“But That’s the Way It Really Happened!”

It hurts when someone tells you that your writing isn’t good in some way. This is normal; we tend to invest our writing with a lot of emotion, so it’s almost like being told “but I don’t love you back!”

While it is a good idea to keep a critical mindset when listening to other people’s opinions about your writing, it isn’t good to dismiss them out of hand. Writing is very subjective, and so you don’t want to change your work to reflect the opinions of everyone who reads it. You have to choose when to disagree with your reviewers. But this is different than jumping up and saying, “you’re wrong!” without really giving the criticism a fair hearing.

But That’s the Way It Really Happened!

This is one of the more common “the reader is wrong” arguments I hear, especially from beginning writers. Goodness knows I’ve used it before.

If you’re writing professionally, or if you’re writing for the entertainment of others, then readability is your biggest concern. There are some types of writing where facts are just as important (biography, journalism, etc.), but those aren’t the kinds of writing where you’re as likely to get into this argument in the first place, so we won’t address them here.

If your story isn’t readable–if it’s slow, clunky, boring, whatever — then it won’t get read, no matter how accurate it is. If you were to interview memoir writers, you would find that details always give way to readability at some point. Multiple people are compressed into one character, or omitted entirely. Boring details are omitted. Other details are changed slightly. Dialogue gets jazzed up.

“That’s the way it really happened” usually only matters to the author. For the reader, it’s whether they enjoy the writing. If they don’t, then it doesn’t matter that it’s accurate.

Some forms of “but it really happened that way” are more insidious than others. Take, for example, a piece I once wrote for a memoir class. Part of it centered around a person I care about. I was told by members of the class that he seemed too nice; they couldn’t believe in the character because he was such a good person.

I was on the verge of saying, “but he really is that nice!” Who was I going to convince, though? The people in my class? That wouldn’t have any effect on an editor I put the piece in front of. Or if I put the piece up on my web page, I couldn’t very well put an aside in at that point saying “dear reader, he really is that nice. Just thought you should know.” It won’t help that I’ve remained true to my friend’s personality if the total effect is to make the reader disbelieve my words. Better to stretch the truth a little, to exaggerate some minor flaw or dig deep for some annoying habit, than to make the character “not real.”

Agendas

Writers often have agendas when they write things. They want to get a message across or they want to explore some topic in a venue other than the straightforward essay. This is wonderful. It can be a far more entertaining way to inform people than by lecturing. Unfortunately, agendas can cause writers to lose site of the writing itself.

Let me give you an example. Someone I know had been impressed by a book in which the characters were subtly made out to be animals. She decided she wanted to do the same thing in a story she was writing. When the sketch was critiqued, people thought that it wandered, that it lacked focus. They also entirely failed to pick up on the animalism of the piece, even once it was pointed out to them.

Rather than considering that perhaps if more than ten readers all thought it lacked focus then it might lack focus, she argued that it was all about animalism and thus the fact that it wandered was intentional. That’s all well and good, but if the reader is bored by the fact that the writing wanders then he isn’t going to want to read it, whether or not the wandering was intentional. It’s wonderful for a story to work on multiple levels–to both be a good story and a subtle study in animalism. But if it doesn’t work as a story, no one will care that there’s a second, untapped level to it.

Rather than consider either making the sketch a straight piece of fiction or being more explicit about the animalism aspect, she simply argued that it was already there and that we should all see it. “But see, right there! I said they’re tired, hungry, and thirsty!” Well, yes, we all said, but humans get tired, hungry, and thirsty too.

Agendas can be wonderful things. They can also be terrible. They can blind the writer to the actual writing she’s doing. They can overwhelm the medium with the message. They can become so important to the writer that he fails to listen to an ordinary critique of the writing and instead takes it as a critique of the idea. Because people tend to be very protective of their ideas, this can make the writer more defensive than normal.

You’re Wrong! It’s on Page 44!

Occasionally a reader will miss something in a book. She’ll complain that a particular rule is missing from a roleplaying manuscript, when it was really in there. Most writers’ response (at least in my experience) is to jump up and shout, “you’re wrong! It’s right there on page 44!”

That isn’t the point. The point is that the reader missed it. Maybe this is because the reader wasn’t paying attention; maybe that’s the paragraph where his cat jumped into the goldfish bowl and when the reader came back to the book he misremembered which paragraph he was on. Or maybe he’s just lazy. But you shouldn’t simply assume laziness! Perhaps there was something about the writing that made the point inobvious. Maybe it was under a misleading section heading and so was difficult to find. Perhaps the writing of the section was so dull that the reader couldn’t keep his eyes open long enough to find the rule.

Yes, maybe the reader really was just lazy. But don’t you think you should ask first? Besides, if you say, “Oh, that’s on page 44. It can be hard to catch every little rule, huh? By the way, I’m curious–was there something about the writing that made it inobvious? I’d like to know how I can make that rule easier to find in the next draft,” then you might just learn something.

Just Listen

No, you don’t have to do whatever your readers tell you to do. But remember that even when you don’t agree with them, they’re telling you what they’re telling you for a reason. The reason might simply be that they like a different kind of writing than you do, and in that case it may be all right to respectfully disagree and go on with what you’re doing. But maybe, just maybe, they have a point. In particular, when five or ten people all tell you the same thing, it might be wise to listen.

Posted in Writing

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