writing advice: your book is a toenail

Welcome to the first weekly installment of the reader Q&A! I get a lot of questions from the people I work with, and a lot of them are very similar. Some of this advice would be more useful if it were available to writers before they’re working with an editor, so without further ado…

First question!

I really want to be a writer, and I have always dreamed of publishing my book. I’ve written a few chapters here and there over the years, and I finally finished a first draft last month, but I am kind of stuck.

I know I need some help making my writing better, so I asked a couple of friends to read my book. One of them didn’t bother, and the other one just put some commas in and told me it was really good. I feel like everyone I know just says good job and gives it back to me, which I appreciate, but I get the feeling it’s not very useful.

The idea of sharing what I’ve written with someone I don’t know terrifies me. I don’t know if I can handle that kind of criticism. I’m worried that if I show my writing to a real editor they’ll rip it apart, and I’ll never want to write anything again. Should I even bother?

-Mark

Mark, I get a variation of this question a lot, so please know that you are not alone in having these concerns about your work. Taking criticism in a way that improves your writing and protects your person takes work, and I have a few thoughts on how you can seek feedback without feeling threatened.

Criticism is both incredibly useful and incredibly awful at the same time. We develop as writers (and as people) through constructive criticism. We need to be able to understand our weaknesses in order to improve. It’s incredibly hard. No one really enjoys focusing on the parts that need work.

Even when the criticism is constructive, actionable, and kindly delivered, it’s sometimes hard to hear about the weaknesses in your work. Writing can be really difficult because the work is very personal and very close to our authentic selves. When you are so attached to something you’ve created, criticism can feel personally wounding.

In order to successfully receive and improve from criticism, you need to create distance from your work. You need distance if you want to see your writing objectively, and you need distance if you want to be able to hear others’ thoughts about your book without responding emotionally.

The first thing I would recommend is to put some physical time and space between you and the book. Literally put the manuscript in a drawer (or put the file in a folder in your computer where you don’t see it every day), and go do something else. It doesn’t matter what you do. It doesn’t need to be productive–and probably shouldn’t be. If you’ve written a book, you’ve just spent a lot of time with a very small aspect of your life, and you need to break out of that tunnel vision. Go play some video games or something.

More important than creating physical space, however, is being able to internalize this very crucial bit of information: you are not your book. When you have spent months of your life pouring yourself into your writing, it can be incredibly easy to feel like the work is actually you. It’s not.

Your book is a thing you have created–there is no way that it can possibly have the dynamic worth of an entire human being. Still, it’s entirely natural to feel as though any criticism of your work is actually criticism of you. Objectively, though, any feedback you receive is in reaction to words you have written on a page. If you want to be a better writer, you have to let those words exist outside of your personal self.

Something I would suggest, if you’ll bear with me, is to think about your book as a “product” of your person, like a pile of hair or a toenail clipping. You want the toenail clipping to be the most perfect rendition of a toenail that it can possibly be. You want people to love it. You can even paint it, or file it, or put it on a special little shelf–anything to make a better reception for your toenail.

Ultimately, though, no matter how much people love your toenail or hate it–the toenail is not you. It came from you; it was once a part of you, but it is no longer part of your self. It no longer has any bearing on your person. Any feedback your toenail will eventually elicit has everything to do with the toenail and nothing to do with you.

The advantage to this perspective is that you’re probably not going to take any toenail suggestions very personally. If someone were to suggest that people would like your toenail better if you painted it orange, it would be pretty simple to evaluate that advice. You could paint it orange. You could not. Regardless, are you going to hate your toes because of your lack of color foresight? Probably not. That would be silly. Your toes have little to do with your toenail in its current state. They did their job. It’s no longer about them.

It should be the same way with your book. It’s just a product of your person. Listen to the criticism, learn from it, and move on. And don’t spend too much time hating your toes.

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  1. […] nervous about success, you can address that. If you’re worried about criticism, you can address that. If you’re not sure where to put the commas or how to develop a plot, you can address those […]

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