Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Receiving Feedback

You could be a technically amazing writer, the second coming of Hemmingway and Steinbeck and Joyce all rolled into one. You could be incredibly prolific, turning every month into NaNoWriMo. You could be endlessly inventive, spinning new worlds into existence on your coffee breaks. You could be all of these things and more, but it wouldn’t matter if you didn’t let others see your work. For us mere mortals, getting eyes beside our own on what we’ve written is even more important. Someone has to point out to us the grammatical errors and flaws in composition, the unbelievable characters and incomprehensible plot developments, the threadbare clich├ęs and bland dialogue. True, this is not always a thing of joy, but it is necessary. So, following are a few humble thoughts on ways to receive feedback that are good for you and your writing.

First, understand that your writing isn’t gold. It isn’t silver or platinum, either. It isn’t a shiny carbuncle or a cache of Spanish doubloons or a jewel-encrusted mask stolen from the temple of an Incan monkey god. Stop thinking of your writing as something rare and precious. Otherwise, you’ll resist and rationalize away criticism that you need if you want to improve. Time will not only increase your output, it’ll help you understand that those initial projects you guarded jealously might not have been exactly stellar.

Next, find sympathetic readers. Note the use of "sympathetic" rather than "approving" or "milquetoast." You should seek out readers who will correctly identify the proverbial spade, not those who will say that everything you do is wonderful and I’m so glad you showed this to me, dear, now be sure to wash your hands before dinner, okay? Candor is a must. But if you’re writing SF or hardboiled or horror, don’t choose a reader who only approves of historical epics or cozies or stories with sunshine and kittens. Find someone familiar with the genre you prefer so you don’t take unnecessary lumps.

Speaking of lumps, note where criticisms cluster. Your college roommate may quibble with protagonist’s monologue on page seven. Your aunt may dislike you capping the mob boss halfway through. And your girlfriend may roll her eyes at the repeated allusions to Bernie Wooster’s escapades. But if they all don’t get your twist ending, you have a problem on your hands. Tastes vary, but true missteps have a way of tripping everybody up.

Finally, let your piece rest. If you’ve done the hard work of multiple revisions and have gone through your narrative line by line with two or three people, you’ll probably feel pretty burnt out. Don’t rush to make changes just so you can put your story to bed. Step away from it. Write a short short. Do a first draft of something new. Then come back. Refreshing one’s perspective works wonders that haste can never accomplish.

(Picture: CC 2006 by


Anonymous said...

I feel the need to bow in your presence, sensei. It may just be that my foot itches. Love this post; am passing it on via Random Complexity.

Loren Eaton said...

I'm afraid that to be a sensei I would need to be far more successful than I am now. But I appreciate the compliment!

ollwen said...

Great advice. I guess I have to get to the point of 'actively writing' to utilize it though. . . details, details.

Loren Eaton said...

Sam, why do think I have a blog? It forces me to write regularly!