Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Working with a Writing Mentor, Part 4: When Do I Get to Stop Paying Attention to Comments on My Writing?

Do you have to pay attention to the comments of others for your entire career as a writer? Doesn’t there come a point where you can actually edit your own work without any help? Hey, I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but almost all the good writers I know rely heavily on friends, editors, agents, and/or family members for critiques of their work.
Look in the acknowledgments of any book you enjoy, and you’ll see that writing is not a solo Lindbergh flight across a vast ocean. Here’s a quote from the acknowledgments of the David E. Hoffman’s book The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2010: “Four gifted colleagues at the [Washington] Post provided years of inspiration as well as valuable comments on the book…To my wife, Carole, who read the entire manuscript many times over…profound appreciation for loving support…” Sandra Cisneros, in the acknowledgments for her novel Caramelo says, “A writer is only as good as her editors.”
You do get to the point in your literary career where you have received the same comment enough times that you can remind yourself of that thought, and apply it to your own writing. You make progress as a writer as you internalize only the most astute and useful comments of your mentors and your peers.
I had the amazing good fortune to have as my mentor in college and in graduate school the poet June Jordan. June died in 2002, but I still feel her looking over my shoulder when I write, making her comments, applying her high standards. June always wanted to know if I had used the freshest possible language in what I was writing, without exception. Did I include and speak with respect about those whose concerns are rarely heard? Did I actually excite and challenge the reader? Is the writing sexy? I also remember the praise that she gave me, the very first time I met with her in 1975, when I was an undergraduate at Yale University and she listened so attentively to the poem she made me read aloud to her during her office hours. She squinted at me with that quizzical look she had, with a twitch in one eye, but also with an amused curve to her lips. Don’t forget the praise you’ve gotten from your mentors, either.
To sum up this series of blogs on how to deal with comments from others on our work: I see so many writers, especially newer writers, just shut out most criticism. They assume it’s going to dilute the purity of their personal artistic vision. They fear it will tear apart their new literary identity. But to refuse to listen to the best comments of others, or to listen to them and then basically disregard or forget them, is to doom yourself to the ranks of amateur writers who will never be able to bring their projects to the level of fine art. There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur writer, but I don’t think a single person reading this has that ambition in mind.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5


  1. Thanks for posting this, Zack. You make some interesting points. I was surprised to read that some writers shut out criticism. I think I have the opposite problem. I feel like I don't know what do with all the comments I receive or if I'm implementing them correctly.

  2. Blanca: One blog where I deal with a situation like the one you're describing is "Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Whose Comment Are You Reading?" I think it's crucial to understand the aesthetic of the person giving you the comment. That's why I always write the initials of the person who gives me a critique, so I can gauge whether I feel they agree with my goals. Part of the solution for me is to take time after you receive comments. I see my own work much more objectively if I put it aside for a while. I save the comments and look at them after a month or two, while the writing is still fresh but once I'm not as attached to it. I hope that helps. Zack