Listening with My Pen

Many years ago, I learned (what a shocker!) that my words don't fall out onto the paper in crystalline patterns of immutable perfection, that my manuscripts -- if they're ever going to make it into book form -- have to be rewritten as much as written. More shocking still, I came to the conclusion that alone, I lack sufficient perspective to see where the problems lie.

What took me far longer was to learn to listen, really listen, when others make suggestions. Instead, as they were speaking (or I was reading their judging sheets or personal rejections) my mind was too busy churning out a bunch of garbage. This person's clearly an idiot! Or obviously, she doesn't *get* me. Or what a bunch of horse crap! All excuses as to why I needn't listen to them.

Yet still, I wasn't selling, no matter how hard I worked on my own.

And then one day, while cleaning out my office, I came across some months-old contest scoresheets and discovered that, lo and behold, this judge's comments about my work made sense. That, in fact, they were dead right. Not all of them, but many, and I could really learn from the points this person had made.

I started wondering what else I hadn't truly "heard" while my ego was making so much noise throwing tantrums. From that point on, when I attended writers' group critiques, I started taking careful notes when people talked about the work I'd read. I made a rule against arguing with them or defending any choices. Instead, I listened, pen in hand, and let them finish. Then I thanked them and promised I'd carefully consider their suggestions.

By the time I finally started selling, this habit of "listening with my pen" and taking time to think about suggestions was incredibly helpful when dealing with editors' requests. Lots of times, editors will make what seem like unworkable (um, sometimes ridiculous) suggestions to fix some problem in the manuscript. But if you dismiss the suggestions out of hand, you'll miss the chance to see there really *is* a problem and come up with your own, far better solution.

Besides that, amateurs and a few doomed divas are the ones who argue. Pros listen to other pros, and to those who've earned respect. And they give a chance to others, too, because professionals are interested in what's best for the story, not in coddling their own egos.

And that's how they *stay* pros.


Suzan Harden said…
Criticism is one of those things a writer must carefully balance. A writer weighs the actually comment or suggestion against the experience, integrity and motivation of the person making the comment or suggestion.

Even in a nasty critique, there's a nugget to be gleaned (even if it's motivation for the villain in your next novel).