Critiquing another writer’s work can be tricky, especially when said writer is a colleague or friend. As in life, it’s easy to see the speck in someone else’s writing — even when you have a plank in your own. Yet, as writers, we know what it means to expose one’s writing to another person.
We understand intimately that creating a story can be akin to extracting coal; and when the finished work is done, it’s a diamond to us, flaws and all — even if it doesn’t seem worth much to anyone else. Bestselling author Joe Simpson (not Jessica’s dad) explained the vulnerability that comes with writing in a recent video, admitting “I find writing a very scary business… You’re very dependent on other people liking something that is very very personal.”
Yet, one of the biggest sins we can commit against a fellow scribe is lying about the work to protect feelings and ego. Reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1927 letter to fellow author Charles Green Shaw, you can feel his sensitivity to this tension.
Fitzgerald is honest, yet delicate with his friend. He addresses the proverbial elephant in the room from the outset, admitting he started Shaw’s book Heart in a Hurricane with less than great expectations (owing to a bad review). Then Fitzgerald diminishes the pachyderm, highlighting and praising the many strengths of Shaw’s work.
Towards the end, he slips in an “I wish you’d try something with a plot, or an interrelation between two or more characters…”; then quickly pulls the scalpel out. He closes with a compliment: “I take the liberty of saying this because there is so much talent and humor and discernment in the book as a whole.”
Even with all the changes that have taken place in publishing since Fitzgerald wrote this letter, it seems not much has changed about the fundamental fellowship of writing. To make our work better, we still need to share it with writers and readers we respect. We crave constructive feedback. And, in reciprocation, we’re called to pore over other writers’ work and give thoughtful feedback. It’s uncomfortable at times, but necessary.
Read Fitzgerald’s letter on Slate.com.