One of the problems I have with our system of schooling is that it sets up the expectation that if you want to know something, if you want to know how to do something, other people will tell you what it is that you need to know, the steps you need to fulfill, the boxes you need to check off. Want to learn Spanish? Here is what learning Spanish means! First you pass Spanish 1! Then Spanish 2! Here are the vocabulary lists! Here are the grammatical forms you learn and the order you learn them in! Your Spanish class will vary from someone else’s, but you will each have external validation that you are doing it properly, you are doing the thing.
This is basically not how learning goes. It is not how projects go. Most of the time–most of life–there is no one you can ask and get a definitive answer: am I learning the thing? Am I doing it? And even more basically: is this the thing I should be doing? Either learning Spanish itself or this set of vocabulary words, this set of grammatical forms, this type of pronunciation: is this the thing I most need to work on in order to be better at this? Or is there something else? Because there is, isn’t there. If you’re doing translation, if you’ve gotten to the point of real conversation or real reading, there are the parts that are cultural. The parts that do not fit any list. Where no one can say to you, “here is your new list!” or even, “your long a sound, it sounds too broad, it does not match coherently with your i sound to make an accent recognizable in any Spanish dialect.” The parts where you have to reach for a phrase instead of a word, and you start learning about pieces of culture to know what phrase. People can tell you some of that. But if you don’t start reaching for those pieces yourself, you will stay adequate, never better than that. It’s like that with music, with math, with baking, with everything. You can start with the externally validated list of Things To Learn To Get Better At The Thing. You can consult the experts: how do I thing better? And they will have opinions. But if you don’t start having opinions yourself, you won’t become one of the experts yourself.
And this is where I think a lot of writers run into a problem with criticism, with what criticism is.
Criticism is not a substitution for these lists. It is not trying to set itself up as your new list. You can take it as one if that’s useful. When you’re saying to yourself, how do I thing better? In this case write. How do I write better? What do I want to get better at, in my writing? You can say, huh. A lot of people who talk about the last thing I wrote said that the dialog sounded very wooden, maybe I should work on that. But that’s not what they’re doing. They are not your teacher. They are not writing you a to-do list. They are saying what they thought. You can choose to try to work on that thing next time. You can choose to shrug and say, well, I agree or else I don’t, but that’s not what I’m going to try to do.
Your agent or your editor can say, “This needs clearer exposition,” or, “I’d like the voice to come out more vividly here,” or, “I just don’t think this will sell unless you strengthen the protagonist’s motivation.” And if you’ve chosen to go with a form of publishing where you have an agent or an editor, that’s part of why you have them. Your critiquers can do it. But that feedback can only take you so far if you’re not pushing yourself. If you’re not saying to yourself that you want your premise to be more ambitious, or your portrayal of working relationships, or your descriptive prose. They are working on selling the writer you are. They can see the outlines of the writer you could be. But only the outlines. You’re the one who has to color that in. And if you can’t–your critique group, your editor, your agent, your family, your friends, your mentors, all those people–they can give you a boost. They can try to extend your reach. But you’re the one who has to figure out what you’re reaching for.
The critics, the reviewers–they can point out weaknesses. But it’s up to you to decide if you want to work around them or strengthen them until they’re not weaknesses. Or ignore the criticism. It is there for readers. You can choose to learn from it, but it’s not there to teach you.
I am all in favor of clear communication, but it’s very hard to communicate to someone that they aren’t doing something no one imagined they might want to do. There are so many things to be done that if you don’t communicate that you’re trying something, the odds are pretty good no one will think that you are and tell you that you could and how to get there. This is true if you’re not making social efforts: no one will come in and say, “Hey, by not ever asking people to do anything, you’re failing to communicate that you want to do anything.” It’s also true for particular writerly ambitions. Mostly we try not to write reviews excoriating books for not doing what the reviewer imagined they could unless there is some good reason to think the writer meant to. I’ll have some things to say about Diane Duane’s Games Wizards Play in my book post, but none of them will be, “Hey, this is not a very reliable treatise on planetary astronomy.” And there will always be reams and realms of things you could be trying in your fiction that no one will come and chide you for not doing. Because they didn’t know you might want to. They thought you were content as you were.