The closer I am to a piece of writing, the easier it is for me to give critique.
Decades of teaching have shown me a sad truth: most people want to be either
1. Told they are good writers
2. Told they are bad writers
But I couldn’t grade dozens of stories and poems, sometimes weekly, with this model. Besides, it doesn’t mean much to me. I wouldn’t grade kittens or flower bulbs that way. Basically I need to ask:
1. What is this piece of writing—its form, its themes, its concerns?
2. What is getting in the way of its full expression?
A few years ago I had a young student come up to me at a party and complain that I wasn’t giving her work hard enough crit. (Full disclosure—this student is an invented composite, but you can take it as a warning). My initial assessment was that she couldn’t handle any “negative” feedback, but I tried a middle ground—I just gave her a technical suggestion, but forcefully. Predictably, she flipped out. It was too hard…it was impossible! What did I learn? What I already knew—resistance takes many forms and a good editor should not play into that.
Still, I personally do not like to revise. It makes me anxious. I often have trouble keeping all the elements clear—which is why I need to revise in the first place. I will revise, though, if it means an editor may accept a manuscript. My steps are:
1. What does the editor really want? This can take some deconstruction, as often editorial notes are contradictory. (One notable editorial suggest: cut down on the dead husband. The book was about being widowed. Eventually I figured out that the problem was with the chronological arrangement—and indeed the book was published).
2. Take any edit that doesn’t truly violate my intention. But save the earlier draft, of course.
I just finished a pretty tricky revision of a novella. I’m pleased with it—more that I’d expected. Somehow I was able to get back inside. The structure was clear—so were the holes. Wish me luck!