My twenty-five years as an elephant

I’ve now read a number of articles, giving advice to would-be authors and there is a common piece of advice that continually pops up.

“Be like an elephant and develop a thick skin”, these articles preach, because you’re about to receive criticism.

It’s hard; this is your heart-and-soul poured onto the page.  Your world.  Your characters.  Your idea.  It can be hard to hear people say they don’t like what has come from the very core of your being.

If I were a mathematician, I would be confident in my answer because there is (usually) one answer.  But there isn’t one answer to a story equation, so developing a thick skin to ward off criticism is good advice, especially in a creative field.

Even though I am a fledgling author in the fiction stakes, I am lucky.  You see, when it comes to developing a thick skin, I’m already an elephant.  I’ve been a copywriter for twenty-five years and every single day of my working life, I have had people looking at my writing for their brochure, web site, campaign, newspaper or magazine and given me feedback on what I’ve written.  I’ve learned by necessity to have a thick skin.

Sometimes the criticism points out a flaw that needs ironing out.  That’s fine.  Sometimes the feedback mentions something extra that could actually enhance the point being made.  All good.

But sometimes the feedback is based on personal preference which doesn’t help.  Or it comes from a place so far removed from what I’m trying to achieve that I can’t even see it from my place behind the laptop.

It has taken time – and some days it’s still not easy – but the reason I’m blogging about it is to hopefully help other writers by talking about what I’ve learned in my twenty-five years as an elephant.

So here goes.

  1. Not all criticism is equal. One of the challenges of managing feedback and criticism on something you’ve created is that sometimes the feedback you get isn’t helpful.  Let me illustrate: I wrote a non-fiction book called Swimming Upstream which was written specifically for couples having trouble conceiving.  After my first draft was complete, I cherry-picked couples on IVF and asked for their feedback first because they were going to be my readers.  I listened to their feedback very, very closely.  If others outside of this group pointed out an analogy they didn’t like or the way a point was presented, I ran this past my couples on IVF.  If they didn’t agree, it stayed in.  That’s lesson number one: yes, you can give your manuscript to every aunt and uncle you’ve got, but you need to be aware of how qualified that person is to give you criticism you can use.  If your editor flags some issues, their input is weightier than Great-Grandma Audrey who thinks you write better than that “Harry Potter lady”.
  2. Ask for honesty and be prepared for it. As I say to any0ne who reads a draft of my manuscript: be honest with me.  If there are problems with the style, story, structure or storyboard, I need to know now. Try to switch your mind around so criticism isn’t a negative; instead it’s a chance to improve what you’ve written.
  3. The best question you can ask is ‘why?’ I have the occasional client who looks at my copy and say they don’t ‘like’ something.  (I’m not a bad copywriter – ask anyone who has written for money and they’ll tell you the exact same thing). The key to understanding that question lies in another question: ‘why?’ Going back to the infertility book, whenever someone mentioned a phrase they didn’t like, I asked them why.  On the occasions where they told me it wouldn’t work for potential readers or there was a better way of explaining it, a change was made.  But where the answer was “I’m not sure, it’s just not me”, I then filtered that feedback differently.  I’m not suggesting you ask why as a way of batting away criticism; it’s offered to you as a way to filter criticism. If you take every criticism to heart and change your work accordingly, you will change things for the sake of it and end up watching your work get batted back-and-forth like a tennis ball.
  4. Play the numbers game.  If one person provides feedback and I’m not sure about it (providing they’re not my editor), I play a numbers game.   That’s not to say I ignore that single person; instead I float that specific piece of feedback past another handful of people.  If the next nine people disagree with them – I more than likely don’t make that change.  But if they agree, I’ve got some work to do.
  5. Realize the worst person to check your work is you.  Once you’ve seen your writing more than once, your brain starts to autocorrect.  It misses holes in your plot, cliches and even typos – bceuase yuor brain is abel to fxi mitsakes as it raeds.  (See what I did there?) When I wrote Swimming Upstream, it took a few years to put together 288 pages.  When I handed it to my editor, she handed it back with 55 typos or grammatical issues across the 288 pages.  That number – 55 – is burned into my ego; I’m a copyeditor for a living, but she still found 55 errors. 55. Errors.  I know, I should let it go.
  6. Pay attention to the feeling.  If someone points out an issue with my manuscript, and I have the slight inkling that they’re right, then they’re probably right.  What that criticism is doing is pointing out something you already know; it’s getting in behind the guard you’ve set up to protect yourself and you were perhaps not wanting to change because you ‘liked’ it.  In my manuscript, that was the intro to my chapter one. I liked it; it made me smile. But when I got my critiques back, I had a feeling creeping up the nape of my neck and I just knew it had to go – all it did was keep the reader away and make the story harder to dive into.

I wish you well with handling criticism.  These are some of the things I’ve learned in my twenty-five years as an elephant and hopefully they can benefit you as well.

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