One of my favorite ways of thinking about my own journey as a writer is to think about those whom I met along the way. I've been lucky enough to meet a wealth of people who were destined to become writers. Unfortunately, it is also fair to say that a lot of them will never become good writers. While these people write consistently, try new things, and have the discipline to pursue the goal of being a writer through good times and bad, they are not willing to do the one thing required to be a good writer: They are not willing to get better.
That lovely fantasy came to a painful end when I attended my first workshop. Once I presented my first piece, these other writers had the nerve to tell me that - brace yourselves - it was not perfect. Worse yet, we were not talking about typos or missing a semicolon - this was some structurally flawed stuff. I used the passive voice. I shifted points of view. Characters did not have depth and dimension. For all intents and purposes, the review gave me a sense that I was NOT a good writer.
For beginning writers, this is where it all counts; the rubber hits the road at this very moment. At this point, a writer can get defensive, panic, insist that everyone else is wrong or doesn't get it, or any other excuse to save them from reassessing a situation, or they can become a better writer.
As difficult as criticism is, it's priceless because it informs us about what readers see, versus when the writer creates, and the reader is just as important as anyone else. As a beginning writer, we need to have an open mind, and take in as much as possible when it comes to criticism - as long as it is constructive. Most workshop members want to help each other become better, so it helps to listen.
The only caveat I offer is a simple reminder: When your mind is open, people try to pour a lot of crap into it. By this I mean it pays to make sure you don't just change your style to obey another writer. While most criticism is constructive, some of it is less helpful than others. Be careful of criticisms that have the following traits:
- The soapbox critique - "I would've written it differently"
- The empty critic - "I didn't like it"
- The reverse discussion - "If I were you, I would've..."
The one thing that all constructive criticism has in common is that it is a discussion of styles, rules, and structures, not opinions. If someone doesn't like your work, that's their opinion. If someone can show how the structure can be shaped to make a better point, that's constructive. People can even start off with, "I felt...," but as long as it leads to a lesson, then you can build upon that. With that, you get better. Inevitably, this leads to being a good writer.
I can't say I am a great writer at this point. However, I say with all humility that by giving myself the opportunity to learn from my many mistakes, I am a better writer than I ever have been, and that's saying something.