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Trusting Your Voice

When I was a teenager, I knew everything about writing. Didn’t we all? Isn’t it amazing how brilliant everyone is at that age?

I’d made it all the way to the last year of high school without anyone criticizing anything I wrote. Thrilled that I could sling together a sentence with something approximating a style, my teachers merely smiled as they gave me perfect marks. (Let’s not talk about my performance in math, which was at the other end of the spectrum.)

Then I met my nemesis. His name was Mr. Dolan, and he was not impressed by my brilliance. He called my efforts at poetry “maudlin” and said the characters in my short stories were more like caricatures.

In today’s parlance, he tore me a new one.

I was furious. Obviously Mr. Dolan wouldn’t know good writing if it hit him over the head. I was God’s Gift to the written word–hadn’t he got the memo? What was wrong with him?

But once my anger subsided long enough for me to stop arguing, some of his criticism began to sink in. Maybe that poem was a tad sappy. Maybe that character could have been fleshed out a little.

As time went on, I was shocked to discover that Mr. Dolan didn’t think I sucked as a writer. He actually thought I had promise. And by pushing me, he did what no easy marker before him ever had–he made my writing better.

By the time I hit college, I was well aware that I didn’t know everything about writing, but I still felt I knew more than most people my age. What a surprise, then, that my next critic was a classmate my own age who’d done far less writing than I had. For whatever reason, the guy had an eye for making my work better. Thankfully, I’d learned a thing or two since high school, and I shut up and listened to what he had to say. (Most of the time.) And just like with Mr. Dolan, my writing improved.

Fast forward many years and many books later. I am besieged with doubt. At any moment, I can tell myself I absolutely suck, that I don’t know a thing about writing, and I’ll believe it.

Last week I received feedback from two people I respect and admire. They’ve read my work before, and whenever they point out a problem, they’re usually right.

But this time, I was sure they were wrong. At first.

The self-doubt began to creep in. The self-doubt that was never there in high school. What if you’re wrong? it whispered. They know more about writing than you do.

I tortured myself. The feedback was wrong for my story, my novel–I knew it. And yet, these people were so smart, so great at making my writing better. Perhaps I should listen to them.

Writers will get tons of feedback over the years. Some will be helpful and some won’t be, and the trick is to know the difference–to trust your own voice. Some of your critics may be older, and more experienced, and smarter than you–maybe they’re even better writers than you.

But will they know your story better than you? Not likely.

I’m not saying we should stop listening to the feedback that will make our writing stronger. But I am saying that once you’ve been in this game for a while and you’ve stopped making all the dumb mistakes you made in the past, you have the power to decide what’s worthwhile feedback and what isn’t.

Just because someone is smarter doesn’t mean they’re smarter about your story.

Sometimes you need to channel your inner teenager. Remember, you are God’s Gift to the written word, and what’s wrong with that beta reader anyway?

Have you ever received feedback from a trusted source that seemed like it came from the left field? Have you ever doubted yourself when you’ve disagreed with a critic? How did you learn to trust your own voice? 

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group’s purpose is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

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16 Comments

  1. Stephanie Faris

    I think back to a time when a journalism teacher in college told me he was harder on me because I had potential, while others were there for a grade. He knew I was serious about going into journalism. There is some truth to that. If I were teaching a writing class and saw someone with real potential, I probably would work hard with that student to help him/her improve.

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      I’m thankful for teachers like that, Stephanie. I hope my writing would have improved eventually without Mr. Dolan’s intervention, but I would not have learned humility, or the ability to take constructive criticism, until college…and that would have been a VERY rude awakening!

      I’m glad you had a teacher who pushed you as well. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  2. Steven

    “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” – Neil Gaiman.

    Yes, only you know your story, and in the end you need to be true to it. I read recently that the woman who wrote the screenplay for Guardians of the Galaxy surprised Marvel when she chose that obscure comic book series to turn into a script. People said it would be a colossal failure, that nobody would want to see such a movie. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Thanks, Steven. Yes, the universe is full of stories of people who succeed and all the naysayers who told them they never would.

      I still find it extremely difficult to trust my own voice, but I hope I’ll continue you get better with time. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  3. VR Barkowski

    I’m a people pleaser by nature, so yes to all of the above. The pivotal moment for me came while writing a novel about three college friends, two men and a woman. My instructor, a respected published writer, wanted me to add material about the woman and one of her students, so I did. I continued to revise the manuscript based on the instructor’s critiques. Soon I was telling her story instead of mine. I didn’t realize the shift at first, but then came the epiphany: I was writing a book for someone else, a book if given the choice, I wouldn’t even read. It cost me a year of progress on the novel, but the lesson was invaluable. Since then, I listen to all feedback, but no one tells me what to write.

    VR Barkowski

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Ouch! That’s a painful lesson to learn, VR. I’m glad you’re able to trust your own voice now while still listening to feedback. It’s really difficult to do, at least for me. Whenever someone gives me input, it tempts me to change my story–which can be a really dangerous thing.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  4. Elizabeth Hein

    I’ve learned that every critic has something valuable to say, but it is not always of value to you. Only you can write your books. Listen to all the voices, then follow your own.

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Thanks, Elizabeth. Easier said than done sometimes, but I will try. Wise words–thanks so much.

      Reply
  5. Heather McCubbin

    When I first began writing (as a teen, then I stopped until I was in my 30s) I shared my first ever finished story with a friend who is older, was writing a lot longer and has a degree in English. When she critiqued my story and didn’t like it for various reasons I was mad and it let to a huge argument. One that almost ruined the friendship. Now, almost 7 years later, I see what she means. My writing was immature in some sense and I did “tell” more than “show”. Some of what she said is still wrong in my book (about what readers want nowadays) but it took a long time for me to understand what she meant. I had to get to a certain point in writing to appreciate her feedback. Now, when I have someone read my work, I can handle it better and with more maturity.

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Hi Heather! Welcome to my blog, and thanks for commenting.

      I think your reaction was pretty normal. Writers tend to be people pleasers at heart, and I’m sure you were so proud of that first story and just wanted someone else to like it.

      I’m glad you handle things differently now, of course, but it’s okay if getting feedback is still a bit of a painful process. Anything that forces us to grow can smart a bit, I find. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Alex J. Cavanaugh

    We have to know the difference between the criticism that makes the writing and story better and the suggestions that don’t fit our vision.
    I’ve had several different critique partners over the years and I’ve been open to all suggestions they made. One has been with me since almost the very beginning, and he knows my writing, he knows my style, and he gets what I’m trying to accomplish. It also helps that I usually bounce my outlines off him before I ever start writing as well.

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      That’s why it was so difficult for me this time around. My beta reader is like the critique partner you described. He’s always understood my writing better than anyone else, but this time around, his suggestions just didn’t work for me. They would completely change the book so it’s not even my story anymore, and certainly not something I could ever be proud of.

      It definitely had me reeling. Thanks for commenting, Alex, and for starting this wonderful group!

      Reply
  7. annehiga

    All I can think is if you ever figure out how to properly handle criticism, all the time, show me how. Seriously, I want to know. Like anything else, I’m sure we’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Thanks for the tips and for sharing your journey!

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      I definitely will, although I think criticism is much like anything else…one can never be perfect. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words.

      Reply
  8. emaginette

    I like the fact you thought it over, but ultimately crits help with how the words are put together, over used, lack of clarity, etc. The soul of the story is not their domain. 🙂

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

    Reply
    • Holli Moncrieff

      Thank you, Anna! I completely agree. That is totally what I was getting at. There’s some places a critique just shouldn’t go.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply

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