March 28, 2016

Commandment #10: Know When to Stand Up for Yourself & Your Work

Sometimes editors are wrong. And sometimes agents are wrong. The same can be said for reviewers, contest judges, cover designers, and really just about anyone. So how do you know when to listen to the critiques (or advice) and when to trust your own sense of the work?

The truth is, it's a fine line. Some writers believe that their first draft is brilliant and that any criticism comes from people who are jealous/closed-minded/unintelligent/unable to appreciate their genius. Some trust everything anyone tells them; they try to incorporate all of the feedback, or they give up because someone said the story was boring/awful/poorly written/would never sell/etc. Both approaches can be damaging to your work.

You've likely seen countless posts about the danger of not listening to your editor and not being open to critiques. And it's true; it's impossible to improve if you're not ready to internalize criticism and put in the work. But it's also true that at the end of the day, you know your story best. Consider the experience of this author, who lost what she felt was the core of her story due to editorial pressure. You don't want that to happen to your work—and neither should your editor.

A good editor will be able to lay out a clear explanation for every suggestion s/he provides—not simply insist you do what s/he says—because the goal is to improve your work and your vision. Understanding the reasoning behind the suggestions your editor makes will allow you to address the deeper issues of your story, rather than merely agreeing to the changes. It will allow you to know if the suggested changes are taking your work off course, while giving you the opportunity to fix the core problem(s) without losing your voice. Personally, I love it when my writers fix the problems I point out in their way, regardless of whether they incorporate my specific recommendations.

Understanding the reasoning behind the suggestions someone makes for your work also lets you discuss those deeper reasons and address the other person's concerns, rather than picking a fight or resenting their advice. Similarly, if you want to push back, you need to ensure that you do more than unilaterally reject someone's feedback or suggestions.

One author I've worked with handled a situation like this brilliantly. When she received the publisher's cover design, she didn't say, "I don't like it." She laid out clear reasons for her concerns and coherent suggestions for addressing those concerns, including sample visuals to help steer the designer's work. Now, in reality, she's lucky the publisher listened; some won't, simply because they don't have to. But she stood up for her work in a respectful way, and the result was a beautiful cover that represented her story. Had she stayed quiet or not explained her reasoning as well as she did, that cover wouldn't exist.

At the end of the day, you're the last line of defense for your story. You're responsible for ensuring that the final result is the best it can be, which does mean accepting the criticism necessary to improve it—but it doesn't mean allowing your vision to be steamrolled. It's up to you to walk that fine line of incorporating feedback and staying true to your story. It's also up to you to seek out the people—agents, editors, critique partners, and more—who will be in your story's corner, and not to settle for anything less.

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