Recently, I saw a post on Facebook about contest submissions for writers. The person who posted was making the point that assessments about the winners and losers are “sometimes subjective”. I posted an alternate view: they’re always, 100% subjective. 100% of the time.
It can be difficult for writers to remember that, but it’s true. Many of us are under the impression that there is some universal standard of excellence that we all “should” know and adhere to, and that the “successful” pieces all adhere to those standards. It’s not true. Certainly, there are “rules” about structure and character, formatting and professional behavior – and professional presentation of a script. There’s the expectation of quality, yes. But quality is in the eye of the beholder. That’s ALWAYS the way it is.
Ever see a TV show, movie, or play that “everyone” seems to love – but it leaves you cold? That’s evidence of what I’m saying. There isn’t a writer on the planet, in any medium, whose work is universally loved. One man’s masterpiece is another man’s trash.
Don’t believe me?
Here are a few examples:
When the hit musical Hamilton premiered, Ben Brantley from The New York Times called it: “…a show that aims impossibly high and hits its target.” But Andrew Langer of The National Review was partly dismissive of the show and said: “Hamilton’s fatal flaw is its focus on emotions rather than substance.”
The feature film Wonder Woman was praised by many – reviewer Ann Hornaday at The Washington Post was among them. She said the film “…saves the day in more ways than one.” At the same time, David Edelstein of Vulture disagreed: “The gushing reviews of Wonder Woman suggest that people are grading on a big curve, but the limpness of the storytelling is certainly preferable to the whacking pacing of other movies of its ilk.”
Here are two comments from reviews of The Godfather – a film which many consider a “classic”. For Kenneth Turan from the L.A. Times: “The Godfather is overflowing with life, rich with all the grand emotions and vital juices of existence, up to and including blood.” Stanley Kaufmann from The New Republic felt: “Francis Ford Coppola, the director and co-adapter (with Mario Puzo), has saved all his limited ingenuity for the shootings and stranglings…”
Whether you agree or disagree with these opinions is not the point. The point is that they’re opinions. 100% subjective.
Our job as writers is to aim for quality – OUR version of quality. Beyond that, we need to let it go. If you’re working for a show runner or a producer, the task is to lean into their aesthetic and make the work match the standards they set. That doesn’t mean that everybody will love it or appreciate it. We all want to find our audience: the people who appreciate our work. But it’s a mistake to imagine that our audience will include EVERYONE. It’s not possible. IT’S NOT POSSIBLE.
Is it disappointing that there isn’t a world-wide, agreed upon, always-true standard of quality?
Get used to it. Even Shakespeare had detractors. He still does.
I believe you can allow this to liberate you as you step into your writing process. Write to please yourself and your boss (or your producer or your team if you have one). Trust your instincts AND understand that perfection (a word reviewers throw around all the time) is NOT a thing in the world of writing. Or in the world of art. There are no standards to determine that.
What do people think of your writing? Depends on who you ask. There are likely as many thoughts about your writing as there are readers.
Don’t let that prevent you from bravely showing up at the page.
Don’t let that stop you from searching for those who get what you’re up to and really appreciate it.
Your job is to dive into your work. And as you do, let me know how it’s going.