I was 16 when I had my first professional editor, on a weekly column about my high school in my town’s weekly newspaper. I was paid $2 for each column, probably about the hourly rate for freelance writing today, thanks to the glut of writers who will take slave wages. But this post isn’t about pay. It’s about editing.
Two years later at college, I was edited by my professors in J-school. It was my introduction to taking criticism. But that wasn’t the end of it. Feedback and editing were my constant companions during a long career in corporate communications and freelance writing. I chose to be critiqued and edited in my personal writing, too, as I took workshops and hired freelance editors to hone my work.
It paid off.
I’m in my 60s and I still hire freelance editors to help me improve essays I want to submit for publication. Hey, listen, after all these years at the keyboard, it isn’t a cakewalk to see my writing coach’s feedback on personal essays. Usually, her feedback shows me that I don’t have distance on my writing, that the long view is missing, the one that will make my piece universal instead of simply a personal rant or celebration. When you write first-person essays, you can’t hide behind a character. It’s you, front and center.
As much as I love my blog for personal expression, I suspect it’s hurt my real writing. On my blog I can write unfettered by the need to be universal or less personal. Blogs, you see, are the writer’s ultimate personal expression because we can write whatever we want. We can rail, dump and say things that an editor would reject in a heartbeat.
Blogs are everywhere and that’s okay with me. I’m all for self-expression. But today, it goes a step further. Just about anyone with a keyboard can say they’re a writer today and even get “published.” Some of the things I see published on websites that don’t get edited seriously (or at all), such as HuffPo, make my writer’s soul cringe. It’s clear that HuffPo is just filling a daily content hole with…whatever. Well, ok. But here’s the thing: without editing, these content-providers have no distance on their writing and if it’s a deeply personal piece, the writer can seem tone deaf. In fact, they ARE tone deaf because they can’t see past what they meant. And often what they meant isn’t what’s on the screen.
I’m a personal essayist who writes about myself and my experiences and I KNOW I can be tone deaf. And if I don’t see it? My editor does. Because I write memoir, I can’t hide my too-human failings and flaws in the guise of a fictional character. In fiction, a reader can have a poor opinion of a character but in first-person writing, the opinion is about the writer herself. The worst thing in the world is to have an “unlikeable narrator,” something that I’ve been accused of a time or two by my writing coaches. That’s right–even now, I can be tone deaf to how things come across.
Thanks to self-publishing, just about anyone can publish a book, too. Sometimes I can’t believe what I see in print and have to pick up a volume by a great writer, such as, for example, Gore Vidal, to reassure myself that good writing did once exist and is still there.
But it’s a funny thing about those who self-publish or publish online: one bad review or a single nasty commenter can throw them. It’s always surprising when I see a blogger/writer complain about a single bad review, as if they were entitled to only good reviews. Or when they freak out about an isolated troll comment. Or even a piling on. They freak out because they haven’t developed the thick skin grown by those of us who have been edited for decades. They’re incapable of taking the feedback, evaluating it, using what’s valid to improve the next piece and moving on.
Not too long ago I had a discussion about this with Kathleen O’Donnell, a writer-friend of mine. She writes well-regarded fiction that I like. I like her, too. (Here’s her website and want to say I loved her first novel. She’s working on her second. )
“I’ve had my ass handed to me a bunch of times by editors, publishers, other writers,” she told me. “One nasty comment would be a cake walk for me!”
I told her that I saw a definite distinction between those of us who came up being edited, either starting in J-school or thereafter, and bloggers who get published and become “writers.” If after a bad review or comment, they bemoan it online and ask for support, they usually are new to the game. Because those of us who have been in the game awhile don’t need to say anything. We ‘take the note’ as they say in Hollywood, and move on.
“Indeed,” she said. “Nobody gets criticized like writers. We even pay to get criticized! That’s how badass we are.”
I laughed, but it’s true. I pay to get criticized, too. So I’m going to call myself “badass” from now on! And while I wouldn’t like getting a bad review or troll comments, it’s part of writing.
So, we have some advice for writers. If you’re brave enough to put a piece out there, then it behooves you to toughen up. Not everyone will like every pearl of wisdom that flows from a keyboard. Some critics may even have valid points.
My best writing advice is this: do as we longtime writers do. Grow a pair. If you need some, help yourself from this bowl!
And if you’d like to read more on handling bad reviews, look right here.