Constructive Criticism and Making Choices

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”– Mark Twain

Once, when I shared the opening chapter of Ourselves and Others with a fiction writer’s group, a well-intentioned group member suggested that I change one word in the first line, which is as follows:

She met him when her bones were strong and her mind was sick—like a brand new house set on a crumbling foundation.

The word in question was “sick.” From his perspective, “sick” was almost the right word, but not quite. It was “lightning bug” instead of “lightning.” In its place, he suggested “weak.” To him, I had used the wrong word because he believed I was trying to convey the opposite of “strong.” Anyone who’s been to first grade knows the exact opposite of “strong” is “weak,” right? And yet I hadn’t used it.

So I thought about his suggestion—there is a certain parallelism to using exact opposites, after all. I tried it out in my head and on paper, but no matter how I looked at it, “weak” could not win me over. To me, it was the flickering pinprick flash of a lightning bug when I wanted the power of lightning. I hadn’t been trying to convey exact opposites in the first place. I used “sick” because it evoked the emotions and associations that were right for the story. “Weakjust didn’t give the vibes I wanted to give. So “sick” stayed.

Book pages may be black and white, but writing is not. The “right” word is entirely subjective. Where one person sees lightning, at least one other person is guaranteed to see lightning bugs. Still, feedback remains an amazing thing. Every piece of advice you receive, you should consider carefully. Some suggestions may lead to changes that strengthen your work, while others reinforce confidence in the choices you originally made. There is no bad side to constructive criticism. However, in a world where right and wrong are so subjective, someone has to choose what is what. Ultimately, that’s you, the author. You choose what’s right and what’s wrong for your writing and you take responsibility for those choices. You’re the only one who really knows what your story should say, look like, and feel like. So stay true to your voice; don’t exchange your lightning for someone else’s, because you might find you’ve gotten lightning bugs instead.

Today’s Prompt: Write a short story that takes place in the midst of a terrible lightning storm. Replace every use of the word “lightning” with “lightning bug.”

Happy Writing!

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