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Choose your words carefully

The best advice I ever got about my writing was also, on its face, pretty dumb.

I was fortunate enough to have a colleague who was also my friend edit my work every day. We got along great, but sometimes, working with your friends can be tough.

The friendship can create an invisible barrier to progress when you fear that speaking your mind may hurt the relationship. Conversely, it’s hard to receive criticism from a friend, even though it’s given from a place of support and it’s meant to improve your work. It’s like those air jets at the front of a grocery store that keep out bugs. You’re just flying along, thinking your work is great, and then you give it to a friend and they smack you out of the sky to the grim, cold, tiled, waxed floor of reality.

Such was the case when I heard this advice.

I’d turned in a news article early. Maybe too early. I sent it through to the editing pool and my friend picked it up. Track Changes were on, the familiar clacking of the iMac’s flat keyboard in the editors’ corner tittered enthusiastically. It dropped back to me within minutes, and somewhere near the beginning of the story was this line in red:

Say this again, only better.

I did not find this helpful. Not at first. I marched over to my so-called friend’s desk and I asked her what she meant in this bright digital ink. The color of blood.

“You’ve got the facts right. Just write this better.”

I marched back to my desk. The impertinence.

But then, something happened. I read and re-read what I wrote.

I could do better.

I did do better. I can’t remember how or what I did, I just remembered that in that moment I needed someone to guide me.

Sometimes friendships make their own shorthand.

Years later, my wife and I were writing a book with our nephew. He was 12 at the time, but was committed to contributing to his very first crowdsourced novel. The three of us decided on an outline and major plot points, then we all went off to write for a week.

When it came time for our nephew’s update, he emailed us his work but he said, in so many words, that he’d like to try again. Maybe he didn’t like our reaction to his first draft. Maybe he was just assessing his own aptitude for the task and realized he needed more time. In a couple days he came back to us happier with the result.

“I needed time to find better words,” he told us.

I’ve heard of writers who read a little of the dictionary each night to improve their vocabulary. Some purposefully read the hardest texts they can to learn from others.

Me? I’ve done a little of both when the situation called for it. But the thing that spurred me on to go and do better, that often came from someone helping me along the way.

Say it again, only better.

As a writer (or any artist, really) it’s hard to say when something is truly done. It can always be remade. But different and better are two separate ideas; it’s important to know when enough is enough and avoid a cycle of revision that never truly brings a satisfactory result.

We are the sum of our experiences. Likewise, as writers we are the sum of the feedback we’ve gotten along the way and the choices we’ve made to develop our craft.

And whatever that feedback is, when it resonates it has the power to change our long-held habits and break us from blocks we create inside ourselves. To bust out, it often helps to just listen to someone else.

Any advice you might lend to a friend struggling to get a project done? Let me know below!

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