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So You Wanna Be a Writer, Pt. 2 (For the Critics, These Pearls . . .)

Let’s say that you are more than a dreamer. You’ve actually finished a story. Now that you’ve finished it, you’re eager for feedback. You show it to friends. They read through it, and (just as you suspected), it turns out that you’re a genius. They all loved it. So did your mom. At this point, you should be growing suspicious. Is it at all likely that you’ve written the perfect book? Bet against it.

Where’s the criticism? You should be begging for it. You should want resistance. You should want people to try to tear your work down. You should want people with slender fingers and long nails pick, pick, picking at your cheap sweater.

But why?

Resistance makes you better. Criticism (from an honest reader) forces you to close gaps, fix inconsistencies, and throw whole sections away that you labored over for hours. More than that, when you wrap up a draft and hand it off to that honest and able critic, and they are unable to pick holes in your narrative, then your confidence can blossom. Look to the three little pigs for wisdom, and don’t blame the critic when your lovely straw house whistles away around your ears. And don’t be disappointed either. Criticism is your friend, even when it burns. It is gravity to your architecture. Wind to your paper kite.

We’ve already sorted aspiring writers into groups, let’s honor the tradition and do it one more time.

Group One: Some aspiring writers are desperate for criticism. Really, truly desperate. They bite your ankle and won’t let go until you agree to read their stuff. But when you do read their stuff–and you tell them exactly what’s wrong with it–you find out that they weren’t desperate for criticism at all. They were desperate for affirmation. Better (or worse), they were desperate for your connections. They wanted help, a step up, a solid plug at the old house. When they get criticism instead, the hackles rise, the gums recede (yes, the gums), etc.

Group Two: Other writers are almost ashamed to show you their stuff. They hang their heads in shame (“Yes, I wrote a novel. Don’t tell.”) If you read their fiction and give them some blow-back, the weakness continues. “I’m sure you’re right. It’s probably terrible.” They don’t even try to stand up for their work. Push against the criticism, please! No reader is infallible. Fight back. Be open to the possibility that you’re wrong, but don’t assume that you are. Criticism doesn’t improve you unless you lean against it.

I’m really only tagging this issue and running away. But, I will be back. Maybe even before Christmas. But before I fade into the oblivion of sleep, I’ll describe one final group. We could call it the Ideal Group. Some would even label it as The Imaginary Group, but I have met plenty of writers that fit within it.

Group Three: These writers want your criticism, but they weigh it (and they weigh praise as well). They aren’t offended when people pick, but neither are they intimidated and groveling. Where holes are revealed, they get to mending, grateful to have found them. When holes fail to appear, their confidence grows. Slender fingers did their worst, and that should always be reassuring. There are plenty of editors in the world that are morons (I’m not thinking of anyone in particular–I’m just judging from some of the books I see printed). And even when an editor (a high priest of possible success) dumps on their work (or makes pleasant suggestions), these aspiring writers don’t rush off and change everything. But they seriously consider changing everything . . .

A final comment. There are times when I don’t know if something is good until I delete it. And so it goes back in. But it was receiving someone’s criticism and attempting to implement it that made me keep those particular portions of my books just as they were.

My editor knows that if he sends a manuscript back to me without pencil through and through, I get nervous. I want to know that my stories can stand up beneath a storm of #2 graphite.


  1. at
    joe and jen carlson
    November 21, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    Hello Nate!

    It’s such a joy following your literary endeavors. Thank you for keeping this blog going!

    Can I just say that I will always remember your comment about my “white shoes with black pants” in Freshman Rhetoric? It’s now a hilarious memory. But I have never worn that combo since. Your words were heeded. 🙂

    So, to the point. I am currently enrolled in the Institute of Children’s Lit (in Massachussetts) to become a children’s writer. My goals concerning publication are becoming more and more clear as I move along in the coursework, writing and writing and writing. But, your candid and insightful advice is SO helpful. Finding the healthy side of pride and humility in one’s product is difficult, but so important!

    I was born into Group Two. 🙂 Criticism can be extremely debilitating, because it’s so connected to one’s self. You cradle and rock it from conception and tend to think that everyone must love your baby as much as you do. 🙂 But I do regularly dine at Group Three’s table. I want to write well, confidently, and humbly. This is hard work, but I will not run from it.

    So, just wanted to say thanks for your words. They, like the shoe advice, will be heeded. 🙂

    We hope Heather and your kids are doing well, and we hope you have a merry Thanksgiving. We’d love to say hello when y’all are in Santa Cruz next. And we can’t wait to read all the great stuff you’ve got coming!

    Jen (and Joe) Carlson

  2. at
    November 21, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    It is important to gain three things if “you wanna be a writer”: 1) a sense of quality of writing, 2) a sense of joy when you’ve participated in the dance of quality writing, 3) a sense that you will never be a great writer. Face it. The great conversation is taking place in an upper west side 1500 sq. ft. Manhattan studio – standing room only. You are not there and I am beginning to ponder whether the doors closed 2 hours ago.

  3. at
    November 29, 2008 at 1:21 am

    Jen (and Joe):

    Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you’re going for it. What age/market are you hoping to hit? (And I deny ever making any comment about your shoes when you were an undergrad–what I don’t remember can’t have happened, I’m sure.)



  4. at
    November 29, 2008 at 1:33 am


    Roger to the first two, and also on number three depending on how joyful the futility is (which hinges on the definition of ‘great’). Your closing thoughts lead me to believe that the futility you pitch isn’t joyful at all.

    I can tell you this, the ‘great conversation’ (so-called) spans centuries and lifetimes. It is the published record of the masters. The people in that Manhattan studio frequently have nothing to do with that conversation whatsoever–they’re too absorbed in the ‘great most recent trendiness and it boy/girl’ to pay attention to those whose words have outlasted trend and will outlast them.

    Last thought–writers today have an advantage over the masters (and plenty of educational disadvantages). We should be able to surpass Austen or Steinbeck or Lewis because we have the advantage of having them to look to and stand on. This is not to say that we will surpass them, but their backs are there for us to climb. Cheers (and thanks for posting).


  5. at
    joe and jen carlson
    December 2, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    Hi Nate!

    Well, I’m thinking ages 6-9ish…perhaps squeeze 10 in there too, depending. I want them to be old enough to read a good, full story, but young enough to throw in some really fetching illustrations in a non-chaptered book. And though I’m not British, I’d love it to have the wit and cheer of some of the stuff I grew up on and have since devoured as an adult. And animals often enter my head, but not the cuddly kind. And lastly, can one write a series for children on food? Kind of like a sort of G.K. Chesterton “trifle”, pulling out the beauty and hilarity of a thing, but for children…and on food specifically. I just finished a short on pie.

    As you can see, I’m still formulating. 🙂

    It was Rhetoric. I gave a speech while wearing white shoes and black pants. You asked the class to note that my eloqution was successful both because of and despite my overruling common dress code. The gist was that I got away with it in a rather whimsical manner, but to never do it again. But yah, what WAS I thinking, anyway!? Probably about Joe. Ha! 🙂

    Thank you, Nate! Merry Advent to you and you fam!


  6. at
    Caleb Woodbridge
    January 9, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    One writer I sometimes read, Paul Cornell, always gives this advice to aspiring writers: “It is your duty to seek out informed criticism of your writing, and change your writing for the better because of it”. Good advice!

  7. at
    Loren Eaton
    March 30, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Read it, loved it, blogged it.

  8. at
    February 11, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    My publisher is suggesting some major changes on a manuscript close to deadline due date. I think I am in the third group, but this blog was timely, helping me to remember that the changes will make it better….the ultimate goal….instead of focusing on the frustration of the moment.

2 Trackbacks

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