“I’m sorry. It’s really rough.”
“I know it’s not very good, but . . .”
“What can I say? It’s a shitty first draft.”
I’ve said all of the above about my writing.
And I am not alone. I’ve heard these things said by other writers.
Stop the Presses
A while back, I found myself typing a “stop the presses”
email to a beta reader, an email in which I intended to ask her not to read the
manuscript I’d given to her less than 48 hours earlier because I had already
identified a sentence that absolutely needed to be removed from the second
chapter and I was suddenly acutely aware that the entire manuscript needed
another read-through, some serious edits, perhaps a sacrificial burning. I
intended to follow the please don’t read request with an apology and a promise
to fix as much as I could, reprint it, and bring her a clean copy, but that
this could take a while—months, perhaps years.
Luckily, my son came into my office to say hello while I was
typing. He asked what I was up to, and when I told him, he said, “Stop typing.
Don’t send that, Mom. Seriously, listen to me.”
I lifted my fingers to hover over the keys.
“Hands away from the keyboard.”
I turned and saw his expression, full of exasperation—and
empathy. My son is also a writer. He gently explained that he’d recently read
some advice about the editing process: How it was important not to tamper with
your manuscript once you’ve given it out to be read by others. How you should
never denigrate it when you ask someone to read it. How listing a bunch of
caveats predisposes the reader to find fault and search for the errors and
flaws they know must be there because you, the writer, told them errors and
flaws were there—plot holes, caricatures instead of characters, thin dialogue,
missing arcs, hokey endings. According to you and your “sorry, it’s rough, I
know it’s not very good, but what can I say, it’s a shitty first draft,” it’s
all there, and your readers feel obligated to find it.
Thinking of all the caveats I’d already given my reader when
I handed over the manuscript, I lifted my fingers completely and promised not
to send the email.
That wasn’t good enough for my son.
“Delete it, Mom.”
Why Do We Sell Ourselves Short?
Hours later, it occurred to me that if I sat down in my
hairdresser’s chair and she said, “I’m about to give you a crappy haircut,” or
if my dentist said, “I’m not really that good at this whole teeth thing,” I’d
probably get up and leave—at least I’d like to think I would. And I began to
reconsider my defensive caveats. Why would someone want to read my manuscript
when I start with a list of reasons they shouldn’t? Why do I, as a writer, plant
seeds of doubt and inadequacy? Why do we, as writers, sell ourselves short? Why
do we constantly disparage our work?
Drop the Defensive Caveats
So, I came up with a theory—perhaps it’s because we know
it’s highly possible (damn near certain) that someone out there won’t like what
we’ve written, and it’s easier to handle rejection or criticism if we’ve
already not liked it or criticized it ourselves.
The thing is, even bestselling, prize-winning,
genius-labeled authors are not always appreciated. Someone out there can’t
abide Tolstoy. More than a few people can’t get through Joyce. There are
well-read individuals who do not understand Faulkner—at all. Someone doesn’t
like Hemingway, Kingsolver, Saunders, Barnes, Doerr, Tartt, Johnson, Egan. And,
though it may happen, I want to believe writers such as these did/do not turn
over manuscripts to friends, editors, or agents with the words, “This isn’t
Writers benefit from constructive criticism at every stage
(I always value receiving it), but I am writing this blog to issue a challenge
to myself and all of you reading it: Stop introducing your work with negatives.
Drop the defensive caveats. Try “I hope you enjoy it” or “I welcome your
I welcome your feedback.
About Anastasia Zadeik
Anastasia Zadeik has been telling stories ever since she was
a little girl sitting around the dinner table with her brothers and sisters,
using every single second of her three allotted minutes to “share the most interesting
thing that happened to you today,” learning early that flash non-fiction is
tough, particularly for someone fond of details and embellishments.
Now a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach, Anastasia enjoys helping other writers find their voice and refine their work. She also continues to love telling stories to a live audience; she regularly performs in So Say We All’s VAMP and has had three pieces selected for inclusion in the San Diego Memoir Showcase.
She’s currently working on Capture the Light, a novel about
loss, self-determination, and the power and limits of love.