have specifically asked for critique. Everyone writes for different reasons and to impose criticism on someone who doesn’t want it, and then get offended when they reject it, is its own brand of insufferable.

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