“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
― William Shakespeare,
It’s funny how our teenage hubris has a way of punishing us later in life. For me, this came in the form of peer reviews and constructive criticism. As a teen, I was so confident in my abilities as a writer that more often than not, my first draft of a school essay also happened to be my final draft.
I know. The horror.
It’s embarrassing and so misguided that I can’t help but laugh at myself. Seriously? At sixteen I thought I knew how to write and how to tell a story. I remember scoffing in the back of my AP Composition class junior year when my teacher told us we had to share our drafts with our peers and get feedback. As if that wasn’t enough, we had to make changes to our drafts. Maybe this wasn’t a new concept to some of my classmates, but as someone who had never really been critiqued, this was new. Disruptive, even. And I didn’t like it one bit.
Even in college I avoided major rewrites of my papers, preferring to just muscle through them in a couple hours, fix the typos and grammatical errors, hand it in, and call it done. I received top marks, and I think the quality of my writing suffered for the lack of constructive criticism. I’ve since re-read some of those old papers, shaking my head with my palm pressed against my face. That I didn’t suffer any major repercussions from my non-edited papers was a huge problem. I was praised for my first-draft arguments and I never thought I needed to try harder.
Until junior year.
The Truth Hurt but Constructive Criticism Made Me Better
My junior year History in Film professor actually read my first paper of the semester and he gave it to me straight. It was crap. He gave me a C.
At first, I was shocked and in denial. I had never gotten a C on a paper, like EVER. Who did that guy think he was giving me a C? But then I got real with myself. I tucked my tail between my legs and asked my classmate—who got an A on his paper—what to do. He gave me some constructive criticism and helped me work through the problems—structural, informational—and on the next essay, I, too, got an A.
That was my first real lesson in peer critiques and the importance of revision. Now that I’m a year-and-a-half into my writing education, I realize how on-point Shakespeare actually was. The more I learn about story structure and character arcs, symbolism and metaphors, setting and themes, the more I realize how little I know. It’s frustrating at times. Okay, most times, if I’m being honest. But it’s also liberating to know that I will never know everything and all I can do is learn and try and fail and grow. It also helps to know the Stephen Kings of the world had to start somewhere around this level, too.
Ten years ago I was afraid of feedback, of being told I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Now, I welcome constructive criticism because I know it will make me better than I ever could be on my own.
That, if anything, is a lesson worth learning.
I’m learning more writing lessons from fellow authors these days, especially those I admire. By far, I’ve learned the most from J.K. Rowling. I detailed some of my takeaways in a recent post Writing Lessons J.K. Rowling Taught Me: How Being A Harry Potter Fan Made Me A Better Writer (And Vice Versa!)
Has anyone else struggled with taking criticism? What are your tips and tricks? Leave me a comment or send me a message at email@example.com.