It's Their Story
Very few writers take their work to a publisher or submit it to a magazine as it is. Before a book can be published, it needs at least two rounds of editing and revisions. It's an important part of the process, and it goes beyond mere mechanics, too. Some people will take their work to a creative circle for advice or feedback, just to gauge reactions.
Unfortunately, this can be a double-edged sword. For every rewarding experience of sharing your hard work with other creative people, there's a writer who walks away feeling like they've done something wrong when their work isn't well-received At times, it's the job of the creator to develop the confidence to share their work and take critique gracefully. Sometimes critics have a good point, and sometimes the creator's work can benefit from a different viewpoint.
But this isn't always the case. Sometimes, people who give critique can go too far in a certain direction, where it goes from trying to offer advice and a possible alternative viewpoint to an author and into territory that reflects more on the crit-giver than on the author.
It's second nature for writers to give advice or point things out when someone shares their project. Sometimes the writer does need help: their spelling's off, their grammar's awkward, they explain a joke that didn't need explaining, there's a plot hole, a love scene feels really non-consensual without meaning to, they're accidentally running off into an entire subplot that the main story doesn't have time to cover. If a writer isn't aware of these things it's a good idea to point them out.
But some people go too far. They'll tell an author to do something or not do it because it's the way they would do things, and suddenly everything about the story is somehow "wrong" because it's not the way the critique-giver would do it. "This is a cliche, take it out", "I don't like this part, change it" and so forth. And when the writer tries to protest, they'll be met with insistence as to why they should do what they're told:
- "Fine, do it your way, but mine is still better."
- "You want your book to sell, don't you?"
- "This is what any editor worth their salt would tell you to do."
- "I'm just trying to help."
- "Hey, I care about your story and I want to make it better."
That last one brings us to the crux of this essay: It's not your story. You can tell an author whatever you want, but it's still their story and they're going to do things their way. You not liking something or thinking it's a cliche doesn't mean it needs to go.
We've all had some experience with these bossy critics, people who think giving advice and "con crit" means telling a writer what to do and expecting them to do it. People like this can come in two flavors: Willfully bossy and pushy, thinking they know what's best for everyone, that people should listen to them or they're ungrateful brats. They don't necessarily have to be horrible people, they can be otherwise decent folks who let their own knowledge or experience go to their head. That doesn't make it any less irritating when they cop that attitude, though.
Then, we have people who don't realize they're coming off this way. They think they're just offering advice, they want to be helpful and they want what's best for the person they're working with. But their own feelings and biases seep into their critique. This can be just as annoying, but people can't bring themselves to be too upset with these types because they're so darn nice. They don't mean to be bossy, they just slip into it.
Bias can play a role in a lot of things. Some people don't like cliches or food porn or cats or little details that serve only to describe a character, and that leads them to assume other readers aren't going to like it. Their dislike can translate to not seeing past their own feelings and projecting that onto an unknown audience, not considering that maybe some people like cliches or food porn or cats or little details.
Everyone has their own style. Not all of them are good, sometimes styles do need to change for certain reasons. But usually, a style is just a style. It's that one writer's way of telling their story. You may not like it, and that's fine.
But it's not your job to correct a writer because you think they're doing wrong. Whether you literally think you know best and that everyone should listen to you, or you honestly think you're doing good by trying to steer the author in another direction. It's still their story.
You can have whatever opinions and feelings you want. Offer critique and advice, suggest things. But the thing is, you have to remember that it's their story, not yours. You're not their teacher, this isn't a paper you're grading them on. If they don't do what you tell them to, it's not because they're stubborn brats who don't know what's good for them, or that they're ungrateful and unappreciative of you. It's because writers ultimately need to do what works for them.
"'It's my story' is just an excuse!"
Sometimes it can be. There are plenty of authors out there whose work suffered because they were stubborn and clung to their visions without taking anyone's advice into consideration. Sometimes it is necessary to tell an author their style needs work.
But this is not always the case. Not every writer who wants to stick to their convictions is shrieking and whining like a little kid who doesn't want to clean their room or do their homework. Sometimes, writers just want to do what's comfortable for them. If they like cliches and Manic Pixie Dream Girls, that's their business.
And trying to convince them no one will ever buy their book or that they'll be made fun of is a moot point, because there is a market for virtually everything in the literary world. If 50 Shades of Grey can have the following it does, someone's little indie short story about a food-loving nerd, her 6 cats and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who changed her life will surely gain one of its own. Maybe not as gigantic, but not every book is going to be an NY Times bestseller or a critic's darling.
"Writing for yourself is a lie! Once it's out there it's not their story anymore, it belongs to the public!"
Bullshit. No matter how famous an author gets, no matter how many agents, editors, and publishing houses they work with, it's still their story. No matter how many changes and revisions it goes through, it's their idea and their imagination at the heart of it all. The public may buy their book, but that's as far as "belonging to the public" goes.
It's their story. They need to choose the way they tell it. Them, and no one else.