Sunday, December 18, 2005

Get Thick Skinned

For more than thirty years, a college assignment from my first journalism class has been tucked into a folder. Occasionally I pull it out and look at it but until today I’ve never shown it to anyone. Why keep it?

As you can see from one page, each page is full of red ink from my college professor and filled with his comments for improvement and change. After pages of marks, I found this final comment, “Terry, you do a very commendable job of assessing Greeley’s [Horace Greeley the journalist from American history] and Hearst’s [William Randolph Hearst] impact on journalism, but say nothing about their effect on society. B”

My grade and the comment deflected a bit of the impact of the red ink but I show the paper so you will understand that writers need to develop a thick skin. Every writer needs to receive (and process) feedback about their writing. Yes, in some ways, a writer is sensitive to find a topic and write about it with excellence. Then the editor takes that writing and improves it, then returns it to the writer for their input. How will you handle this review portion of the process? Admittedly it’s not for the faint hearted.

One of the key places you can learn about this process is in the magazine world. A magazine article is much shorter to write than a full-length adult book. Typically magazines work four or five months away from their publication date. You can write your article and receive feedback from an editor in a short amount of time—especially with computers.

During the editing process, two of my recently published books used the “reviewing” feature of Microsoft Word. If you aren’t familiar with this editing feature, it is not for the thin-skinned writer. The deadlines for these books were fairly short in terms of the time to write each book. I turned in my manuscript to the editor in stages or portions. After I wrote the first portion, and while I was writing the material for my second deadline, my manuscript went through four or five different editors. Each editor used a different color pen for their comments. These comments and edits and questions were inserted directly into my manuscript.

Weeks later when I received my edited manuscript, it was a rainbow of colors and not just in a few places of the manuscript. Almost every sentence included a variety of comments and potential changes. My responsibility as the “author” was to answer any questions and fix any issues raised—again in a short amount of time.

Besides writing magazine articles, another great place to learn about this part of the writing process is in a critique group. The group doesn’t have to be complicated (and I know some critique groups involve a lot of writers). For many years, I belonged to a group of four writers and we met monthly to critique each other’s work. We limited the amount of material to something like 2,000 words or less. Each of us sent our material a week before the meeting date. Our responsibility was to critique the other articles and also to write something new each month. Our format was simple. We met for breakfast in a restaurant, quickly ordered and spent fifteen minutes on each manuscript. Our time together wasn’t for chit chat or talking about new markets or any number of other things. It was focused on improving our writing. Each of us grew and learned from those months together. I’ve got a lot more detail about critique groups in this article.

And what’s the value of showing you my old journalism assignment? It’s a constant reminder to me that I need to keep learning as a writer. I need the input of my editor and others in the publishing process. It’s only as we focus on producing an outstanding final product that we achieve excellent results. I need to develop a thick skin so I can receive and fairly process this type of information. A great deal of my development in this area happened over thirty years ago. Each of us need to develop a thick skin for receiving feedback about our writing.

7 Comment:

At 8:21 AM, Blogger C.J. Darlington Left a note...

Thanks for sharing your college paper with us, Terry. It's encouraging to know that every writer receives that type of criticism. It's how we respond to criticism that will either ruin us or make us grow into stronger writers. I would think receiving constructive criticism is probably one of the hardest things to master. But when we do ... then we can really grow.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Gina Holmes Left a note...

This was very encouraging. Even at your skill level to hear you still get lots of "suggestions". Reminds me of my high-school track coach who kept yelling at me to hurry up (I was a sprinter). I think he may have called me "grandma". I quit thinking I was awful. Later my perplexed coach told me he rode me hard because he saw high potential.

I used to cringe at criticism. Now, I get a wild look in my eyes, rub my hands together and get busy putting the golden morsels to work bettering my wip. Thanks Terry.

At 9:15 AM, Blogger Ron Estrada Left a note...

I got hammered by a young lady from a publisher I won't name at the ACFW conference this year. I remember getting very flustered as this girl fresh out of college shredded my hard work. After I got over myself and looked at what she'd written, I knew she was right. Sometimes it helps to take a step back after getting a critique like that and allow our nerves to calm. I sent the members of my critique group a bumper sticker that says "Criticism is not for Wimps." Each one has it posted near her computer. It's a good reminder.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger relevantgirl Left a note...

There's another element to thick skin; it's also the necessity of a tender heart. Sometimes we can get so thick-skinned, our tenderness ebbs.

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Dineen A. Miller Left a note...

Thanks for sharing this, Terry. Just reading about it and the comments left helps prepare me for what's to come. I learned through my years in advertising that a team makes a better product than an individual. I find that's true of writing also and am grateful for my crit groups—even when the file comes back "bleeding."

At 5:01 PM, Blogger Pam Kumpe Left a note...

In the sentence where you say, "lengthy quote" - I love your teacher's remark above it - "I should say."

As someone who freelances for a newspaper and writes a column, just last week my editor called me about a piece...pretty much said, "Did you have a bad week...it shows in your writing."

I said, "yes" (was a rather trying week). I asked her if she could fix me ...she said maybe...

I rewrote the piece...learning is ongoing...almost hourly for me.

Thanks for sharing...I have a similar piece saved from about 20 years ago from a group. It contains so much red you can barely see my text.

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Camy Tang Left a note...

Thanks for sharing that bloody page. I have to be honest, I can't say I'm exactly eager for crits dripping in scarlet, but I do appreciate the value of them, and I find I'm disappointed when there isn't enough feedback. I am always looking to improve my craft through reading, workshops and critiques--I just need some "breathing space" to react to criticism. Maybe one day I'll be like Gina and dive into revisions with relish.



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