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. 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
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
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
Did you feel any part of
the story was irrelevant? Were there parts that didn't move the
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
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.