The Writing Process

On Criticism, Revision & Maintaining Neutrality When We Revisit Our Work

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All writers occasionally doubt themselves when they revisit their work.  “You, a writer?!?” our censors scoff, “can your sentences be any more choppy?”  “And that ending?  Could you conclude in a more predictable way?  I thought we did away with ‘in the end’ and ‘all and all’ in 2nd grade?”

Suddenly, our work, our whole identities are in question.  Were we really good writers?  Or had we been masters of self-deception, convincing ourselves of our talent when we really possessed none?  

“Maybe that’s why we’ve yet to be published,” we begin to think as we recall years of disheartening rejection letters, “Not because our angle on the material wasn’t ‘fresh’ enough or because what we wrote wasn’t what the publication was ‘looking for,’ but because our writing plain sucked.”

Our hearts disintegrate in our chests.  Maybe we weren’t as gifted as we’d thought.  We’re like Emma Stone’s character in La La Land: hopefuls who yearn passionately for our dreams but-  after so many years of rejection- must face the devastating possibility that maybe we’re just not good enough.

Are our doubts grounded in reality or are we merely being hard on ourselves?  Any writer will tell you their estimation of a piece will vary largely depending on their mood.  Read a piece when you’ve had a blissful day, when you’re outlook is sunny and optimistic and your writing will be brilliant.  Your words will convey exactly what you mean, your sentences will flow.  Your lead will introduce a startling fact or shocking statistic, your conclusion will give your piece a sense of closure but will still linger long after you’ve shut it closed.  Your figures of speech will seem evocative, poetic even, and your analogies, clever ways of elucidating a topic or establishing a tone.  Your paragraphs will logically and coherently follow one after another, each transition building a steady bridge between ideas.

But when you read your work after a discouraging day?  Those same words seem sloppy and imprecise, chosen carelessly without regard for the effect they’d produce.  And your sentences?  Suddenly they sound like the mechanical marching of too serious soldiers.  What was once an original, compelling lead reveals itself trite while your once perfectly executed ending strikes you as hopelessly dull.  Your figures of speech no longer enthrall with their poetry but expose themselves for the hackneyed cliches they truly are.  Those analogies you thought helped illuminate your subject turn out to be confusing or illogical.  Your points, once so systematic and structured, have no form.  And your transitions?  Ha!  Your “sturdy” bridges are too shoddy to cross.

So which assessment is right?  Is our writing the work of a promising young talent or the garbage of a hack only masquerading as art?  Neither and both.  Because our mood distorts our perception and influences our evaluation of a piece, it’s important to re-read our work when we can be as objective and neutral as possible.  That means postponing revision if we just received harsh feedback or a stellar review.  Outside opinions will sway us to view our writing one way or another.  Only when we can be rational is it time to re-read.  While you’re reviewing your drafts, be neither an adoring obsessed fan nor a carping critic- be your own ideal reader: someone who deeply admires your work but respects you enough to honestly assess what’s working and what’s not.  Every sentence ask yourself: is this furthering my main point?  is it advancing my purpose or contributing to the meaning of the work?  or is it meaningless fluff?  Be honest but sensitive.  “I think this idea needs to be clarified here…maybe add a transition” is constructive.  “This sentence is dreadful!  You’re talentless!” is not. 

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