Before I dive into this, let me preface: editing and criticism are essential to being a professional writer. I don’t care if you think your words are the best thing since 8-bit graphics, there is nothing that can’t be improved by a critical review.
Let me give you a moment if you think that doesn’t apply to you: there is nothing that can’t be improved by a critical review.
I know it’s hard to have your carefully-crafted words torn apart the first few times, but one of the best skills you can cultivate as a writer is the ability to not only accept criticism, but use it to improve your work above and beyond the individual edits. Taking a collection of individual notations and finding patterns that can improve your writing holistically is an amazing skill to have, but a hard knack to learn. It takes time and experience, but you should never stop trying.
That being said, I don’t think that initial sting ever goes away. Even after nine years of professional work, I still fear opening up an email with redlines. I still get a tiny sting when I see the meat of my work carefully shredded.1 Once that sting is past, I can look to the bone that’s uncovered and rebuild on that skeleton, which is always awesome. However, my career thus far has been all about getting past that sting – ripping off the band-aid so I can get to the good part of making the work better.
I’ve been going through a number of revision cycles in short order recently, and I’ve noted that the revision sting actually comes in a few different flavors. Each flavor itself tells me something about what I’m feeling about the work on an almost subconscious level, and I think that the sting of criticism itself can be telling in how to improve the work. It’s that tiny little editor in the back of my head, poking at the writer portion of my brain and going “Hey, asshole, pay attention to this part.” Because my little editor a foul-mouthed bastard, I’ve broken the stings down into three categories of “fuck”.
Fuck me: This is the sting of “oh god, how in the hell did that get in there?” (Also known as “who wrote this crap? Oh wait, that was me.”) This is the easiest one to resolve – someone pointed out a mistake, and you completely agree with it. Make the change and move on. I actually like these, because that means that someone caught something I missed, and the manuscript is definitely improved as a result. Cherish these moments.
Fuck this: This is the sting of “why am I even changing this?” It’s not that you necessarily agree or disagree, but you’re wondering why this revision matters. This is likely a general dissatisfaction with a larger-scale problem. It’s a bit trickier to diagnose in isolation – if you’re only getting it in a particular section, say, that section might need to be completely rewritten or just cut. If you’re getting it all over the manuscript, though, you might be burned out – consider putting it away for a while and coming back to it later.
Fuck you: This is the sting of “no, you’re wrong, my way of doing this is right.” You’re disagreeing with the criticism, and you find yourself building up defenses of the work. This is where you need to tread carefully.
As you’re starting as a writer, you need to beware this response – take a moment to really think of why the change is being offered, and see if this doesn’t actually improve the work. Despite their reputations as destroyers of quality prose, a good editor needs to be cherished like a rare jewel. They’re not ripping this apart because they hate you, but because they want to see you do better. Think about what’s being said and why, and consider if the change isn’t really better for the manuscript.
If you’re writing for hire and the criticism is from the hiring editor, always reconsider this reaction – depending on the editor, they might be open to contrary opinions, but at the end of the day, you’re writing this for them, and they can do whatever the hell they want to the material. Make sure your points are genuinely making the work better, rather than you stubbornly clinging on to something you think is particularly clever or interesting.
In general, I’ve found that the more experience you have as a writer, the less often you come across this reaction. At that point, I think you should switch from watching out from this response to embracing it – it may be your subconscious experience telling you that there’s something here that’s worth defending.
Regardless of your experience level, though, this reaction is always a good point to pause and think. I’ve taken to skipping these edits and moving on to the other “fuck me” and “fuck this” edits. Once they’re all done, I can look at the “fuck you” edits in isolation, and really think about them.
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- It’s one of the reasons why I continue to offer my own writing up for review, even though I’m a developer now – I never want to be in a position where I’ve forgotten what it’s like on the other side of the red pen. ↩