Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Five brutal truths about feedback on writing

Once upon a time you wrote something you thought was great only to learn it was in fact appalling. With that realisation came the desire to do something about it. But without knowing what’s wrong with something you can’t fix it, so you sought to find out - by joining a writers group, online writers’ community or review site. Then you felt the pain.

But you’re tough, and you’re serious, so you dusted yourself down and applied the changes your critiquers recommended - you rewrote the damned thing from start to finish - and you know what? It was still shit, except this time it wasn’t even your shit.

Here are some things to bear in mind before you swallow that feedback wholesale.

Just because you don’t know what you’re doing doesn’t mean they do

It’s easy to have an opinion. It’s easy to say you don’t like something. It’s easy to think you know what you’re talking about. What’s hard is not just saying that something doesn’t work but understanding and expressing why it doesn’t work. Harder still is fixing it. Hardest of all is coming up with something workable from nothing - remember that before you throttle your beta reader.

And just because someone is a ‘professional’ doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about either. Think of all the chumps you’ve had to work with in all the jobs you’ve ever had - how many of them were truly awe-inspiringly competent to the point you’d change what you did because they told you to? Close to zero, right? The creative industries are no different.

Haters gonna hate

Here’s a stat for you - 20% of people will dislike your work even if it’s genius.

Ok I made that up but it doesn’t mean it’s not true. You know that lifetime favourite book/film/play you would give your left buttock to have written yourself? At least 20% of the people in the world hate it. You know it. And you didn’t even write it.

A proposed solution is not a problem

People love to (re)write your story for you. Ignore all that advice. You’re the writer of this story. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an underlying issue that prompted the suggestion - particularly if a number of readers are trying to fix the same area. It’s your job to find out what that underlying issue is - trying to understand exactly what your reader thinks he means can be a lifetime study in futility. Best to nod sweetly and figure it out when you get home.

You really want readers not writers

Writers are lovely people and they are best placed to understand what’s involved in producing a piece of writing - but with connoisseurship comes pet hates, loves and exacting standards. Writers are going to feel passionately about what makes ‘good writing’ because they’re in the business of producing it. They will be particularly concerned with the writerly issues they are currently wrestling with and this may colour their feedback. Remember that the majority of those consuming stories are not remotely concerned with how they are produced. What may push a writers’ group’s buttons maybe irrelevant to your intended readership. Here are three reasons why.

You are your own worst (best) critic

The truth is the only critic you need is yourself. You’re the only one who really knows your story. You’re the only one who can really understand the tools/talents/techniques you have available to express it. You’re the best person to tell that story in the best possible way. Therefore, all you really need to do to be able to fix your atrocious story is to be able to see what’s wrong with it - the rest is up to you.


  1. Now THAT's a truth not universally acknowledged.

    I've had advice on my writing ranging from extremely useful to batty, but luckily I can tell the difference :o)

  2. Yeah, Lexi, it was a hard lesson learned for me - how to tell the difference between good and bad feedback. Funny thing is, about the time you get better at interpreting feedback is about the time you need it less.

  3. This blog -- and the link to the "three reasons why" -- was extremely timely for me as recently I have been dealing with repeated nasty feedback from one reader. I was confused in the beginning as to why someone who hated my story kept reading it. (After all, she's not in eleventh grade and being forced to read Silas Marner.)

    I realized that the reader was angry because she liked the story, but disliked my style because it did not conform to her (very narrow) definition of "good" style. Her frustration at wanting to hear the story, but hating my writing style boiled over into angry feedback, over and over.

    Luckily, I've been writing long enough not to take it personally and to realize that not all feedback is useful. (I've also been writing online long enough to know how to block an individual from giving feedback too!)

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting, Karen. I'm glad my post was timely for you. Repeated negative criticism is no good for anyone - and as you point out, says more about the person giving it than the writer receiving it.

  5. It's a conundrum - writers give better feedback in one sense, in that they know more about the mechanics of writing, and can tell you about technical problems you may have, or suggest ways to improve a novel (say, swapping the first and second chapters round) that a reader wouldn't think of.

    On the other hand, as you say, writers are incredibly picky and have their own pet peeves that can colour their feedback. I know because the more I write, the more faults I find in books I'm reading that irritate me, which I would have never noticed before. Great post.

    By the way I gave you an award on my blog :)

  6. Hey, thanks so much for the award, Girl Friday. I've actually won this award twice before but it's great to receive it again. It's good to know that people are appreciating the posts. I really should get my awards up on the blog at some point.

  7. How timely. Yesterday, I finally finished editing ALL of my blog post and that's about 400 of them. I started blogging in 2006 and back then I feel so proud as being the only person among my circle of friends who is known to write blogs. Since then I have regularly promoted my blogs to others including the social media like Facebook and Twitter. (Un)fortunately, ironically, and incidentally, I got my first taste of being an editor of one article marketing company wherein the longer I read, review and edit write-ups of other people, the more I doubted my own capacity to write a decent article. It was then when I started to backtrack my blog content and soon realized that I have made such mediocre posts in the past.

    I spent about 3 months revising most of my old posts. I give credit to the tweeps I follow and to other valuable online resources that made me re-learn English and writing.

  8. "A proposed solution is not a problem"

    Yes! Well said. Many writers are under the impression that the moment a reviewer makes a suggestion, it must mean there is a problem with the book. Never mind that they wouldn't give that esteemed literary "expert" a second glance behind them at the check-out line at Wal-Mart (OK, maybe they would ... their kids are being REALLY obnoxious).

  9. @crisn - apologies for not replying to your comment sooner, I missed this. Yep, keeping a blog does teach quite a few lessons about writing - regularity, consistency, idea generation etc. I find the discipline and having to always find something to write about particularly useful - but it also forces me to articulate my ideas on what I think I know about writing - and that's a learning experience of its own. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

    @J.S. Chancellor - yes, agreed - but it took me far too long to realise that. Glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for taking the time to comment.

  10. It was perfect timing for me to read this today. Yesterday I received feedback from a screenplay coverage professional that I paid $85 for . . . it felt like an Internet consultation with a surgeon who is recommending the removal of several of my organs without ever having seen me in person.

    First, I vented to my husband for twenty minutes. Then I took myself out for a large avocado burger and fries. Then I took a long, hot bath, ranting out loud about how much that punk didn't "get" my story. Then I decided to disregard the advice that would completely derail how the story plays out for the characters (characters who feel like real people to me, with issues that impact my own life) and stick to the story I'm passionate about, while getting a second opinion from someone I know I can trust.

    Finding this post today just reconfirms that I made the right decision. Thank you.

    I've only read three posts for far but I LOVE THIS BLOG.

    ~ Milli

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