“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill
Open to Criticism
Some people take criticism better than others, but not all of us can take it gracefully. It’s uncomfortable at best, and distressing at worst. As a writer, you have to learn to take criticism in stride, because evaluation of your work is inevitable: feedback from beta readers; notes from your editor; or reviews from readers—there will be no shortage of opinion on your writing—and not all of it will be positive. Sometimes it will be negative or pointblank harsh.
Criticism can sting. But there is no such thing as a novel that every reader likes. What’s more, creative writing is a solitary and subjective craft, and it’s easy to become blinded by your own mistakes. That’s why all writers benefit from having their work reviewed by an objective pair of eyes.
In my experience, the value of feedback comes down to its source. They say a writer is only as good as their editors, and experienced ones can tell the author what’s working and what’s not. This is because book editors focus on the content with the intention of making the writing stronger. Depending on the type of edit, some will focus on nuances an author might miss, like commenting on word choice and dialogue or correcting spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Others might be asked to look at all facets of the story, such as plot, theme, setting, and characters and make suggestions for improvement:
What does this mean? Why did he say or do that? What is she thinking? What is he feeling? This is confusing/not clear. Rephrase or include more to explain this. This is inconsistent, contradictory, or illogical with what was said or done before.
All of these are notes that editors might add in the margin.
Sometimes, however, book editors will pick up issues that go beyond a quick fix—structural problems like plot holes, character development, and pacing; too much or too little exposition; or sections that are underwritten or overwritten. Any of these could involve a more substantial rewrite, but editors are only there to suggest how to improve the story. It is up to the writer to make the changes.
A Shot in the Arm
That’s why writers need a thick skin and must learn to put their egos aside. Why? Because a writer’s goal should be to publish the best content they can. Their aim is not merely to tell a story, but to craft a book that people will enjoy reading. To do that, they must achieve clarity in their narrative and provide readers with tension, suspense, and conflict.
Of course, it’s daunting to pour your heart into a manuscript, only to receive it back from your editor covered in questions and comments. Not to mention the many hours involved in making revisions or rewriting chapters. But here’s the thing: book editors are there to bring out the best in an author. Think of it as a shot in the arm, not a slap in the face.
I’m glad to say I’m well on my way to passing this important milestone with my second novel. I had hoped it would be ready for publication about now, but then I hadn’t banked on the disruption of COVID-19 to the workflow and production processes. Lockdown restrictions, furloughed staff, remote working, children being home-schooled—all have conspired to push my programming out. The time for publication is still unclear, but I hope it won’t be too long before the book is available.
Stephen Chamberlain is the author of the fantasy novel Graëlfire. He draws inspiration from the impact of landscape on myth, and the association of liminality with the supernatural and magic. Stephen lives in Switzerland.