CTRL-A & DELETE

I just caught myself hitting  CTRL-A & DELETE with touch-typer speed and precision.  No hunting and pecking for that odd combination of keys required.  In case you’re not a complete computer nerd like me, the key sequence highlights everything on your screen and deletes it.  It’s the quick and easy way to start over with a clean slate, or the modern equivalent for ripping the sheet of obnoxious writing from the typewriter, wadding it up, and pitching it toward the trashcan (only not as cathartic).  For whatever reason, this time I paused and thought about why I did it.  It must have been the third or fourth time I had hit those keys in the preceding five minutes but I hardly remember doing it.  I only remember trying to get an article off the ground and not liking my results.

I had started an article I wanted to publish on Medium.  You see, I’ve been “saving up a couple good ideas” for pieces I believed had some legs and could launch my Medium presence with a bang.  Saving an idea is a silly notion, I know, but that’s the reality of how I thought today.  I wanted this to be a great piece, though, and I was not meeting my expectations.

As I re-read the first six or seven sentences of the article (for the third or fourth or fifth time), I judged it as unworthy of a venue where I could expect people to pay to read my work.  So with a flash of thought, my fingers twitched and the offending words were obliterated.  As I pondered my action I tried to figure out on what grounds I based my judgment.  I was, and still am, at a total loss for anything that made sense.  I simply did not believe it measured up to other articles I have seen on the site but I can offer no concrete evidence as to why I believe it.

My actions were obviously a symptom of publishing fear.  Somewhere, deep inside me, despite my strong words and bravado, despite my month-long record of posting blog content, I am scared of how the public will judge my work.  I don’t want to be laughed at or ridiculed.  I don’t want my work to be found wanting by the internet literary mafia.  Instead, I expect it to strike a chord with every person who reads it.  I want it to move them enough so they not only reward me with their dollars but they are compelled to tell all their friends about the wonderful article they read.  What tripe.  I know the futility of approaching the work with some sort of “greatness goal” from the outset.  It’s just not how it’s done.

“The writer’s job is to write.  Let the public and the critics decide what to do and think about your work,” says every guru on the internet.  With clear instructions like that, why is it so hard to separate yourself from thinking about how your words will be perceived?  It’s a conundrum.  There has to be a trick to dissociate yourself from the feelings of inadequacy and impending doom.  If I can find that trick I’ll retire a millionaire.

In the meantime, I need to end the habit of judging my work as I write it. The CTRL-A & DELETE cycle must be broken.  I suspect I am not alone in fighting this problem.  I also suspect it will be similar to the addict giving up the needle or the bottle. There will be a few relapses, but my resolve shall remain strong.  To ensure I do not wimp out and delete the next great article I conjure, I commit to writing and publishing an article on Medium within five days.  You should do the same!  If we can’t do that, maybe we should pry the DELETE key off our keyboards!

Five Great Ways to Handle Criticism

You’ve put your heart and soul into your work. You’ve slaved over the words for hours, days, maybe even weeks. It’s as good as you can make it. You send your message out into the world and the feedback starts. Some people will love it, some will not. That’s reality, and it sucks. No one likes to know their work has been judged and found wanting. That said, it’s not the end of the world, or your writing career, either.

How you respond to the inevitable criticism of your work will define how quickly you grow, and ultimately, how far you go, as a writer. Contrary to popular belief (mostly irrational fear, at that), criticism is not bad. Here are five of my best tips on how to turn criticism into fertilizer for your writing.

Know Your Critic
Everyone’s a critic these days. Because of the availability of instant feedback and the personal internet soapbox, unsolicited opinions are ubiquitous. Not everyone is a qualified critic, though, and that is the crucial difference with regard to your work. People will spout their opinion and rate your work because they can, not because their review is valuable. Their input may not be informed, accurate, or even warranted. There is also growing evidence to support the notion that when faced with the opportunity to rate something, be it a restaurant, a new car, or your novel, people will feel compelled to report at least one negative thing about it, if not more. The operational principle behind this behavior is “nothing is completely perfect.” While true, that does not, by itself, make their critique accurate or necessary, especially with regard to something as subjective as art.

This phenomenon is seen all the time on Facebook and Yelp. Examine your Facebook feed and consider whether the opinions put forth by your friends on any substantive topic are informed opinions given what you know about their background, education, and life experience. Most people are just regurgitating what they have read or heard, or giving their raw, irrational reaction without thinking about the issue at hand. Check out your local restaurant reviews on Yelp. Look at your top three favorite restaurants and see if the reviews are accurate. Don’t worry, they’re not.

When it comes to negative critiques of your work you need to apply the same critical eye to your reviewer as you should apply to Facebook posts and Yelp reviews. If it’s some internet troll on your blog who uses the handle “bigpoppaGrump” you can safely ignore their input. You do not need to worry about the next four ways to handle criticism because what they have to say about your work is invalid. If, however, it’s your editor at a well-known magazine or publishing house, you should give them your undivided attention! In other words, the authority of your reviewer matters. Do not give authority to those who have not earned it. That’s right – you give the authority to the reviewer, though people will constantly attempt to usurp it from you.  Only you can decide who has the right to criticize your work.

Start With the Assumption The Critique is Accurate
I know this tip may alarm you, but stay with me. This is a powerful technique. Assuming you have given your reviewer authority to criticize your work, starting with the assumption the critique is accurate puts you in the best mindset to make your writing better.  By doing so, you are consciously willing to admit that you have made mistakes and want to rectify them. If you approach criticism from the standpoint that it is always inaccurate or unfair, you close your mind to the possibility of being wrong.  It is then up to the reviewer to convince you of your work’s shortcomings – a difficult task to say the least!
Do yourself a favor. Listen to what your critic has to say. Think about it objectively. Put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine why they are giving you the negative feedback. The chances are good the negative feedback you receive is valid. You may not choose to wholly incorporate their suggestions, but you may get some good advice that makes your work better. Be brave enough to put your emotions aside for a bit and listen with an open mind.

Use Comparison to Validate Questionable Critique
Assuming you have given authority to your reviewer, and assuming you have considered the critique from the standpoint that it is correct, if you still doubt the validity of the criticism, compare it to something similar. Doing so puts it in context. This is important because anything in isolation can be misunderstood, misconstrued, and seem wrong and out of place.

Consider an example from science fiction. Let’s pretend that your work involves spaceships that are engaged in an epic battle with alien forces. You have chosen to arm your fictional ships with energy weapons, kinetic energy projectiles, and guided missiles. This seems like pretty standard fare for a space war. Then your reviewer comes along and claims your use of guided missiles is unrealistic and breaks his suspension of disbelief because he knows that guided missiles will not work in the vacuum of space. He concludes his review by dismissing your work as amateurish and unworthy of anyone’s time.

Does the reviewer have your authority?  We’ll assume he does for this example. Have you considered his remarks from the standpoint that he may be correct? Again, we will assume you have, and you still believe that the idea of guided missiles works in a space war, despite what he says. Now you need to compare your use of these fictional weapons to other sources you have seen. In our example, you would compare your use of guided missiles to Heinlein, or Hubbard, or any other science fiction writer who has stories about space wars. You would likely find the use of guided missiles in a vacuum is a well-accepted convention in the genre. Are there legitimate technical inconsistencies that exist with using such an object in a vacuum? Of course, there are. In this case, however, they are not so incongruent with reality as to be out of the realm of possibility. Because of this, perhaps you dismiss the critique. If the lack of comparative confirmation were more substantial, perhaps you would give it more attention. Understand?

Try It On For Size
You are now on the other side of the criticism coin. You are starting to think there may be some validity to the review and you need to consider either incorporating the suggestions into your work or making changes in future works based on it. It’s time to try it on and see if it fits. Open up your editor and change your work to be in line with the critic’s suggestions. Don’t worry, you can change it back later! Now read it objectively. Is it better? It may or may not be. That’s for you to decide. Regardless, you are now taking the criticism the best way and using it if it’s helpful and ignoring it otherwise. There is no good or bad criticism now.

Be Thankful
To be thankful for the receipt of criticism is an odd concept to get your head around. It amounts to being happy when people tell you how poor your work.  It seems illogical but it’s not. It’s the key to becoming great.

To be clear, you should not be thankful for the negative feedback. It may or may not be useful to you. You are thankful for the engagement. Someone has felt compelled, for legitimate or illegitimate reasons, to use their time to talk to you about your work. By itself, that is worth celebrating. It is incredibly difficult to build an audience.  Have gratitude for their effort whether or not you choose to accept their critique.  Thank them when they knock on your door and want to make you better.

The main takeaway from these five points can be distilled into three sentences. If someone is worth listening to, listen to them. Then make up your own mind whether or not you want to use what they tell you. Be happy people are reading your work no matter what they say about it.

How to Hate Your Writing But Ship It Anyway

Every writer hates their work to some degree. I’ve yet to talk to anyone who has never questioned the quality of what they write. It seems to be a universal phenomenon. Yet magazine articles and books get published, websites get their copy, and there are certainly enough commercials on television to conclusively prove someone’s writing is worthy of the public’s attention. So why do you hate our own words? More importantly, how do you overcome this feeling so you can ship your product? It requires a simple commitment to yourself.

Making the commitment starts with defining the emotion you feel when faced with the decision to publish. Is it really hatred? It’s not likely that you truly hate your own thoughts. Perhaps it is mere dislike? Rather than dislike, maybe it’s better described as distrust. I can understand a lack of trust in what I write versus what I think. The root of distrust is fear, so maybe we should just call it that. Fear makes the most sense, too. You are scared of sending your work into the world and having it found wanting. I know I think about that pending judgment every single time I publish an article or submit a manuscript to a publisher. That’s why fear is the best description of my feelings toward my work. Your description may be slightly different, but you can figure out exactly what it is if you try. Doing so allows you to structure your commitment to minimize the effect of your emotions on your actions.

Once you have your dislike appropriately labeled, devising a strategy to overcome it is fairly simple, but not always easy to follow. In my case,  the strategy is to be bold. I just damn my fear and send my work out. I have tried to manage the fear by having friends review my work before I publish but that sort of thing never works. Your friends have a hard time telling you the truth when your work is terrible. I’ve also learned that if I allow myself any possible way out of shipping, I’ll delay sending my work out (sometimes permanently). Instead, I acknowledge I have committed myself to publishing my work, either personally or via a third party, without exception. Everything I write gets shipped. There is no hiding my work on my hard drive or in the depths of a drawer. With my commitment I have removed any personal choice about publishing it. It goes out. Like it or not. I give myself adequate time to perform revisions and editing, and then off it goes, good, bad, or indifferent.

Such a commitment sounds too easy, too contrite a solution to be feasible. Perhaps it is, but it works for me. If you doubt the power of such a simple act, you may not fully understand the depth of my commitment. It may help you to conceptualize it by comparing it to taking a trip on an airplane. Once you’re on the plane and it starts shooting down the runway, you’re going along for the ride whether you like it or not. There’s no changing your mind and ringing the bell to tell the pilot you want off the hurtling death machine. That’s the sort of all-in mentality you need to have with regard to your own commitment to publish your work. It does not remove the fear, but it does remove your ability to tell yourself “no.” That’s the secret sauce.

After you ship the fear and loathing do not fully go away. To continue the airplane analogy, once the plane leaves the ground and you’re headed into the skies you have to relax.  It’s the same when you publish your work.  What else can you do? Worry about what every visitor to your website thinks about every piece you’ve written? Not hardly. Once you have posted it on your blog or sent the manuscript off to your agent or editor, it’s done. You may still hate what you wrote, or, as in my case, fear the judgment of what you wrote, but it’s out of your hands now. Move on to the next piece.

Over the past decade, I have written hundreds of pieces for my work and personal pleasure. On the occasions where my work was made public I had the fear of judgment. I still do. Not all of my creations were treated kindly by those who read them! It sucked. I wanted to quit writing. I wanted to delete the offending pieces. I didn’t die, but I did quit publishing for a long time. It was one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made, all over what some mutton-head thought of a tiny article on the internet. I vowed never to make that mistake again, and I promised myself I would travel the path of publishing every single thing I write from now on. I hope you slap your fear into the corner and follow me on the journey.