Writing Year 5 of 10: Be Grateful for Criticism. Really!

It’s a dazzlingly beautiful day here on Brady Street, at least from inside. I made a post office run and the wind is chilly. But the flowering trees in the sunlight and green grass … heavenly! And aren’t Leo and Larry handsome in the window above our ornamental willow tree?

It is also Canada Day here! Because? I just sent off an order to Alberta, and we have an interview guest from Ontario. Read on!

As humans, we sometimes misjudge our own stories.

In 2014 and 2015, I wrote a memoir. I delved into my childhood, my teaching career, my mom’s death. I wrote about crushes and loss and depression and my new career in heart surgery. I sent it to several people, including my friend and former co-teacher Sharon Martin, who by that time had moved to Ontario where she had lived previously.

After reading the memoir, Sharon cautioned me against publishing it. I remember calling Sharon from my hotel room at a writer’s conference in Madison, Wisconsin to clarify her opinion on this memoir. I felt a sad fog in my heart that she didn’t think my lovely story would work.

From her end of the phone, Sharon cautioned me that the manuscript possibly needed some time. I did pitch the book to an agent, because I had signed up for a slot, who asked to see it. Thankfully, she didn’t want it.

Sharon has been a teacher for 25 years. She and I taught together for two years at United Christian School. She received a bachelor’s degree in English Education and History Education from Pensacola Christian College. More recently, she completed her master’s degree in education through Cairn University. She now teaches at Countryside Christian School.

I called Sharon to reminisce.

After thoroughly discussing quarantine and the new Ontario government announcement on the stay at home order, we got down to business.

First of all, I thanked her for reading it. Now that I’ve lived longer, I realize what a giant request it is to ask someone to read an entire manuscript, for free.

“I remember reading the book, and because I was your friend I enjoyed it,” she said. “But I remember thinking, I wonder if you’ll be happy that you published this in ten years.”

“I’m so glad that I didn’t,” I said.

“I think some of my feeling came from listening to other writers and how they felt about personal work being published later,” Sharon said. “I’m not saying that no one should ever publish something that they regret ten years later. There’s a time and a place to go for it. But there’s also a time and place to let something marinate a little, to see if your perspective changes, or to see if it is going to stand the test of time.”

“I have enough things that I regret about the other books that I’ve published that weren’t even super personal!” I said. “It’s not that what I wrote wasn’t true, or that parts of it might not be appropriate for a later time.”

“I remember thinking that there are parts of this that other people could benefit from,” Sharon said. “I just thought maybe you didn’t want to be that vulnerable in front of the entire world.”

What a great friend!

Reflections About Criticism

Criticism in any field is tough, but learning to take it is essential to a productive life. I could give you a list as long as my arm of times that I didn’t take criticism well. In fact, accepting criticism poorly might be one of my cardinal weaknesses. But here are some of the things that I’ve learned about criticism and writing.

  1. Writers need other eyes. Writers often become enamored with their own stories. I heard a statistic recently that I should have written down, but as I recall it, 80% of people believe their life contains a story. But, can we back away sufficiently to know which parts of our story connect to other people?
  2. No writer achieves permanent perfection. If everyone in your life only praises your writing, you’ve possibly surrounded yourself with the wrong people.
  3. When someone tells you how to improve your writing, thank them. It’s like a friend telling you that you have broccoli in your teeth before you walk into a crowd of people. Whew!
  4. The publisher, agent, or editor is always right. If your publisher criticizes you, be especially grateful. I’ve received good treatment from my publisher despite turning in some pretty pathetic things. I’m also sure I haven’t thanked them enough. Don’t argue. If they are putting out money to produce your book, they make the last call.
  5. Join a writer’s critique group! I am in a writer’s group with my family, and although we usually manage to dish out plenty of criticism, they are probably too nice to me. It wouldn’t hurt me to join another group.

It applies to life as well as to writing. If you have friends who are willing to give you honest feedback to make your product better, you have gold.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

7 thoughts on “Writing Year 5 of 10: Be Grateful for Criticism. Really!”

  1. Ah-h, criticism! We LOVE it, well, at least when we’re giving it! : (
    Just a comment on what your aunt said about you “ah-ing” so many times : )
    Many people have this habit. I remember a certain person who would do it several times in almost every sentence! It was very difficult to remember what he was trying to share when he had devotions! BELIEVE me, you’re not the worst although you & I and most likely everyone else (!), could improve! Your message still gets through!!
    I can ignore the “AH”s, just keep writing!! : )

  2. Thank so much for these words of wisdom. I have been writing 2 books for my family.
    Thanks again,

    1. Katrina Hoover Lee

      Family books can be tricky, especially if two people are telling you different things! Blessings!

  3. Thanks for putting these blogs in pod cast form. I enjoy your blog but with pod-cast version I can get some billing done while enjoying your content.

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