Editing 102: Ownership

by Ed Davis on May 26, 2015

May 26, 2015

To truly benefit from someone’s critiquing/editing of your fiction, you need to be extremely open and receptive but not to the point where you lose ownership of your writing. But, you ask, how can you make sure you’ve not ceded ownership to another person, even unconsciously?

Using your innate writerly instincts for what does/doesn’t work in a story, try hard to develop greater intuition: inner voices that suggest you’re on- or off-track. After a while, you should be able to do this not only as you’re revising your fiction but even as you write!

As you listen to or read someone’s critique of your work, make sure to:

  • Consider the source. Most of the folks who critique your work are well-intentioned; however, they aren’t all equally qualified. You can find out by (a) inquiring politely about their tastes, reading and writing interests and publications, if any; and (b) listening carefully for such proofs in their critiques (“I only read mysteries”). As for family members, only use them if you’re capable of the greatest humility and objectivity.
  • Be wary of quirky prejudices. We all have some biases when it comes to what we read or write, but take broad statements like “Never use flashbacks” with a grain of salt. (Ask why.)
  • Separate taste from craft issues. Listen carefully to ascertain if the critic simply doesn’t like your kind of plot and characters and genre, or is pointing out a very real craft problem that is both fixable and necessary. If it’s the latter, find out all you can (take notes) about the problem; it’s of course up to you how and whether to fix it.
  • Don’t let the critic write it for you. Listen carefully for a turn in the conversation when the well-meaning critic actually begins describing where the plot should go or what the characters should do. I found myself, after a few years of conducting student workshops, able to detect this shift and gently steer the conversation back to an examination of what the author seemed to be striving to do in the story and how best to achieve that.
  • Ask the critic for the most clarity she’s capable of. Critics won’t always be able to precisely articulate their criticism. Don’t discount them! Asking a few questions during or following the critique could greatly clarify things for you. (*I believe it’s partly fear of hurting a writer’s feelings that can render us nearly mute as critics at times. You can put your critic at ease by your complete lack of defensiveness and willingness to understand their criticism.)
  • Make sure the critique resonates. Put their suggestions to the test: do you feel the rightness (or potential rightness) of what your critic is saying (or trying to say) in the middle of your chest (or along your spine or wherever—it’s visceral as well as intellectual for me)? At first, everything critics say might seem to resonate, but as you gain experience and confidence, resonance morphs into a reliable truth meter, even though there’ll still be agonizing choices to make at times. That’s just part of the revising job.

In a nutshell, the above represents my experience, over forty years, of growing skin tough enough to take good, honest criticism. As you submit your work to be critiqued in groups, you can look forward to experiencing good role models—and the other kind as well. I can’t stress enough the advantages of being polite, humble, cheerful and as objective as possible both in giving and receiving literary criticism. Otherwise you’re wasting time arguing, defending and getting unnecessarily stressed. It’s best not to take offense; i.e., no pouting or sarcasm allowed, ever. (Remember Ann Lamott’s analysis from Rosie: “Having a resentment is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.”)

Breaking Market News…

The Columbus Creative Cooperative invites submissions for their next anthology Best of Ohio II from June 1-30, 2015. The anthology is open to nonmembers as well as members who identify themselves as “Ohio writers.” Stories should be between 1,000-10,000 words and must not exceed reasonable content for a PG-13 rating, meaning that language, violence and sexual themes with a purpose are fine, but gratuitous violence and graphic sexuality will not be accepted. More details and specifics about how to submit are available at: http://columbuscoop.org/blog/2015/04/10/best-of-ohio-short-stories-volume-ii-official-submission-guidelines/

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kim W June 2, 2015 at 2:10 pm

Wonderful, insightful advice!

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