In Praise of Criticism

Making Use of Criticism
Rita Robinson

Many years ago, a woman, about my age at the time, early 40s, ran toward me in a busy Southern California bank, newspaper in hand, and asked for my autograph. Stunned, I began to cry. Her friend, also holding a newspaper, stood nearby pointing to the weekly column I had written that carried my picture.  The first woman patted my shoulder in comfort.

I was married at 17, three children by 23, and began writing in earnest after returning to college in my early 30s. I had ended up in a creative writing class because the English composition class I needed was full. Students couldn’t get a grade unless we submitted a manuscript to a magazine. Heart pounding, I submitted a fiction story to a teen magazine, certain that anyone who read it would think me stupid. It sold, and it was like the Red Sea parting. I still cannot describe how warm it made me feel.

Sometimes, I share this story with newer writers, many who don’t believe they possess the qualifications, background, schooling, or the grit to become selling writers. These newbies and I share much in common. I’ve walked in their shoes, believing in my early years of writing that I just needed to toughen up because I usually felt inadequate, and feared being judged. Only later did I realize that writers who make it in the real world open themselves up to criticism without feeling like failures. This doesn’t just included the lame buzzwords, “constructive criticism,” but to the point, “This doesn’t work,” “What do you mean by this phrase,” or “Rewrite this section.”

After that first sale, I wrote endlessly on yellow lined legal pads to voice some of the things I’d been wanting to say most of my life, remembering the long lost scraps of paper I wrote on as a kid.

Once written I reworked it on a borrowed typewriter at the kitchen table with my young kids and their friends running about and yelping with robust pleasure. If one of them fell and needed a bandage, I got it. If something was rejected, it simply got sent out again until it sold. Slowly, a little of the fear of being judged, of feeling inadequate melted away. Praise amounted to a byline in a magazine and a check.

Publication Leads to More Opportunities

After several articles and short stories reached publication, and receiving a nominal amount of rejections, an editor at the local county newspaper called and asked me to work part-time for them. I was surprised, elated, and scared. The editor who oversaw my work there harangued me relentlessly about the endless errors in the stories I wrote. I spent my days filled with anxiety and humiliation, at least in my eyes. Still, I was learning, and loving the work. Eventually I moved on and worked fulltime for two other newspapers, the last one in the Los Angeles area where I was given my own column, leading to the confrontation in the bank.

Two years later I quit the newspaper and returned to writing freelance, resulting in 11 traditionally published books, and about 1,500 magazine articles and fiction stories. The work lead to conducting writing workshops at several community colleges and conferences, teaching for Writer’s Digest, and editing a couple of books for publishers.

These experiences, opportunities really, made me immortalize all the editors I had ever worked with, including the first one who had terrified and humbled me. All of them, whether smiling or grumpy, not only saved me from embarrassing myself in print, but helped me become a better more courageous and competent writer and editor.

My concern today is that too many newer writers miss these steps in the evolution of a writer. No one is a born writer. Most who make their living as writers say that talent accounts for less than 10 percent of a writer’s ability. The rest is hard work, perseverance, belief in self, keeping up with change, having something to say, and the capacity to work with others, often meaning editors.

Allow It to Roll off Your Back

After the return to freelancing, and no longer terrified of being judged, I was able to ask a magazine editor for a second chance at doing an article she had turned down with her words, “You can do better than this, Rita.” And still later, I could laugh after a close friend, a former publisher who was visiting at my home, said, “This sucks, Rita,” after she read a book proposal I was readying to submit to another publisher. Of course, I rewrote the entire thing, and the book later reached publication. Another time the photos I had taken to go with a travel piece weren’t up to the quality the editor wanted so she turned down the manuscript. I pleaded for another chance at the photos, knowing I had rushed the first shoot. The piece was published.

Only after all those experiences, and a few others, did I learn a truth about moving forward in life and work: It isn’t about developing a thick skin to fend off the onslaughts of the working world.  It partly involves developing enough courage to take criticism and run with it, revel in challenges, keep improving, and accept change. Added to my list might be learning how to react with more calm and dignity with occurrences such as the one at the bank so long ago.