When writing, I’m private about my work. Even though it eventually goes out into the world in a book or an article, if someone walks into the room while I’m writing, I’ll put my computer to sleep or shut my laptop. While working on my first novel, however, I recognized and accepted the need for feedback along the way. I didn’t want to invest months creating a book that wouldn’t appeal to the reader.
Although I haven’t found a critique partner, my husband and a friend from church are my first readers, sharing their observations as I write. I place new chapters in an old black binder, trading them back and forth on Sundays with my friend, or emailing them as an ePub file to our Kindle for my husband to read.
My friend annotates the pages before passing them back. If she says something’s corny, I strike a sentence with no regrets. If she marks a passage as “confusing,” I rewrite it for clarity. If she draws a smiley face or underlines a phrase and writes, “Love this!” I mentally high-five myself.
She once explained she hadn’t left notes on a chapter because she was caught up in the story, reading fast to see what would happen next. That made my day.
I receive my friend’s suggestions well and eagerly apply them to my work.
It seems, however, I respond less favorably to my husband’s criticism.
I’m not sure why. Maybe I see myself as the documenter and him as the doer, and question whether he can know more than me in my field. I would never correct the way he organizes a spreadsheet (he’s a master), changes the brakes in our cars, or mows the lawn. I should respect his suggestions as a reader, but I get defensive.
My husband operates in a world ruled by facts, while I’m more open to creative license. When I wrote that the smell of honeysuckle evoked memories of childhood summer days for one of my characters, my husband said, “I thought he was from the north. Does honeysuckle grow there?”
“I don’t know. His mother was from South Carolina. Maybe it was at his grandparents’ house,” I said, bristling the way I often do when he critiques my writing. Afterward, I spent a ridiculous amount of time researching varieties of honeysuckle and where they grow, determined not to kill my darlings. (FYI: To “kill your darlings” means eliminating something in your writing you worked hard to create — and especially like — if it doesn’t add to the story or serve your reader.)
Recently, my pastor preached on 1 and 2 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote a scathing rebuke to the church at Corinth, urging them to address major problems in the church: divisions, sexual misconduct, and confusion concerning the resurrection. He wanted them to accept the Lord’s authority in their lives. In 2 Corinthians, Paul rejoiced when he heard most of the church accepted his correction and repented.
“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it — I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while — yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance.”
2 Corinthians 7:8-9 (NIV)
My pastor noted that most people resist correction and take a defensive posture or deflect when someone points out their faults or sins. I may have sighed as I scribbled “honeysuckle” in the margin of my notes. Something as small as a shrub can raise my defenses.
My cousin, a minister, once remarked he didn’t like some parts of the Bible because they didn’t like him. It’s in our nature to resist instruction or resent correction. Ask any parent of small (or any other size) children, and they’ll agree. “No” is often a toddler’s first or favorite word.
The above verses penned by Paul to the church at Corinth illustrate his pleasure in their willingness to accept correction. Most times when you and I receive feedback from others, it won’t involve such serious matters. Whether it comes from a friend or stranger, someone at work, church, or a family member, discern whether the criticism is constructive or mean-spirited and if following it is in your best interest.
It’s certainly easier to accept praise than correction from my friend and my husband, my first readers, but if they hesitate to offer feedback for fear of hurting my feelings, I won’t learn or grow as a writer. And if I establish a pattern of refusing advice from the people in my life, they’ll no longer offer it and I won’t learn or grow as a person. The way I react to criticism and feedback is up to me, but I must choose wisely, not defensively.
“The ear that listens to life-giving reproof
will dwell among the wise.
Whoever ignores instruction despises himself,
but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.”
Proverbs 15:31-32 (ESV)
You may not be writing a novel and hearing a fact-focused husband question your choice of fragrant shrub, but chances are someone’s giving you feedback on an area of your life and their observations or questions make you bristle. Will you automatically discount their critique because it’s uncomfortable to hear, uncomfortable to apply?
Or will you ask God to give you an open and discerning spirit, humble and tender to the kind of correction that will ultimately help you grow?
Lord, please help us choose the latter.