Pruning produces results


Why constructive criticism is better than flattery.

I’m a terrible gardener, but last summer, when my husband and I bought some expensive patio roses to celebrate a significant anniversary, I was determined to nurture them. A green fingered friend advised me to ‘cut them back hard’ in early December. So three weeks before Christmas I savaged the young plants. I spent most of the winter fretting that I’d killed them. But now they are bushy, glossy and with a plethora of healthy flowers. Who would have known such butchery would produce such beauty?

It's the same with writing. A few years ago I joined a local writers’ group. I was told my story was ‘wonderful’ and that I wrote ‘beautifully.’ I returned home very smug. But then I realised that I didn’t need praise, I needed criticism; otherwise I would never progress. On my Creative Writing M.A I received the criticism I wanted. Sometimes a little too much! But it was always kindly delivered and always constructive. My writing improved as a result.

Most published writers will testify that their success is borne out of criticism not flattery. Being pruned is painful – but it can produce good results if we act on it wisely. I’ve written about this before but it is probably worth mentioning again: In February 1918, the American novelist F.Scott Fitzgerald submitted the first full draft of his first novel to a publisher, only to have it rejected. In October of 1918, he submitted a revised version to the publisher. It was rejected again. Finally, the third version was accepted and published.

The novel, entitled This Side of Paradise, made Fitzgerald a literary celebrity before his twenty-fourth birthday. The book sold out in twenty-four hours and would go on to sell more than 49,000 copies by the end of 1921, just after its twelfth printing.

If he’d given up at the first criticism, we would never have had The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night or The Last Tycoon. It was Fitzgerald’s ability to respond to that pruning process that won him his well-deserved fame. He could certainly teach something about resilience.