Constructive Criticism and Personal Editors: Advice from Stephen King

Microsoft WordScreenSnapz003I must have been 12 or 13 when I came up with a brilliant idea for a story. Looking for someone to share my excitement, I grabbed one of my best friends named Steven during school the next day and told him my idea, enthusiasm leaking from every single one of my orifices. Cool and unmoved, he said monotonously: ‘Um, I don’t think this is going to work.

I felt torn to shreds, my heart ripped apart, mangled. I grew up in an environment where every effort was met with applause and encouragement as we pursued our lofty dreams and ambitions; Steven’s words seemed to undermine my life thus far, even deny my very existence.

It sounds as if I’m exaggerating, but at the time, I truly felt that way. I was furious but restrained myself. Then when he began to divulge the reasons why it wouldn’t work and provided helpful suggestions to improve it, I felt even more furious. Of course, it wasn’t long before I realised he was totally right, and grudgingly, I listened to his advice. And that was my first experience with criticism.

Constructive criticism. It’s a tricky, sticky issue.

I have nothing but thankfulness for Steven. He exposed me from a young age to harsh, biting criticism (who can blame him? — we were young and knew nothing of tactfulness), and that naturally hardened my skin in a good way. By being brutal, he prepared me for what life had to offer. Subsequently, every time I sent him a story or script or idea, I would listen carefully to him. I didn’t always agree, but his past comments had undeniably brought about drastic improvements, and so I valued and respected everything he might have to say. And most importantly, I learnt the necessity and importance of constructive criticism.

(I’m going to digress slightly, but looking through old emails, I found one from 5 years ago where Steven sent me a film script he had written, asking for feedback. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote my reply, but judging from the content, I must have subconsciously wanted to avenge myself for all the times he cut me down:

honesty right?

[That’s how I started my reply – we must have had an unspoken policy of being brutally honest with each other, and I was warning him, probably with a tinge of cruel glee, that I was going to be very, very honest.]

good message, not so good plot and dialogue. […] i found the dialogue to be very unnatural […] i totally understand it’s a really really rough draft but from overall impression, it was really weak

[Ouch, I was really rubbing it in…]

the storyline. […] it was just all too obvious and cliched. […] there was no scene that made me sit up and take notice. […] the dialogue was really cheesy and unnatural […] if you want your film to be taken seriously, it won’t work.

[Those last three words… sound familiar?]

Wow. I’m not proud of what I did. I’ve grown up. I’m a much better editor now. Really.)

When I started getting a little bit more serious about writing in high school (though it was still a pastime then), I would send my stories to all of my closest friends for feedback and critiques. But at the peak of teenage insecurity about everything in life, there was only one thing I was looking for, and sure enough they all told me ‘it was great’ or ‘that was so good’, boosting my self-esteem and confidence.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I knew I was simply damning my own written works to low-quality bullshit eternity.

~

on-writingThis past December, I read On Writing by Stephen King and in one of his many indispensable pieces of advice regarding the process of writing, he talks about his personal editors in the form of friends and family (pp. 214-20). Below are some quotes from his book and my commentary:

When I’ve finished reading and making all my little anal-retentive revisions, it’s time to open the door and show what I’ve written to four or five close friends who have indicated a willingness to look.‘ (214)

I realised that I needed a core group of editors and immediately asked 2 good friends to accompany me on my lifelong journey, to be the first ones to read and critique my writing, to be the audience figure in mind as I write. 9 months later, I had increased it from 2 to 6 people and am well proud and delighted with the people I’ve picked.

In addition to Tabby’s [his wife] first read, I usually send manuscripts to between four and eight other people who have critiqued my stories over the years. Many writing texts caution against asking friends to read your stuff, suggesting you’re not apt to get a very unbiased opinion […] The idea has some validity, but I don’t think an unbiased opinion is exactly what I’m looking for. And I believe that most people smart enough to read a novel are also tactful enough to find a gentler mode of expression than “This sucks.” (Although most of us know that “I think this has a few problems” actually means “This sucks,” don’t we?) Besides, if you really did write a stinker […] wouldn’t you rather hear the news from a friend while the entire edition consists of a half-dozen Xerox copies?‘ (216)

Objective vs subjective: it is difficult to bash a friend’s writing, but thankfully my personal editors know how to be brutal in a tactful manner. However, I’ve also told them not to relent. Recently, one of them did exactly that, sending back a Word document smeared in red from start to finish. But I wouldn’t expect anything less of them – it’s the only way my writing is ever going to improve. And I’d rather hear that my writing is horrible from friends, knowing they have a legitimate reason for their comments. (Unless they have a personal vendetta, in which case…)

When you give out six or eight copies of a book, you get back six or eight highly subjective opinions about what’s good and what’s bad in it. If all your readers think you did a pretty good job, you probably did. This sort of unanimity does happen, but it’s rare, even with friends.‘ (216)

Imagine the elation if all my editors say that something I’ve written is great! But of course, the opposite is true as well:

if everyone who reads your book says you have a problem […] you’ve got a problem and you better do something about it.‘ (217)

Yes, sir.

stephen-king-on-writing-d1d225f2c6e25fcd45dce87de1f77d4d6e695e5f

Stephen King writing at his desk.

Stephen King talks specifically about his wife, Tabitha, as a first reader, an editor and the person closest to him:

She has always been an extremely sympathetic and supportive first reader. Her positive reaction […] meant the world to me. But she’s also unflinching when she sees something she thinks is wrong. When she does, she lets me know loud and clear.‘ (215)

In the end I listen most closely to Tabby, because she’s the one I write for, the one I want to wow.‘ (218)

He recommends having an ‘Ideal Reader’:

Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed.‘ (219)

I don’t have an Ideal Reader yet. I’m really hoping that will be my future wife. I have Ideal Readers, though. And for now, I’m content with that.

I don’t have many writer friends. Which is at times disappointing because I’d love to have a band of brothers and sisters to journey alongside, on our mutual pursuits and ambitious endeavours.

But I’ve been blessed with friends and family who support me. I now have a group of (hopefully) committed friends-cum-editors who are behind me, and I feel assured. Not only are they people whom I fully trust, but they also span the following countries, providing me with a vital and accurate global perspective that I look for: Japan, America, Canada, UK, Singapore. They are all great writers, editors and readers.

I really do look forward to meeting my Ideal Reader, though. Where is my Tabby?

[All quotes taken from: King, Stephen, On Writing (New York: Scribner, 2000).]

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2 thoughts on “Constructive Criticism and Personal Editors: Advice from Stephen King

  1. Hi Justin,

    I thoroughly enjoy your writing – thoughts and language. Will fwd posts to Jared because he also enjoys writing.

    Regards,
    Phuah Choo

    Like

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