Guest Post: Step Outside the Bubble and Gain Perspective

This week’s guest post is from writer, outreach strategist, and educator Khadijah Ali-Coleman. She has a great post about getting perspective on your world and your own writing.

I wrote a post on my blog www.KhadijahOnline.com this week about one simple tip when considering when and what type of criticism to receive and use towards perfecting your craft. I shared my belief that we ultimately know intuitively when someone is giving us feedback as a means of constructively commenting on what works and what does not and we have body triggers that feel when someone is, instead of being helpful, is simply being spiteful. As a creator, particularly one who chooses to share their creations with an audience, it is key that you are able to tune into your intuition and fine-tune your ability to gauge what criticism to listen to and know that which is not worth a grain of salt.

School Yourself on the Art of Your Craft

What I did not address and would like to address today, however, is the other side of the coin of constructive criticism. I am referring to the feedback an artist, a writer specifically, receives from a peer, an editor or another person who may refrain from criticizing your work, but makes the suggestion that before you move forward with creating anything else, you first school yourself on the art of the craft by stepping outside of your bubble. While some may view this as constructive criticism in sheep’s clothes, I believe that this could be necessary feedback when the issue is not about how good your work is, but how motivated you are to move your work to completion. In other words, this is not necessarily a swipe at your talent, but, instead, a suggestion to help build the talent that is obviously innate by checking out the work of your peers, either going to school or reading up on your craft. I’ve had to make this suggestion quite a few times to clients who have hired me to edit their books or assist them in getting started on a project and though, never short on enthusiasm, may fall short on knowing about the actual options they have when it comes to bringing their project to completion.

Enthusiasm Is Not a Substitute to Developing (or “finding”) your Own Process

One example of this is my client Fritz who decided last summer that he wanted to write a book. Fritz had never taken a writing class, was not part of a writing group, didn’t read much work of other writers and certainly didn’t visit writing sites like this for updates. He is a public figure with a very creative ability to come up with concepts and applied that, naturally, to a book plot. With no prior experience as a published writer, he came up with a plot for his book and began writing. He wrote and wrote and wrote. He came up with over one hundred pages of content and then called me to begin editing and give him feedback.

We spent four hours in a sit down consultation after I edited the piece. For starters, out of the one hundred pages, only about thirty pages actually centered around the plot that he had deemed the crux of his book. The other seventy pages were meanderings and stream of conscious-like content that had nothing to do with the plot but could possibly be a back-story of the main character. Maybe. We spent four hours discussing that. In essence, we wound up outlining the book chapter-by-chapter which aided in giving him writing prompts and focus. When he sent me the first chapters that he had begun based on our outline, the next issue that came up was his challenge in writing compelling sentences that used imagery as opposed to simple sentence structure that “told” instead of “illustrated” scenes, dialogue, and action. We spent another four hours in reading the work of other authors, practicing with writing prompts and even with me giving an example of what I was talking about by re-writing a partial chapter. In essence, I was facilitating a one-on-one writing course. I was serving more as his writing professor than his paid-by-the-hour editor.

Gain Perspective By Going Back to Square One

I grappled with my conscience at first, wondering if I was doing him a disservice by encouraging him to self-publish when he had never written anything—not even a blog post—before. It was evident that a lot of the core basics of beginning any writing project were missing. But I reconciled my misgivings with the fact that I wasn’t so much concerned about the story itself—the plot for his book is incredible—my concern was that his lack of experience outside of his bubble of enthusiasm. He hadn’t gotten a taste of what writing was all about—never reading up on the craft or even really the work of other authors. If he had, a lot of his knowledge base about imagery and outlining and creating compelling dialogue would have been strengthened. So, I told him so. I suggested some activities he do BEFORE he finish his book, allowing him to get some perspective before digging back in. Ultimately, while constructive criticism is, at it’s core, intended to make suggestions to make a good piece great, sometimes it just boils down to suggesting to a writer that they need to step outside of their bubble of enthusiasm and gain some perspective by schooling themselves in the basics.

Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is a professional writer/ editor, champion of indie literary, visual and performance art and the founder of the artist community LiberatedMuse.com. She is editor of the book anthology Liberated Muse Volume I: How I Freed My Soul (Outskirts Press, 2009). Visit her online at KhadijahOnline.com.

7 comments

  1. James Thayer says:

    Regarding constructive criticism, writers should be wary of accepting criticism from people who don’t understand the craft of fiction. Their criticism might be entirely wrong. Even professionals can be wildly wrong about what works in fiction. Twelve British publishers turned down the first Harry Potter novel. Rudyard Kipling received this personalized rejection slip early in his career: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” Joe Haldeman won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for his Forever War, but he first had to endure twelve rejections from publishers. If these professionals can be so crazily wrong about whether a book will have success, what value should we put on advice from lay people about our work? Neil Gaiman says: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” But I’m not sure we should listen to them even that much.

    • U. Written says:

      A film professor of mine used to tell us something similar to the Neil Gaiman quote you present: “People are almost always right about what’s wrong, and almost always wrong about how to fix it.” I think the general idea is that if you’re writing for an audience, you should pay attention to how your writing affects them, but you shouldn’t base your work on just one or two opinions.

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