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.

Commandment #9: Don't Be Afraid to Put Your Work Out There

Rejection sucks. No one is going to argue that point, and no writer is going to pretend that they like being rejected.

But trite as it may sound, if you never try, you can never succeed. Sure, if you submit a short story to a literary journal, or send a novel off to an agent, you might get rejected. With the amount of other writers doing the same thing, odds are that you will get rejected. But if you don't submit anything, you lose any chance of being accepted at all.

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I figure submissions are kind of like the heads of a hydra: cut one off, and two more grow back in its place. So personally, when I get one rejection, I try to send the story off to two more places. The other day, I was looking around, trying to figure out where to send one of my stories, and I came across a link to The New Yorker's submissions page. Now, I am 99.9999999% sure that The New Yorker is never going to be interested in anything I write. But! What if? If I submit to them, maybe there's only a 0.00000001% chance that my story will get accepted—but if I don't, that number drops to a flat 0% chance, and those odds are even worse.

Another thing to consider is that, even when your work gets rejected, you could get helpful feedback. True, in many cases you'll get a form rejection. But every so often you'll get specific comments about what didn't work for that publication/agent, why they weren't interested, whether they're excited to see more of your work, etc. That feedback is a tool you can use to improve your writing, better understand what that publication/agent is looking for, and submit stronger work in the future. You can learn from it, and you can grow as a writer as a result.

Plus, though it may hurt to put your heart and soul into your writing only to have someone tell you it isn't good enough, ultimately it's good practice. Because once your work does get published, you're at the mercy of readers everywhere. No matter what you write, no matter how brilliant, some people are going to hate it. You may get scathing reviews—and again, that sucks—but if you've built up a thick skin from all those rejections, you'll have a bit more perspective on how subjective opinions are, and you won't let those opinions stop you.

Don't let rejections make you think your story isn't worthwhile. It might need revisions, or it might be a simple matter of not being a good fit for that particular publication/agent. Plenty of the most influential, bestselling writers were rejected dozens of times before finding success.

Your story deserves telling—but in order for the world to hear it, you need to get it out there.

Commandment #8: Not All Critiques Are Created Equal

It's tempting to listen to your best friend, your supportive family member, or even that writer you met in a critique group who's telling you that your work is pretty much perfect, except for a couple tweaks. It's even more tempting when it's someone who calls themselves an "editor" paying you endless compliments (and charging you money to boot!). Maybe they're even right. But if you're struggling to meet your publishing goals, those unhelpful "critiques" could be to blame.

We all like to be told that we did an amazing job, and more importantly that we're done. No more work needs to be put into this project because it's great exactly as it is! Incredible feeling, right? But you can't trust just anybody who gives you this kind of feedback. 

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There's a reason your fellow writer or friend doesn't catch that massive plot hole, point out character development problems, or notice that your subplot stops existing halfway through the book. And there's a reason a good editor catches all of these problems and more.

Just like programming, drawing, gymnastics, etc., editing is a skill. Like most skills, editing well is something that must be learned and then honed. Having an English Literature degree doesn't automatically make you a good editor. Neither does being a bookworm, or even a successful author. These things don't preclude you from being a good editor, of course, but they're insufficient.  Not everyone can catch the problems, point them out, and provide useful suggestions on how to fix them. It takes knowledge and practice, and possibly a natural inclination toward that kind of work (what people like to call "talent"). 

As a writer, you should seek out not those who pay you endless compliments, but those who actually have the experience and knowledge to evaluate your writing and help you improve. They should be able to abstract themselves from their relationship with you and focus entirely on your work. Similarly, you should evaluate the quality of the feedback and disregard how much you like the person.

There is a clear hierarchy to the value provided by a critique. Someone who doesn't read in your genre is pretty low on the list, because they have no frame of reference for what your target readers will expect and enjoy. A beta reader or a fellow writer without much critiquing experience would be somewhere toward the middle, as in many cases, they lack the experience and wherewithal to provide honest criticism and clear suggestions for improvement. An experienced critique partner, especially one who is familiar with your genre and has previously provided useful feedback, is close to the top. But nothing beats a qualified, experienced, and skilled editor.

Remembering this hierarchy can help you sift through contradictory critiques and suggestions, choose the direction in which to take your revisions, and decide how much work still needs to be done. Another way to think about it is: A good beta reader will point out what they like in your book. A good critique partner will point out what isn't working. A good editor will also help you fix it. 

Have you received contradictory critiques on your work? How did you decide which suggestions to prioritize?


Commandment #7: Respect Your Editor

There's a strange culture among writers nowadays of demonizing their editors. Not even intentionally, most of the time, but it still happens. Even authors who love their editors—who post gushing things about them on their blogs, or tweet nice things about them, or recommend them to friends—will joke about how they're paying their editor "to be insulted."

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I get it: authors use humor to lament being beaten down by editorial feedback so that their fellow writers will commiserate. I know, too, that sometimes we editors ask for complicated changes, or we might point out a huge plot hole that derails your entire vision of the end of your book. And facing those revisions can be daunting and disheartening.

I'm not saying that there are no bad editors out there; there are, and if you genuinely believe that your editor is insulting you, inhibiting your writing, disregarding your book's best interests, or just generally feels to you like "the bad guy," get a different editor. Even if your editor was assigned to you by a publishing house, you can request a switch if you truly can't work together.

Your editor should never be the villain in your tale. Our goal is to make your work stronger, and if that means returning a manuscript to you covered in red ink, so be it. Once you've considered our suggestions and made any necessary changes, your book will be that much stronger. Better to get this feedback from us, pre-publication—when you can still fix the problems—than to have a reviewer post a scathing review about that plot hole you didn't notice, right? The bottom line is that we're on your team; you shouldn't feel any negative feelings toward us. (But feel free to lament about the revision process itself—that part certainly isn't fun!)

Here's the thing: If you're saying things like this about your editor for sympathy, consider what message you're sending to other writers—and to your editor.

For the writers, you're perpetuating the fear of criticism that makes writers react defensively rather than internalizing editorial comments and incorporating them. You don't have to make every change we suggest, but you should consider the aim or reasoning behind each one thoughtfully: Why did we think that word or phrase needed to be changed? Why is that character's action not reading realistically to us—is there something you could clarify elsewhere to make sure other readers don't have this same reaction? How is it possible that we believed those two characters were a married couple when you thought you'd made it obvious that they were in fact siblings? Et cetera.

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As for the editors, when you complain about how "brutal" the notes we send are, you're implying that we derive pleasure from unfairly criticizing your work. We're not trying to make you miserable, and, no matter the level of revision needed, we're not trying to say that your writing isn't great. That's not what editing is about! (More often than not, we love your writing and think you're the bee's knees. But even our favorite writers need editorial guidance.)

The absolute best feeling for an editor is seeing writers improve their work and grow in their craft as a result of working with us—and that growth wouldn't happen without authors putting in the hard work of internalizing feedback and plunging into revisions.

Everyone needs a good editor. Even editors need editors.

So how about the next time you're awaiting edits, or going through pages covered with red ink, you quell the impulse to make jokes at our expense?

Not cool: "Waiting for my editor to send me her notes. So funny how we writers pay to be insulted!"

Totally cool: "Wow, every page is covered with corrections. My editor must have spent so much time on my work, helping me to make it stronger. I'm so glad she caught things I never would have noticed! Now on to revising (ugh)."