Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Feedback:

How to get it and what to do with it once you've gotten it

By Elizabeth Chanye
Copyright 2007 by Elizabeth Chanye, All Rights Reserved


Writing is a solitary, sometimes secret activity. Some of us even started out thinking it was something to be ashamed of, and for that reason kept our notebooks private. But sooner or later, there will come a day when you wonder what other people would think of the novel/short story/poem you wrote: is it good enough to be, say, published? Should any part of it be rewritten? Are the characters believable?

It's time you got some feedback.

Feedback. It can be positive, negative, inspiring, or useless, and sometimes, it may have absolutely nothing to do with the story in question. It can be equally valuable whether it comes from an English professor or your next-door neighbor. Sometimes it makes you want to tear up your six-hundred-page novel and start over; other times, it feeds your ego and makes you feel positively saintly.

But how do you get it?

The first thing to do is to find someone to read your manuscript and comment on it. Anybody can do this job, whether they're writers or not, so it's not absolutely necessary to join a writer's critique group. But try to look for someone who is an equal to you (don't pick employees who might feel like they have to butter you up, for instance), someone who actually thinks about what they're reading, who doesn't treat reading as just something to kill time with. Also, pick somebody who likes or is interested in your particular genre: don't ask a fantasy hater to read your sword and sorcery novel!

Tell the person not to think of the piece as yours; ask them to imagine that this is something they've picked up in a bookstore. Invite them to write down their thoughts in the margins of your manuscript: a question mark for parts where they got confused, exclamation points for parts they found far-fetched, stars for lines or scenes they liked. They probably won't be able to remember their every thought on every sentence otherwise.

 

Once they're done reading, ask them what they thought of the piece, but don't just toss a broad question such as "What did you think of the story?" at them, because that will only get you vague answers, mostly in the short and sweet category. "It was okay," "Good, I guess," "Very interesting," and so on. Rare is the person who replies, "It was horrible", even if it was. Think carefully about what you want to know, and frame your queries accordingly. Some questions to ask might be:

  • Was there any part of the story you felt was "wrong" somehow?
  • Could you relate to any of the characters, or did you feel like they were too far away from you?
  • Did you feel any part of the story was irrelevant? Were there parts that didn't move the story along?
  • Which parts bored you, and had you yawning or thinking of something else?
  • Did the first sentence/page/chapter make you want to read on and find out what happened?

After you've gotten your answers, look your piece over again with this fresh perspective in mind. (At times, we get so close to our work that we can't see the flaws.)  

Never take any feedback concerning your work personally. Remember that it's your work that's being commented on, not you. It's hard, especially if someone is full of criticism, but it's never helpful to get uptight. (Note: If someone says something like, "This is just the sort of trash I expected from an idiot like you," it's probably a good idea to avoid asking that person for advice in future, for the sake of your writing and your blood pressure both.) If necessary, write down the advice given you, and leave it for a few days so you can come back to it with a cool head.

Constructive feedback -- that is to say, feedback that actually aids your writing -- may be hard to pick out from the many comments you receive. Generally, constructive feedback is defined as the following: specific feedback given by an unprejudiced person you trust and who is somewhat sympathetic to your chosen genre. "This sucks" is not good feedback (however, "This sucks because the plotline is too unbelievable" is a constructive comment, even if it doesn't make for pleasant hearing); "We don't take any pet stories," when you've written a piece on airplanes, is not constructive, and nor is "This romance is soppy and silly" from someone who hates romantic fiction.

Once you've sorted out the good feedback, apply it to your piece. Choose a time when you aren't feeling stressed or blocked. Having your masterpiece torn apart and analyzed is never pleasant, and it's best to pick a time when you're in a cheerful and perhaps slightly amused frame of mind.

You don't have to give particular merit to any one comment, even if it comes from an English tutor, a Nobel Prize winner, or a famous writer. (Even the greats have been known to be wrong on occasion.) Change parts of your piece if you feel a comment on them was justified, ignore the comment if you don't.

Ultimately, what you write is yours, born of your imagination and experiences. Any changes you make, therefore, are also your decision and yours alone, so no matter what anyone tells you, always follow your instincts.