I’ve never had anyone tell me I’m a bad writer.
I was reading professional, life long writers and parsing it for guidance and my internal estimation of how good a writer I am tells me I’m a good writer because I’m not guilty of a lot of the things they warn against.
I realize I don’t need much in the way of play book coaching I need real you-fucked-up-son coaching.
Stephen King in On Writing talks about being edited for the first time and what a joyful revelation it was. He was already a good writer and people told him nothing but that. When a newspaper editor got out the red pen Stephen loved getting the feedback, it was a lesson on how to be better than good.
The same thing goes for songwriting. I’ve only ever had people tell me I’m a good or great songwriter. So naturally it seems true. Any advice I read I’ve already learned and applied on my own. This means that I don’t know what I don’t know. I’ve got unknown unknowns.
On the one hand I think we all get caught in bubbles because people tell us we’re great at what we’re best at, even if we’re barely good at it, and no one likes to tell us what we’re bad at.
Even in the area of friendship people will say you’re an arrogant piece of shit rather than tell you you’re bad at listening. For virtues we credit skill and for vices we blame character when really any vice can be seen as a lack of particular skill.
When it comes to who can criticize who things get messy. All opinions have value but that doesn’t mean they have equal value.
This is why I use the term laymen a lot. In cooking the laymen opinion is if it tastes good it is good. They usually reject fancy food and I imagine it comes from a self conscious fear that they simply don’t know what else their supposed to be rating it for so it’s easier to reject than think or ask.
This happens in music all day everyday.
Back to food though, the educated opinion (and I mean even with zero technical education, just a passing knowledge of food) knows that things that taste good aren’t always good. That’s why we have the term junk food. Hell even antifreeze tastes good to dogs but you wouldn’t think you’d ended a discussion with a chef defending that point.
I’ll do my best to spare you my usual ranting hatred of anti-snobbery because my point is still supposed to be about improvement.
If you’re a cook you can never be better than good getting feedback from laymen. They don’t know what they don’t know. You can cook for six hundred people and get a thumbs up from all of them you might still be shit. Just the least awful shit they’ve had.
Pleasing your target audience is not inherently bad it’s just that you can’t grow, you can’t get better than good. And if your goal is simply the biggest possible audience you can’t do better than junk.
If you cook for cooks (or sing for singers or astronaut for astronauts) you’ll get data that’s all over the place and maybe reflects their blind spots and spot lights too, but you can dig into that information and find ways to grow in the directions you want to.
Unfortunately this sort of thinking leads to one of my most hated arguments. The who-are-you-to-criticize defense. This happens when one laymen disagrees with another and all the sudden expertise is on the table. Don’t like my mom’s cooking? Well you can’t do any better so I give your opinion no value. Ta da, just like that. Don’t like my favourite quarter back? Well you don’t know what it takes to be a quarter back so there.
The thing is if you declare the negative opinion of a demographic has no value then correspondingly the positive opinion has no value either. Meaning yours, in this case.
We can all detect bad cooking and quarterbacking. What’s hard is tell good from from great using something other than results. Which would mean the best author is the one who sold the most books and we’re back to junk.
This is why the world needs editors, gate keepers, even referees. It’s about refining the signal-to-noise. Anyone can come up with one good point in ten thousand words. Everyone has something to say but it’s not different from what someone else has to say and if they can say it in a hundred words as opposed to a thousand I can safely declare who isn’t worth listening to.
This is why I think critics are good. Roger Ebert spent his entire life studying what makes films great and he didn’t waste any of that time making films, making his own mistakes and learning from them, he learned from everyone’s mistakes all at once. When you’re making a movie (or running a restaurant or playing a sport) you’re essentially studying that one movie (Or restaurant/sport) as it unfolds for the years it takes to make. In that time an expert has studied hundreds of films (or sports restaurants) so their opinion draws on a lot more value than the lone creator.
Why do some fish stay in small ponds? Because it’s where no one tells them they need to be better than good.