So, it’s pretty common that I help a friend with his or her writing through critique and commentary. Sometimes I offer editing as well, but since that takes up way more time than just reading and discussing a piece, usually what we do is just talk about the work. It’s insanely useful to have this kind of relationship with another writer. Writers can give some of the most valuable critique (that’s not to say non-writers don’t also give really valuable insight, but that’s a topic for another day).
That being said, even with how often I talk to people about their work, I’m blown away by the number of people who come up with excuses about something. Whether it’s in an essay or a novel, a short story or a piece of creative nonfiction, I hear excuses all the time.
“Oh, that scene? Yeah, I wrote that at one in the morning so I wasn’t really on top of my game.”
“That character is underdeveloped because I didn’t decide to add him into the book until I was already six chapters in.”
“Yeah, that chapter feels rushed because I wanted to get it done before I got off the plane, and it’s really hard on me to write while I travel.”
These are just examples, but it happens a lot–and pretty much all of us are guilty of making these kinds of excuses (yes, even me). I think there are a few reasons we try to excuse away our “bad” writing, the pieces of our stories that our critics take the most offense at. Sometimes these excuses are as simple as the ones above, basically admitting that we weren’t careful and just didn’t give a damn enough to revise the scene before sending it off to readers. Sometimes, though, the excuses borderline on “I don’t care what you think, I’m not going to change my story.”
For example, I’ve had writers give me excuses for why their characters behave a certain way. “I know it seems like they have a bad relationship, but that’s only because he’s struggling with depression and she’s working sixty hours a week. They actually are really in love and have absolutely no interpersonal problems whatsoever.”
I don’t care how many times you try to explain that kind of character flaw away, I’m not going to believe it. Similarly, if you’re writing a book from a certain time period and your characters are saying things that they’d never say in that time period, that either needs to be addressed or explained in the story or fixed immediately. None of this, “Yeah, well, I just felt like this made the character more relatable.” Your characters need to feel real. Period. There’s no exception to this rule.
It’s normal for writers to try to explain away bad writing and writing mistakes–we don’t want people to think we write badly all the time, because we don’t, and even the best writers have bad days. The problem becomes when you let these excuses not just explain why parts of your story aren’t up to the standard your readers expect, but you let them stand in the way of actually addressing the problem at hand.
If you have characters who feel underdeveloped or unrealistic, settings that are rushed or improperly portrayed, or plot holes that your readers trip over like ditches in the road, you need to stop making excuses and just address the problem at hand. A simple, “You’re right, that scene/character/element really is lacking. I’ll go back and take a look,” goes a lot further than “Yeah, it’s only that way because my cat died that night.”