♪♫ Feed me all night long! ♫♪
Ahem. Ok, that’s enough musical interlude. Time to get down to brass tacks. The “feed” in the title isn’t so much a reference to Little Shop of Horrors as it is a reference to feedback, and in a roundabout sort of way, the consequences of feeding something you shouldn’t be… in this case, your ego.
But let’s step back for a second. Let’s start by answering an important question… maybe even THE important question: Why are you doing this? The whole writing thing. What do you hope to get out of it? What will you do to get there? Be honest now.
Of course you want to be successful. You want to sell short stories/novellas/novels/series to editors at respected, well paying publishers and have fans to gobble them up and clamor for more… But that’s not what I’m talking about. That sort of thing happens to a very, very, VERY small percentage of the writing population. Aiming for that as your career goal is about on par with using lottery tickets as a retirement plan. No, I’m looking for something more immediate, more tangible, more honest. Don’t just claim you will/want to be the next Stephanie Meyer/Stephen King/JK Rowling, really get into it. Do you want to be a good writer, regardless of if you ever find fame with your writing? Do you want to be a better writer than you are? Are you willing to accept critical feedback, spend quality time on rewrites, devote countless hours to reading, editing, reviewing, rewriting, scrapping, starting over again, and polishing your word gemstone until it sparkles, honing your craft by making mistakes, learning, and trying again?
If you answered ‘No!’ to any of the above questions, go ahead and click here right now.
If you answered yes, pull up a seat. We’re going to have a chat about feedback.
Far, far, FAR too often I have seen the same scene play out, in various shades and tones: Writer asks for feedback, writer doesn’t really WANT feedback, writer wants praise and ego stroking. Writer gets feedback and FLIPS THE FUCK OUT BECAUSE HOW DARE ANYONE SAY A DISCOURAGING WORD ABOUT THEIR BRILLIANT MANUSCRIPT?! OMGWHARRGARBL!!
Same goes for ‘writing groups’, some of which end up being little more than great big ego-stuffing circle jerks, wherein everyone praises everyone else and does nothing more than ‘blow smoke up each others’ skirts’, to borrow a phrase from the great James A. Moore. (Note that I am NOT referring to helpful, useful writing groups that provide feedback and help people improve.)
Trust me, people. You don’t get better that way. Sure you might FEEL better, but that isn’t how you improve. Really. I promise. It’s not. Likewise, I can promise you that if you’re just starting out as a writer, regardless of any natural talent you may or may not posses, you have much to learn. That’s not an insult, it’s just fact. All of us, from the newest of the new, just-finished-their-first-story types all the way to award winning, best selling authors have things to learn. That’s why we read, anything and everything. That’s why we have trusted beta readers, people who will be honest and tell us if something we’ve sent them sucks rather than just dishing out shallow mommy praise. It’s why we edit, rewrite, edit again, then do it all over: To learn, to improve, to hone our craft and sharpen our skills and be the best writers we can be, and that is completely aside from any professional successes or sales.
These literary cesspools are the exact opposite of what they claim to be. Instead of offering honest, constructive feedback and encouraging each other to grow and develop as writers (as the good groups do), they allow their members to stagnate by convincing them that they’re brilliant and awesome and that their work needs no polish, of COURSE it’ll be an instant best seller! You don’t evolve that way. It’s a waste of time. In a way, it’s kind of like a drug addiction. It might feel good, you might enjoy it, you might even be able to justify it, but at the end of the day it’s doing you more harm than good.
As writers, we should all strive to learn not only to write well, but to take feedback well, too. That is a learned skill, but it’s very worth acquiring. So here are some simple tips to get you started.
So you’ve written a manuscript! Congratulations. Regardless of the length, I’m sure there was time and effort spent on it, blood, sweat, and tears poured into it, and maybe even a little piece of your heart and/or soul (if you have those, of course). Now comes one of the OTHER hard parts. No, not submitting it, that comes later. What comes now, if you’re lucky, is feedback.
Find people you trust, who will give you HONEST opinions on your work. That’s not to say ‘seek out abuse’, because that’s not what I’m saying, even if constructive criticism can sometimes feel that way, especially at first. What I mean is, find people who won’t sugarcoat it because they love you and don’t want to hurt your feelings. That’s what I like to call mommy praise. It’s well meaning, it’s uplifting, it’s gratifying! It’s completely and utterly worthless in terms of actually improving your story.
Look, you had to learn to do just about everything you do somewhere, right? And along the way, people more experienced or at least more knowledgeable in that thing probably gave you some guidance, yeah? Correcting your form, fixing your mistakes, adjusting problems, etc. Writing is no different. Look for the people who will tell you the truth because you can learn from it and use it.
Learn to identify the type of feedback you’ve been given. Generally, I find that most feedback falls into one of three separate groups: Useful/constructive, useless/abuse, useless/mommy praise. Take a few minutes, read over the feedback, and honestly evaluate it. The abuse gets tossed in the bin. The mommy praise can give you a smile, maybe even be saved for later when you feel the crushing doubt all of us inevitably feel, then get discarded. The constructive stuff you keep. I mean that literally. I have a folder full of it saved, so I can reference it when I need to. That stuff is worth its weight in gold, heck it’s worth whomever gave it to you’s weight in gold. Tracking that stuff over time can help you see patterns. Do you always rely on the same devices to fill your narratives? Do you have issues with overusing commas or underusing periods (ahem)? How have you improved on each successive draft? What area should you focus on learning more about? See? VALUABLE!
If someone takes the time to read your work and offer you feedback, first and foremost SAY THANK YOU! That really should go without saying, but sadly it seems like it needs to be said. With a hammer. Someone WILLINGLY took their own personal time, time they could have used to work on their own WIP, to read, to play with their kids, whatever. Instead of doing something they would have preferred, they GAVE you that time, and they they gave you MORE time, on top of thought, effort, and consideration in actually putting together feedback for you. That, my friends, is a goddamned gift. Don’t abuse it. Don’t get defensive and cry wolf because someone told you some things you didn’t want to hear. That makes you kind of a jerk, and it won’t make you a better writer.
When you give feedback to others (and you SHOULD give feedback to others!) grant them the same courtesy. Take your time. Write out thoughtful, honest, HELPFUL feedback. Again, I’m not telling you to be a dick. Don’t just fill up an entire email with “HAHAHAHAHA THIS SUCKS, N00b!” by copy and pasting it over and over and over again until your fingers are sore. No. Tell them things that you, as a reader, found hard to understand, confusing, or just plain awkward. If you notice that they really like using a certain word, so much so that it becomes repetitive, point that out. If you find patterns or things that just don’t feel right, point those out, too, same with inconsistencies or plot holes. The goal of the feedback you’re providing should be to HELP MAKE THE STORY BETTER. That’s it. Period. Done. If it doesn’t do that, go back and rewrite it until it does.
So there you have it: my ₵2 on feedback.