The opportunity to offer criticism comes with undeserved power. As a critic, we put ourselves above the artist, providing our authoritative opinion on the artists work. The thing is, that’s not what every writer needs to hear.
Ascending to this position feels good and costs us nothing. I think that is why we are so quick to do it. If you are like me, the second someone brings you their work, you feel an urge to tell them all the ways it can be improved, and you feel good about yourself while doing it.
But what if we rejected that feeling, took a different approach, and tamed the inner critic? What impact would that have on the artists in our lives?
What Every Writer Needs to Hear
Recently, I was sitting at my kitchen table, my face buried in my laptop, trying to figure out a promotion I wanted to run that month on a book, when my daughter said, “Excuse me, Daddy.” Looking up, I was greeted by her nervous twelve-year-old smile and hopeful eyes. She was clutching a notebook and rocking her weight from one foot to the next.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Um, I wrote this story,” she said, “and I was wondering if you would read it?”
The last thing I wanted to do was read her story. Please don’t think I’m a monster. I was working on a difficult problem and I had a deadline—an artificial deadline I had created that mattered to no one but me, but still, a deadline. The point is, I was busy and I didn’t believe I had time to read her notebook, so I mumbled something like, “Maybe later when I’m not in the middle of things.”
She looked at the ground and her smile was replaced by a line of disappointment. “Okay,” she said, and she turned to leave.
Recognizing that I was behaving like a monster, I caught her and said, “Okay, let me see it.”
The smile on her face and the bounce in her feet returned as she passed the notebook over and waited. The story was short, only eight handwritten pages. I read it quickly and immediately spotted multiple problems. Her beginning hook didn’t occur until deep into page two, she began the first paragraph world building—a short story no-no—and there was no appreciable change of character through the narrative. Quickly, I organized my feedback in my mind and decided which of these fatal flaws was the most important for her to hear.
But then I looked up and saw her expectant face and I put all my criticism down. Instead of offering all the criticism I had running through my brain, I said three things. These are three things I believe every writer needs to hear. In fact, they’re not just for writers—these are great things to say to any creative in your life.
“I love that you finished a story. That’s amazing.”
Taking a blank page and turning it into a story is hard work.
There is a reason writing is often referred to as “bleeding on paper.” The generation of something new from nothing costs the artist mentally and emotionally. Creatives put pieces of themselves on the page.
Sometimes, acknowledging this personal sacrifice is the most important thing we can do for the creative people in our lives.
“Can I read it?”
An eager audience is every creator’s dream. We know about art because the creator has made it to be shared.
To ask a creator if you can experience their story will ignite a spark in the creator’s heart. It provides for her evidence that she is not alone and that someone does care about her and what she does.
“What’s your favorite part?”
Rarely does the consumer see the work in the same way the creator sees it. In any story, there will inevitably be portions the writer poured herself into that the reader will not even notice.
When a creative finishes something, part of what they want to share is the story of their new work’s creation. Asking the creative what she loves about it will communicate that you want to hear what the creator has to say, that you want to know the journey she has gone through.
The Magic of Celebration
As I spoke these words to my daughter, I watched her come alive. She beamed when I applauded her accomplishment, she was thrilled that I wanted to read what she’d spent time working on, and she went on and on about how hard it was for her to get this small piece of dialog I’d completely missed to sound just right. After we’d talked, I thanked her for bringing me the story and she gave me a hug and then went off to write another.
When a creative presents her work to us, most of the time she isn’t looking for criticism. Making stories from a blank page is hard and emotionally taxing work. At the end of a project, the author has a desire to hold this new thing she has given birth to out to the world and say, “Look at what I made.”
She knows it’s not perfect. She knows it has problems. She knows it likely isn’t going to sell without a huge marketing push behind it.
But that’s not the point.
What the creative really wants is for us to celebrate with her in the birth of this new thing.
What’s the best thing someone’s said to you after reading your writing? Let us know in the comments.
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