The Art of the Dress: Lesson on Criticism

As I write this I am recovering from Comic-Con and battling against a deadline where a short story wrote needs to be second final drafted.  After meetings with my adviser she had told me a lot of her comments verbally, and we were largely on the same page.  I was shocked to see that on the written pages there were way more notes, and it was worse than I had thought.

Before we get started, any bronies and non-bronies might want to (re)watch the first part of the song to get the context of this post.

I had a little too much fun writing this story.  I added a lot of avant-garde elements that were definitely too experimental.  Some of the tools were things like excessive footnoting, the pretense of the story being historical fiction from the future about our times, animal dialects, pop culture references, sci-fi fantasy sequences, and treating animal languages as being tools manufactured by their perception of the world (my take on the Whorfian Hypothesis).

It was fantastic for a writer like me who loves the social sciences to create the politics and social dynamics of this world.  And just in terms of technique, and what I needed to earn was one of the most ambitious pieces I had ever attempted.  The first draft was far from perfect, but considering how many ingredients for failure I threw into the mix, I dared this story to fuck up.  Yet with theory I knew how to make it all work, or so I thought, or so I’m thinking.

Regardless of how this turned out, I had an incredible time writing it: minding the intimate details.  It was like I was twirling around my room, carefully cutting all the pieces of the story and watching them magically twirl about until they formed something whole and beautiful.*

Then the song kicks up again, and we enter the nightmare stage.

There’s a lot of “This doesn’t work for me,” and “I’m not buying this element,” and “I think we should remove this.”

For the most part an editor’s job is to provide you with solutions and usually the easiest solution to make the piece work.  My problem was that most of my experimentation doesn’t exist in your everyday story.  So the easiest fix when it doesn’t work is “Remove it.”

My editor an I are both on a firm deadline from my writing program to have this revised and signed off by the end of the week.  The story is a strong enough story to exist without the avant-garde bullshit.  However, the story doesn’t feel right without it.  So I was posed with a moral question.  Do I just send in an obedience draft where I mindlessly do exactly what my editor wants just to meet this deadline and then change it back to what I want before I publish it?  As Rarity puts it, “There’s simply not much time.”

But I thought about something a friend sent me about a month ago.  She said that her screenplay pitch had gotten all these weird criticisms about changing the main character and other such things to the point where they were asking her to write a completely different movie.  I took a look at her treatment and pitch and saw where the real problems were.  It wasn’t that her story was the wrong story to tell, or that she had picked the wrong protagonist, but that her pacing was off.  The central conflict was in the first act instead of the second act, which made it seem more like a different character should have been the protagonist.  I told her:

…[O]ne thing I’ve learned is that the surest way to ruin something is to take criticism at face value.

This is Rarity’s mistake.  She does exactly what her friends tell her to do.  They end up ruining the dresses.  Remember an editor’s job is to find what doesn’t work and find A SOLUTION.  It is your job as a writer to see if this solution is practical.  Also to see if the editor is actually solving the real problem.

Being able to take criticism is a skill that requires a lot of practice and patience.  Some people act like being able to take criticism is just not crying when facing a lion’s den of a workshop.  It’s not just being able to handle advice with grace and poise regardless of how tactless or rude it might be.  It is about being able to improve your work and yourself despite the message or the messenger.

One thing that appears a lot in my notes is the phrase “When/Why does this happen?”  Even though there are entire sections that actually address the whys and the whens in a pretty heavy-handed and obvious manner.  My first reaction to comments like these were rage.  My editor wasn’t reading closely enough.  They weren’t paying attention!  I did my due diligence here, but they ignored it and commented on me as if it was a fault in MY WRITING!

But then I thought, maybe that part was just boring?  That’s why they missed it.  That’s the real criticism.  Instead of calling attention to details again, I just need to make the ones I put in more interesting so they will stay with the reader.  Perhaps by improving the prose or with better imagery, etc.

So for the avant-garde elements of this story, I need to do the same thing.  I can’t make Rarity’s mistake.  This is my story.  When people read it they will be seeing it as a test of what I can do as a writer. I don’t want to have my name on something I don’t believe in.

Remember, it’s about “balanc[ing] style with adherence.”


  1. I’ve found myself doing this sort of naturally; I often write my stories and ask close friends to proof them… People with little-no proofing experience whatsoever. Their comments are usually just about how something “feels” or what they generally think about things at a high-scope, but it’s really interesting to ask myself where or why that feeling came from.

    I do the same thing now when I’m proofing stuff for other people as well. Whenever something perturbs me and I don’t know why, I sort of claw within myself for what specifically it is.

    It’s so easy to boil down proofreading to checklists, but at the end of the day, paying attention to the simple subtle feelings of something can make for the most accurate answer.

    Awesome to see the insight into a sort of real life writer-proofreader back and forth. Great post!

  2. Yeah, I’ve been criticized personally by a lazy, insecure writer who thought I was going down a checklist to make sure that their work followed certain rules. They thought I was teaching them theory to make their work conform, and they thought this was limiting and an assault on their creativity.

    Really I just read through and stopped whenever something was jarring, I deconstructed the work and figured out what was wrong.

    Although, sometimes I think it’s best where if you don’t know, then you should say “I don’t know; it’s just a feeling.” Bad criticism can be worse than bad writing sometimes.

    Thanks again for reading, Idylia. It seems like you have a lot of natural talent for writing, based on your comment and what you told me at EQLA. I hope you continue to nurture it.

    • Thanks for continuing to post! I’ll take my analysis fix wherever I can get it. Ironically enough I just had a day where I wrote all. day. long. And looked back over it thinking “ah god I suck so bad this isn’t even worth posting anywhere,” but eh. Practice is important even when your practice feels like it sucks I guess.

      Thanks for the kind words though!

      • Anne Lamott has an entire chapter of her book “Bird By Bird” which talks about shitty first drafts.

        Your drafts won’t be good or at least perfect. Your first draft should just be exciting for you to write, and even that can be an acquired skill. I can say only a few stories I’ve written have truly excited me while I wrote them, not surprisingly they’re all in my thesis.

        Personally, I am not as good of a writer as I am an editor. I have just developed a necessary skill where I can do a good job of editing my own work, which isn’t easy. Sometimes I have to distance myself from my work with time. I’ll leave the word document unopened for months, then tackle it again as if it was written by someone else. This method might help you as well if you’re having trouble finding where and how to improve your manuscript.


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