Writers create words as a livelihood, a means of expression to the soul. “Writing is survival,” wrote Ray Bradbury. “Not to write, for many of us, is to die.” For the rest of the non-writing world, writing is simply a task. (Psst: don’t tell, but sometimes writers feel this way, too.) We’re forced to write by the boss or, worse, the Big Angry White Syllabus. We hedge and procrastinate, sometimes, but we do it. Our term paper or progress report might not reveal our soul, but we feel an almost familial affection for the product of our labor: “It may be ugly, but it’s mine.”
We send our piece off into the world, like a child on his first day of kindergarten. We’re shocked when he comes home torn and bleeding with a professor’s red-pen marks or an editor’s rejection letter. Something inside us protests, and we think, “What have you done to my baby?!”
Contrary to those self-help therapy writing books, writing is not an act of ego. For the Christian, writing must be an act of deepest humility. “Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid,” writes Solomon in Proverbs 12:1. Ego-centric writing– and an ego-centric writer– never make a pleasant encounter.
At the same time, the sign of a mature writing critic is found in Ephesians 4:14-15 (emphasis added): “That we should no longer be children… but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ.” I’ve witnessed few writing reviewers who were unafraid to be honest—brutally honest at times. I’ve heard a number of negative critiques, some of them amusing (“You could hook Strunk up to a generator because he’s rolling over in his grave so fast.”) and others simply demeaning (“You let me down.” “It was horrible.” “Did this piece even have an author?”). According to Paul, we are called to move beyond the childish, to grow up. And a sign of maturity is speaking the truth in love.
Balancing between grace and truth is a difficult gymnastic feat, one that I admittedly haven’t mastered yet. But I believe as Christian writers, we can do better. How, you ask?
Practice being a good editor. When you return a paper to someone, ask them if all your comments were clear, and even ask what you could have done better. Don’t just point out areas where you think the writing is terrible; come up with suggestions for improvement. And, when you make corrections, know your stuff. If you’re not sure about a grammar or usage issue, look it up.
Don’t shirk from telling the truth. As a writer, I know the more comments I get, the better I can spot and fix the weaknesses in my piece. I can’t count the times when I’ve asked someone to edit my papers and they gloss over my mistakes– either because they’re unobservant or because they’re afraid of hurting my feelings. Your goal is to make the piece the best it can be.
At the same time, pick your battles. When a work is in draft stage and the structure is choppy, don’t spend your time scratching out misplaced commas. Address first things first, second things second.
Paper editing isn’t combat. You’re on the same side as the writer, and you’re both fighting for the same goal: a better final product. Don’t engage in friendly fire. Instead of saying, “I can’t believe you wrote this really confusing part,” de-personalize your criticism. Say, “The piece confused me a little bit at this point.” And be encouraging. Sandwich suggestions for improvement between positive comments about the piece.
If you can dish it, take it graciously. You can learn something from everyone. Even when someone makes ungenerous remarks about your writing, try to take something away (even if you learn how not to give a critique!).
Emotionally separate yourself from your work. Nothing comes out perfect the first try. Criticism is there to help you make your writing better. The person who edits your paper is part of the target audience you’re trying to reach. So if your reviewer points out a part of your writing that confused her, don’t automatically assume it’s just because she’s dumb. Take her comments seriously, re-examine your writing and strive for maximum clarity.
While taking criticism is hard, you have to clean up your baby and move on. Bite your lip and apply the rubbing alcohol, even when it stings. Band-aid the scrapes and send him back into the world, tougher for the encounter. And you might even get an A on that next paper.
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