CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I felt a twinge of anxiety as I hit SEND on the e-mail that carried my edits on a story a newish writer had given me to critique. What she'd written was interesting and clever, but mired in the kinds of mistakes writers tend to make when they're new to the craft.
I remember, when I was new to the game, how hard it was to show my stories to others. I remember how exposed I felt while awaiting their comments. Had my story come back covered in red, I might've felt like giving up altogether, but my earliest teachers were gentle and patient. They recognized the importance of the mistakes I was making and showed me how to learn from them, a bit at a time.
The woman whose story I'd read was a former president of a large organization. She was multilingual, well traveled, had a collection of prestigious honors and degrees. Yet her story had the same beginner's mistakes that many new writers with a fraction of her schooling would have. They aren't even mistakes so much as they are a part of the learning process. They have to do this to learn the reason or value of that.
If a person were to become fascinated with figure skating and read cover-to-cover every book that's ever been written about the subject, no amount of what they've studied would make a lick of difference if they've never stepped on the ice. It's only by doing it -- and doing it wrong -- that they can learn how and what to correct.
Same thing with construction or golf or business or a million other endeavors. You can read about it, study it, know it inside and out, but you aren't going to be able to do a particular thing until you're in that world and start making the mistakes that inevitably arise.
With writing, there's too much to learn all at once, so you take on just a few of the most important issues at the start. Plotting. Point of view. Consistent verb tense. Learning not to ever, ever use any of the myriad ways to keep from saying "he said."
Because I wanted badly to learn, those who took time to teach me paced their advice and recommendations so that I could keep up. I can't recall a single time when I felt overwhelmed. And now, many years later, I'm where they used to be, trying to pay forward their benevolence by nudging new writers bent on improving their craft.
It's been interesting to observe the way advice is received. Most who I've worked with genuinely welcome suggestions, while others bristle over anything less than gushing praise.