Prove it on the Page

Yes, I’m outside of your genre, I don’t see the genius of your premise, I’m nitpicking, my work isn’t as good as yours, and you have a brilliant reason for every choice you’ve made.

But you gain absolutely nothing by debating with me here in the workshop.

Back in my college creative writing courses, we had a rule: you read your piece, then you remain silent while the rest of the table offers their critiques. You can ask quick questions for clarification, but that’s it.

There were times I chafed against this rule, but I grew to love it. In fact, I love this rule so much I apply it to myself whenever I’m in a writer’s workshop, regardless of their own policy. It’s a constant reminder of the most important lesson you need to learn in this craft.

Whatever you write—whatever medium, genre, or style—your piece will at some point land in someone else’s hands. This will be someone in a different room who doesn’t have you there at their side to explain.

What happens then?

If you’ve made a habit of debating in the workshop, you’ll have to settle for a loss. The thing that made me frustrated, bored, or confused will have the same effect on that other person, and they’ll just toss your work aside and keep working through the pile.

Just so we’re clear: that person could be an agent or a publisher. They could be a fellow artist deciding whether they want to collaborate with you. Most importantly, they could be a first-time reader deciding if they are a fan.

I’m not saying I’m right about your story. I already told you just a few of the reasons why I could be wrong.

I’m saying prove it on the page.

If you’re just writing for yourself, you can safely ignore this. If you’ve read this far, though, odds are you want to hone your craft and share work you’re proud of. The best way to do that is to make a habit of proving it on the page.

Still, what if you really are the most perfect writer on the planet, doing something completely original, and you just need to find a reader who understands you?

Fine. Stop wasting your time talking to me and go find them. If your story is someone else’s favorite, then you’ve already won. Keep doing more of that.

What you’ll probably find, though, is that your work is “interesting” to a lot of people. Frankly, that’s never been enough for me, and I hope it’s not enough for you either.

The rules of the craft are slippery, fickle little otters, but they are out there. They’re eating clams off their bellies and deciding which stories people love and which ones they forget, across all genres, all forms, all media.

When you’re ready, we’ll be here working on the craft, because it’s about the stories and not about us.