Lesson 5: Embrace Critiques and Edits with Grace

lessons from journalism

Years ago, I used to invite guests to write for my personal blog. I thought that by inviting other voices to my platform, they would 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. In other words, 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 5: Embrace 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?” There is always a more succinct way or 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 you did it wrong; it instead 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, do you know what they're going to 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 may seem like a solo endeavor, but all my best writing experiences come as part of a team. It’s crucial 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 approach.

Here’s a favorite example of how being too attached to your words 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, 'I'd worked on the story for a year and a half. It was the best thing I'd ever written and may ever write. It's offensive that the dignity of my work is dependent on a car ad.' Then, she concludes with, 'On the other hand, screw it.'

Gilbert details the editing process and concludes with, '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.'

Admittedly, this is something that comes easily to me. Decades of being edited have given me a pretty thick skin. Plus, it really is a piece of me. I previously took the CliftonStrengths test, which measures, as the name implies, your strengths. You take a detailed test—not unlike a BuzzFeed quiz but, you know, backed by research—and it spits out 34 possible strengths, ranked. My No. 1 strength is something called Maximizer. That means that I like to take something that’s good and make it amazing, that I find this process much more fulfilling than taking something that sucks and making it suck less.

As I mentioned back in Lesson No. 2, I’m no perfectionist, and being one can be—and often is—a detriment to your writing. But that’s not to say I don’t want to be spectacular at the things I care about. And working with an editor, and not letting hurt feelings cloud what they’re saying, is one of the best ways to improve writing.

I can’t discuss this lesson without a caveat: Of course, this is not to say all editors’ opinions are equal. We’ve all worked with bad editors. I had one at a previous gig who added factual errors into my stories a ridiculous number of times. It was maddening. If I’m to find a silver lining with that, however, it’s this: The experience helped me understand that, once I submit a story for publication, it’s not mine anymore.

This process is perhaps a bit drastic for literary writing—I am in no way suggesting your poem isn’t yours anymore when you submit it to a literary magazine. But when the magazine comes back with ways to improve the poem? Listen up. No one is perfect at this. Writing is an imperfect-able process.

Perhaps this should be a sub-lesson here…

Lesson 5.1: Don’t Be Too Attached to Your Words.