Diamonds in the Rough

“You have to give an editor something to change, or he gets frustrated. After he pees in it himself, he likes the flavor much better, so he buys it.”― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

Criticism may very well be the most difficult thing that a writer has to contend with. Some say that rejection is the worst thing, but I tend to disagree. When your work is rejected, you can tell yourself (whether it’s true or not) that the client just doesn’t recognize quality work. Or that your work, while good, simply doesn’t match the needs of that particular client. Both statements are true often enough in the writing world that these statements can insulate you against the pain of rejection.

Criticism is a whole different animal. When your work is sent back, not with a “sorry, we can’t use this,” but instead with a list of things to fix before it can be used, the message is clear and accusatory: “Your work isn’t good enough.”

The writer’s ego is a fragile thing. Even that of a lowly web content writer. The industry attracts passionate perfectionists — many of us are struggling to achieve publication in other forms — we want to be novelists, or to be published in academic journals, or to become popular snarky bloggers who can make an income from ad revenue on high traffic blogs. Some of us may even make it… eventually.

Because of our high aspirations, we take pride in our work, even when our work is a 200 word SEO article on plumbers that no one will ever actually read. Each piece of content that we generate is something that we put our hearts into. It hurts to have that work ripped to shreds by an editor, no matter how politely they do it.

Oddly, I’ve noticed that both criticism and praise seem to come in batches. One week, it will seem that I can do no wrong. I’ll end up with rave reviews for each submission, new jobs generated by word of mouth from satisfied private clients, new opportunities from content sites that are impressed with my work. As soon as I feel comfortable — as soon as I feel that I’ve hit my stride at last and it will be smooth sailing from here — I’ll get hit with a string of revision requests and critiques that make me question, once again, if I’m really good enough to do this job. This cycle from confidence and insecurity has been repeating for over a year now.

The trick to getting through it is simple, of course. At least, it sounds simple enough. Acknowledge that you’re not perfect. Make the corrections, and avoid those mistakes going forward. At the same time, remember that you wouldn’t be here doing this in the first place if you weren’t good at it. Freelance writing takes motivation and skill. Clients and content sites don’t simply hand out work to just anyone willy-nilly, so if you have the job, you’ve already proven yourself.

Even the best writers need editors and editing. Just ask Stephen King. Think of editorial criticism as a refining process, You’ve already provided the raw material, and it’s valuable — valuable enough to be worth taking the time to clean it off and shine it up. A diamond in the rough. Sure, it would be nice to produce only diamonds that are clean, shiny, and perfectly cut to boot right off the bat, but that’s a rare fluke, not the norm. It’s better to be grateful that you have the talent to produce even rough precious gems that are highly prized enough to be worth the trouble of cleaning up in the first place. That’s more than a lot of people can say.

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