So what inspired this blog post? Funny you should ask. I’ve recently been reminded of the sting of criticism, and it was upsetting. Mostly, it was upsetting because it came out of the blue, but it also may have cost me a steady project.
I won’t go into the details, but I work in an English-language educational materials company. Through a combination of office politics and cost-cutting I lost some regular freelance work. Then I found out that my work has been in decline recently. I found that odd, and thought it was a lie made up to make a co-worker feel guilty about socializing. Turns out, it was half true. My freelance work (unaffected by my coworker) had declined. I was making too many errors. The word “incoherent” came up. Funny thing is that I’d not heard anything about that. Sure, a few typos had been brought to my attention, but that’s what the proofreading process is for. So I thought, anyways.
When I found out about my work quality, I was gutted. Some of that was wounded pride, I’ll admit. I thought I was the shit. The bee knees. The cat’s pajamas. And such. As it turns out, I wasn’t. What really upset me, though, was the total lack of criticism. Few edits were brought to my attention. Once or twice I heard, “X found a typo in your article. Be more careful.” To which I would say, “Sure.” I would of course be more careful, but most writers will tell you that we quickly develop blind spots to our own writing. The mistakes just don’t appear. No proofed or edited copies appeared on my desk, so that was that.
But the job still disappeared. Sure, there was financial motivation, but I can’t help but wonder if my three or four typos a month contributed. But even without my steady writing gig, something good came out of this incident.
I was reminded of the importance of timely, relevant, destructive criticism. Going up to someone and saying, “I respect you, but this is wrong. Fix it, please.” Yes, it hurts being on the receiving end of that. But you know what hurts more? Crap writing. Finding out from reviewers and critics out there that you’re not the shit. The bees knees. The cat’s pajamas. And such. Because now it’s out there in the public sphere.
Luckily, the work I do here in Taiwan is to a very limited market who doesn’t put literary value high on its list of priorities. English educational materials are pretty banal by nature, and there are few opportunities to flex one’s intellectual muscles in the writing itself. It’s more about writing to the audience. That becomes the double edge sword of anything I write here doesn’t really apply to what I would call the writing world. On the other side, it does stifle development somewhat. Making matters worse, Taiwanese management style is very passive aggressive. A problem could stew for months, with the person committing the error completely unaware, until disciplinary action is taken. It’s linked to the cultural idea of “saving face.” No one want to embarrass anyone else.
But I say fuck that.
There’s no reason criticism needs to be embarrassing, especially if it’s kept private. There’s no reason to accept shoddy work. I have a great deal of respect for the company’s editor-in-chief, who is both a very talented editor and a very demanding taskmaster. He very openly dishes out criticism to his staff, and a lot of my Taiwanese coworkers live in constant fear of him. The foreign, native-speaking staff take it with a bit more grace, accepting his criticism and moving on. Sure, we all smart a little, especially when told to rewrite something we completely missed the mark on, but it has made all of us better at our jobs.
So here’s the take-away. I’ve decided to actively pursue criticism. I’ve made deals with all my managers to get copies of revisions to my work. That way, I can find out exactly where I’m making mistakes, and where I’m not fitting in with the desired style. I’ve also decided to offer more criticism to other writers, to hone my own abilities. For years now, I’ve been a on-again-off-again member at Critters (www.critters.org), a fantastic online community of writers sharing and critiquing each other’s stories. Since I’ve now been blessed with some extra time (and less money), I’ve decided to start critiquing more diligently. And putting more of my own work in the queue.
The best way to learn to take a punch is conditioning. I learned that in karate as a kid where we would kick slam our forearms together and kick each other in the belly. Sometimes our egos need the same treatment. It’s time to toughen the fuck up.