Saturday, May 24, 2014

Throwing Planks at Your Windows

Last weekend, I was listening to “Rosie on the House,” a home improvement radio show. They were at the Pella window factory (in Pella, Iowa!) and Rosie was squeeing like a fanboy at Comicon about all of the cool machines they use to test the strength, durability, and awesomeness of their windows. The Pella people put their product through a plethora of performance (p) evaluations, from extreme temperature ovens that subject the windows to extreme heat and cold. I won’t say what the exact temperatures are, because I don’t remember the exact ones. But it was in the “humans can’t survive this heat/cold” range—well beyond what a window should reasonably be expected to withstand. Pella has tests for “forced entry resistance” where they put pressure on the product to make sure it won’t be an easy target for burglars. Rosie’s favorite test involved a machine that hurls 2x4 planks of wood at the windows to test them for resistance to breakage.  Pella also pulls five windows off their assembly line and sends them directly to testing for performance ratings, compared with many manufacturers that pull windows, tweak and calibrate them, and then send them to the performance rating tests. The result of all the extreme testing is that Pella is considered one of the Rolls Royces of windows.
What does this have to do with writing? Well, Pella wants their windows to be the best, so they subject them to testing that borders on outrageously overdone—if the Earth ever got as cold as what they are testing their windows for, the occupants would already by dead. Winds strong enough to throw full planks of wood at windows would have already sent the whole house over the rainbow. Nevertheless, Pella knows that if it can withstand those extremes, then everything else will be easily overcome. They want to be sure that their product is the best it can be.
Are you willing to do that to your book/poem/short story/magazine article? We don’t have machines to test our writing—we have critiques and beta testers. Just like manufacturers (window, car, tire, etc.) throw their worst at their product, we should be putting our work through stringent and repeated testing to make sure it can hold up to the standards that editors, readers, reviewers will place on it.  If Pella wasn’t willing to have a few windows break in the name of quality, they shouldn’t be in the window business. If an author isn’t able to handle criticism, even blistering, scathing dislike, then maybe they shouldn’t be in the business. Think of the critiquing in your own close groups, or by family and friends) as heat or pressure testing. A beta read, on the other hand, is more like checking to see if your “window” can withstand a 2x4 at hurricane speed. You need to know if it can, before you send it to an agent.  Welcome the shattering—it means you still have time to fix your product before sending it out to the world.
So, your beta reader breaks your window—ouch. It hurts. The words you wrote came from your soul. This book is your baby—and this reader just called your baby ugly. How should you react? Well, first, don’t punch the reader in the face. You asked for a critique. Be grateful for the honesty.  Secondly, acknowledge that it hurts—but put an expiration date on the pity party. You need to give yourself permission to feel sad about the negative criticism for a few moments (or the time it takes to consume your favorite guilty pleasure treat, or a lunch with friends to commiserate). However, what you do next is what separates the amateur from the professional. Your next choice is whether you sit, with your thin skin, cradling your ego and stroking your “baby” muttering “what do they know,” and “Mommy thinks you’re just beautiful”—okay, I’m being extreme. But think about this—the energy you devote to building your ego back up, getting validation from others about your talent, focusing on how you feel, is energy that you could be spending making your book better. If the engineers at Pella spent any time at all feeling sorry for themselves when a window cracked in the oven or shattered when the board hit it, we would think they were ridiculous—just fix the product! It sounds heartless (and I need to take my own advice, trust me) but it is not about you, it’s about the writing.  A professional just gets back to work, figuring out what didn’t work, and fixing it.
I have chapters and trilogies full of thoughts about this, but you don’t have years (or patience) to read them. Here are a few:
Writing is a craft—yes, it is an art as well, but whereas an amateur relies mostly on raw talent, a professional practices the craft. Professionals are often not satisfied with their own work, because it’s not ready to withstand a hurricane yet—and amateurs think what they have created is so AWESOME that anyone with differing opinions is either mean, misinformed, or just doesn’t understand. Not all criticism is valid, but gives all of it serious consideration. As a professional, you can sift the wheat from the chaff.
A professional at anything separates themselves from their work, even as they throw everything they have into their work. The thick skin, the ability—no, the eagerness­­­­—to accept negative feedback, is a sign of true professional because they know that identifying flaws is the only way to fix flaws.
A professional never argues with criticism. The book is going to be sent out into the world defenseless, so to “yeah but” with your beta readers is pointless. If a beta reader has an issue then you can rest assured that other readers will too. Figure out the problem, and fix it.
A professional doesn’t throw the beta reader under the bus. By this I mean, that the writer shouldn’t kill the messenger, or try to make the beta reader out to be the bad guy. Even if your feelings are totally hurt, have the professionalism to leave them out of it. Getting other people to tell you that your beta reader doesn’t know what they are talking about, that your writing is amazing, blah blah blah, may make you feel better, but it doesn’t make your book better.  
Remember, it’s about the book. It’s not about you. Your book is a window—make sure it can withstand the hurricane before you send it out into the world. If someone finds flaws, fix them.

Have you had a critique that just crushed you? How did you use it to improve your craft?


  1. I love the window comparison. The two things you need to have to accept criticism are humility and confidence: humility to accept that you’re not perfect and you may need to change some things in your work; confidence in your ability to the point that you can recognize when someone’s criticism would require you to change your artistic point of view and you can choose to respectfully disagree with them.

    I love how you said that the window manufacturer would never get upset about something breaking it or try to make excuses- they’d just fix it! When I am brave and take criticism for my work it is ALWAYS made better because of it. :-)

  2. Thanks, KaseyQ-- I am personally working on being more professional in my acceptance as well, and I do find that to the extent that I can follow my own advice, my work is always improved.



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