Feed Me

My cell phone rang yesterday at work and I dived for it, sure it was word on my latest query. Turned out to be my doctor’s office with a question.  Nuts!

I wanted to write a post about feedback.  A lot of people join writer’s groups in order to present material, discuss writing problems and get feedback from other writers, published or not.  I’ve not done this yet; there is one I’m interested in but it meets when I have another commitment.  It’s intimidating to put your work out there for public consumption, but even more so to ask for someone’s opinion.

With the popularity of shows such as American Idol, criticism and schadenfreude are big right now.  It’s fun to watch people fall flat on their faces, unless it’s you.  Anyone presenting work or performance in public is bound to have a few critics, but the harshness of unfettered vitriol can make some people quit.  From what I understand, many writers’ groups have rules about criticism; one I looked at recently and ultimately dismissed said it didn’t accept any criticism, only encouragement.  That’s another side to the coin.

Receiving no feedback won’t help you grow as an artist.  Neither will being unable to accept it.  On the very first audition show for American Idol, one of only two times I ever watched it, a young woman performed.  She had a pretty good voice, but as a trained singer myself, I could tell by her lack of breath control and phrasing mistakes she had had no formal study in voice. With training she had a real shot at making it, as the judges told her with great enthusiasm.

Was she excited to hear it?

No.  She thought her voice was perfect and needed no training or improvement of any kind.  I could see she had probably received empty praise and indulgence rather than genuine support and advice.  Her attitude condemned her to obscurity. The writer who can’t bear to change a word of his/her masterpiece because the first draft is perfect will quickly follow her.

There are some kinds of feedback it’s best to ignore.

  • “Oh this is brilliant; you don’t need to do a thing to it!” Yes, you do.
  • Remarks that stem from jealousy, competitiveness, or spite. You’ll know it when you hear it.  In between two projects, I was noodling around with something for fun and was told I should get over that and write something saleable. I knew at that moment I could never trust that person’s opinion again.

Same goes for reviews or comments. Don’t take these to heart. A good review or comment will give you honest observations that can improve your work.

  • Feedback targeted at you personally, not your work. Agenda time, anyone?
  • Feedback that is vague, or offers nothing beyond “I don’t like it.” That’s a personal opinion and should be respected. But unless concrete reasons are articulated, it is not useful to you.

What you want is constructive feedback. In my grad school education program, we learned how to give a criticism sandwich.  It’s just what the name implies. Put the suggestion between two positive statements. Start by finding something encouraging about the work, to put the person in a receptive frame of mind.  Then slip the suggestion in the middle, and end on a positive note to maintain that encouragement.

Example: “This is a great premise. Start with the action, not the exposition, and watch the head-hopping [shifts in point-of-view in the middle of a scene].  Good use of metaphor.”

Ideally, the person will listen to the suggestion and focus on improvement, not shortcomings. It works much better than “This blows” or “Go study POV, moron.” Seek out people you trust to look at your work.  My beta reader for the book is also one of my skating coaches. She herself writes, and she knows me and knows how to instruct me without tearing me down or giving me false praise. I believe her input made my book better.

If you’re submitting and your story is returned with specific critiques, pay attention to them. You want this kind of attention.  It shows that someone thinks you’re worth encouraging.

Don’t let feedback define you.  It’s just a tool you can use to make your writing better.

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