Lesson 5: Embrace Critiques and Edits with Grace

lessons from journalism

Years ago, I used to solicit guests to write for my personal blog. By getting other voices on my platform, I figured, they’d promote my blog to their circles, and it would grow my readership. 

Things went fine for a few posts. I’d ask a blogger I admired to contribute, she (because they were always she’s—this was before I became mindful enough to try and vary the voices I spotlit) would send me a post. I’d review it, then post it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But then there was this one blogger. I don’t remember her blog or her name, but for the ease of storytelling, let’s call her Precious. There is one step in my process that made Precious absolutely Lose. Her. Mind. Can you spot it?

This little part, right here: I’d review it.

Another person touching Precious’ words turned this sweet, affable, silly (at least, that was how she portrayed herself on her blog) woman into a livid, raging one.

If you’ve been reading Lessons From Journalism, or if you’ve noted the title of this series, you know I’m a trained journalist. Experience in high school media for three years, J-school (including writing for the campus newspaper and various magazines) for four, and small- to mid-town papers for eight. Currently, I freelance for small- to big-town media. Which is all to say: I’m not just used to being edited, but I recognize it as an ingrained part of the process. As ingrained as consulting expert sources or performing actual writing.

This is the first time I’ve thought about Precious in years, but I think of her now because this is a perfect segue into…

Lesson No. 5: Handle critiques and edits with grace

Journalism quickly teaches how not to be precious with your words. Because the words I write aren’t just my words; they’re also the words of the publication that is going to print my words, and that publication has an owner. It has editors who have been hired and received their own training. I have yet in life to produce a piece of writing that has not been improved upon by someone else giving it a read—including and especially when it comes to literary writing. 

I find that this resistance to editing tends to be more common for folks who are new to writing for an audience. There’s a feeling of, “I have carved out a piece of my soul and arranged it for you just so. How dare you change it?” But there’s always a more succinct way. A metaphor you haven’t considered. There are always blind spots; you know what you intended to say, but a reader might struggle to follow the story. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or did it wrong; it means things could be better. (Though sometimes, yes, you did it wrong.) 

This is all A-OK. Because figuring out how to improve is not only part of the process but one of the most fun parts of the process. To see something you created get better? To see it achieve its goal more successfully? Oof, that’s the dream.

If you’re a writer who’s seeking an agent, or you hope to one day be agent-seeking, this lesson will help you achieve that goal. Many agents have editorial backgrounds, and they’ll want to go through changes before they even start pitching your book to editors. And once an editor gets their hands on your work, know what they’re gonna do? Provide a bunch of edits. If you can handle critique with grace, that means others in the industry will want to work with you. Writing seems like a solo endeavor, but all my best writing experiences come as part of a team. It’s vital to be a good teammate, and being able to view your work not as an extension of your soul but as a product that can be improved isn’t such a bad way to go.

Here’s a favorite example of how preciousness can be to your detriment: In her book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the first short story she ever published. Esquire had accepted the story, which was slated to appear in an issue with Michael Jordan on the cover. This was, as she writes, “the break of a lifetime.” Then an advertiser pulled out, and the issue had to be shortened. Esquire called and said, You can either cut this 10-page story by 30%, or we can hold off and see if we can maybe place it in a future issue. But no guarantees.

She shares that she’d worked on the story for a year and half, how it was the best thing she’d ever written and may ever write. She shares how offensive it is that the dignity of her work is dependent on a car ad. And then she writes, “On the other hand, screw it.”

Gilbert details the editing process and concludes, “What you produce is not necessarily sacred just because you think it’s sacred. What is sacred is the time that you spent working on the project, and what that time does to expand your imagination, and what that expanded imagination does to transform your life.”