|I know, I know. A lot of writers (maybe you?) dread getting feedback. Putting your work out there and asking “Well?” can make you want to toss back a few in the powder room, even before your story discussion begins. And to make an already nerve-wracking situation worse, most of us have been exposed to what I call “toxic feedback.” By this I mean any feedback that crush-es your confidence, sets back your work, or just makes you feel generally lousy.|
Often critiquers present toxic feedback under the guise of being “brutally honest.” (“You’ll never be a writer!”) But since when does brutality serve any productive purpose, or belong in any educational interaction?
If you’re timid about feedback—toxic or otherwise—the time has come to see feedback for what it really is: an invaluable resource that can inform and energize your creative process from the first draft to the last line edit. After all, unless you’re composing a secret diary, I imagine your writing goal is to communicate something meaningful to someone other than yourself. So how do you know if you’re achieving your intent? How do you know if people are moved by your work or want to move on, unless you get some reader response along the way?
Following are seven myths about feedback that have too many writers running scared. Learn the truth about feedback and you can not only detoxify the process, but use it to write more, write better, and, yes, even be happier, because who isn’t happier when writing more and better?
1. Positive feedback is a waste of time.
Too many of us have bought into the deficit model of feedback, meaning the best way to help writers improve their work is to tear it to shreds. Hence, sincere writers say “Bring it on!” and demand only critical feedback, believing anything positive will be unproductive. And, on the other side, sincere feedback providers feel remiss unless they note every fault of the narrative.
Yet the reality is that when barraged with too much negative feedback, writers usually don’t have a clue what to do when they sit down to revise, except maybe cry.
Much more useful (not to mention pleasant) is to focus a good portion of the feedback on what is right with the writing. “Here, this scene offers just the right mix of external action and internal monologue.” “Here, the dialogue intensifies the conflict.” “Here, this chapter beautifully furthers the plot.”
The point of positive feedback isn’t just to make the writer feel good (though what’s wrong with that?). The point is that writers learn volumes from their own examples of powerful prose, something that won’t happen if all the feedback centers on the work’s deficits. Plus, a focus on the positive leaves the writer feeling much more motivated to put in the hours necessary to make the succeeding drafts even better.
2. Feedback will railroad your creative process.
Wait a minute. Aren’t you forgetting something? You are the boss of your own story. Not your workshop peers. Not that famous author you met at a writing conference. Not even your mother, who inconveniently lives next door and figures prominently in your tell-all memoir. When it comes to applying feedback, only you determine what stays and what goes in your story.
Acknowledging that you have creative control makes it easier to listen to other people’s opinions with equanimity, even gratitude. You can use the feedback to hone your own editorial instincts, rather than try to please everybody and write by committee. What comments ring true to you? Which suggestions jive with your vision of your work?
Once back at your desk, armed with a fresh perspective only outside readers can provide, you can revise accordingly, applying only the feedback that resonates. But that’s the beauty of feedback—you can take it or leave it. As boss of your own story, it’s up to you to decide.
3. Writers should be silent during their story discussions.
During a radio interview, the host asked me, “How can writers prepare for the worst when it comes to criticism?” She also used the word “nightmare” in association with feedback.
I think this interviewer has some is-sues with feedback. The writer’s job isn’t to prepare for the worst but to manage the feedback process so it isn’t a nightmare in the first place.
I know many groups institute a “no talking” policy to prevent a writer from defending her words or hogging the conversation. But I feel that’s a bit extreme, and can be counterproductive.
Yes, when your pages are being re-viewed, you want to do more listening than talking. But if negative comments are flying at you like the arrows at St. Sebastian, don’t just sit there. Refocus the frenzy. Ask your critics what they liked about the piece. What worked? Why? If there’s nothing positive, ask what they noticed or remembered.
Similarly, if the discussion goes no deeper than generalities (“I was bored”; “Good job!”), push for more. Ask open-ended questions. (“Where were you bored?” “What did you like about the ending?”) These help stimulate any discussion, and can illuminate more specifically how to address your manuscript’s problems, or replicate your success.
4. Writers are just looking for a little praise.
We may think we are. But what we really want is encouragement. We want a sincere appreciation for our efforts. We want readers to recognize what’s good about our work. And in that context, we also want real help in developing, improving or polishing our work.
When it comes to constructive criticism, even the most fragile among us can handle specifics. It’s the broad condemnations that bring us to our knees. “Your story didn’t work for me.” “Start over.” “I don’t get it.” How does a writer revise so that a reader gets it? In contrast, writers truly value specific responses that help clarify why something isn’t working so they can more effectively address the problem.
5. The goal of feedback is to help “fix” a story.
Fixing stories may be one goal of feedback, but it sure doesn’t make me want to race out and get some, at least not during certain stages of the creative process. What’s more, the responsibility of fixing another writer’s work almost makes me feel desperate to find fault with it, even where there is none.
More palatable and productive for both sides of the interaction is to think of feedback not in terms of fixes, but reader responses. And by this I mean any response that gets the writer to write more and write better.
For example, feedback can take the form of listening or brainstorming. (“Tell me more about your main character.” “What happens next?”) It can be an affirmation or validation. (“I know you can do this!”) It can even be a deadline because too often without one, writers (gasp!) procrastinate. And, yes, last but not least, feedback can take the form of someone saying what’s wrong with the writing in order to help fix it.
6. The best feedback comes from professionals.
A couple of years ago I drafted the opening chapter of a mystery novel, and gave it to my then 9-year-old daughter to read. In the second paragraph, I had the main character remembering how her husband had given her the special brooch she was wearing. A few pages later, when the husband appears on the scene, my daughter commented, “But I thought he was dead.”
I realized that I had indeed created this wrong impression by first introducing the husband in his wife’s memory, but I never would have seen this problem without my daughter’s feedback.
The point of this anecdote is to brag about my daughter, but also to show that quality readers aren’t just professional editors or published authors.
In seeking feedback, be open-minded. Try out different writing groups or form your own workshop. More than literary credentials, look for readers who will provide you with honest, thoughtful commentary, who will motivate you to go at it again—and who will save you from blunders like mine.
7. Real writers don’t need feedback.
I once interviewed a novelist whose first (and only) book enjoyed critical success, albeit dismal sales. He emphasized that he “never, ever” showed his work-in-progress. His reasoning: If you’re the one writing the book, why trouble yourself with other people’s opinions? How could an outsider know more about your story than you do?
At first, his logic gave me pause. Maybe real writers shouldn’t trouble themselves with feedback. But then this author went on to mention that it took him 22 years to finish his novel. Twenty-two years! And for much of that time he felt bored and depressed and suffered from writer’s block.
I see this as a cautionary tale. Say you’ve just started writing your book. Unless you’re comfortable with the idea of not finishing it until 2032, you may want to get yourself some feedback. Because sometimes even “real” writers need outside inspiration, motivation and validation.