Why a book
about feedback? Don't writers just ask their spouse or
a friend to comment on their work? (And don't they just want praise
because a lot of writers ask their spouse or friends
for feedback that I believe a book on the subject is long overdue.
Without a real understanding of how to manage the feedback process,
writers are likely to expose themselves to the kind of toxicity that
too often leads to discouragement, writer's block, or, in the case of
toxic feedback from a spouse, a lot of long, lonely nights. As to your
assertion that writers just want praise—we often think we do. But what
we really want is encouragement. We want a sincere appreciation for our
efforts. We want readers to carry us around the room on their shoulders
in celebration of what's working fabulously in our piece or shows
promise. And in that context, we also want constructive criticism that
can clue us in on what's not working in the writing, and how we can
make it better.
feedback? Is it really as destructive as you make it sound?
feedback can poison the writing process. If you have any
doubt, try this test. Find three random writers, any three will do. Ask
them if they know anyone who has experienced a serious setback because
of bad feedback, whether it was from a teacher or a writing group or
their mother. Two of the three will instantly tell you this happened to
them personally. And the third will know someone who stopped writing
altogether because of something someone said about their work or their
abilities. Toxic feedback is an avoidable epidemic.
writers look for when seeking a feedback provider?
providers come in all shapes and sizes. The other day
I was polishing the opening chapter of a mystery novel I've just
started. My nine-year-old daughter was reading it over my shoulder. I
had inserted a brief flashback in the second paragraph, with the main
character having a memory of her husband giving her the special broach
she was wearing. Later in the same chapter, the husband appears on the
scene, and my daughter commented, “but I thought he was dead.” In
rereading the opening paragraph, it was obvious that I'd created that
impression by having the husband first appear in the protagonist's
memory, but I never would have seen this without my daughter's
The point of
this anecdote is to brag about my daughter, but also to
show that good feedback providers aren't just people who know the
vocabulary of criticism, or who have taught or written for years.
Writing professors, authors, agents, and editors are the most obvious
resource for feedback, but they aren't always available (and they
aren't always right or the best readers anyway). In seeking helpful
feedback, look everywhere. Listen openly. Solicit a variety of
opinions, until you feel you have enough reader response to feel
confident the work is achieving your intent, and you haven't made any
crucial blunders—like giving the impression that one of your main
characters is dead!
always a matter of looking for problems and making editorial
suggestions? What other forms can feedback take?
take many forms and should, depending on where the
writing is at, and where the writer's head is at on any given day.
Effective feedback can be anything from an affirmation—“You can do
this!”—to a lesson on the proper use of semicolons. Feedback is all
about the writer. What does she need, right at that moment, to move her
What tips do
you have for writers when receiving feedback? How
can they make the best use of the feedback they get? What if the
feedback is toxic?
A whole section
of the book deals with this issue, but, in brief, I
would suggest writers remember that it often takes two people to create
toxic feedback, with one of those two being the writer. Are you being
unduly defensive? Are you paying attention to when feedback serves your
writing process, and when it sets you back? Are you being proactive or
passive in getting the kind of feedback you need when you need it?
(Depending on what draft I'm on, I may seek out more nurturing readers
to keep me going, or readers who are going to call me on every
misplaced modifier). Are you trying to write by committee, or using
feedback to hone your own writerly instincts?
If you do
experience toxic feedback, one comfort is to know that you
are in good company. Among the thirteen successful authors I
interviewed for this book, most of them had received toxic feedback,
often early in their careers. What a good reminder not to take
devastating feedback to heart, or to let it stop you!
What are some
of the common mistakes that feedback providers, even those with the
best intentions, make?
Whenever we are
asked to critique someone else's work, it is so easy
to let our own agendas, neuroses, insecurities, and editorial biases
get in the way. We make the interaction more about us and our tastes
and our mood, rather than the writer and his work. It's important to
try to rise above these all-too-human tendencies in order to offer a
thoughtful response. In addition, we often assume fault-finding is the
only way to serve the writer. Yet writers learn just as much (sometimes
more) from feedback that illuminates what is working in the piece, or
piques our interest. The goal of feedback is to get the writer to
rewrite in a productive fashion. Simply illuminating what shows promise
in the work is often enough to motivate the writer to go at it
again—and oh what a difference a draft or two can make.
What tips do
you have for people who have been asked to provide feedback? What
points should they keep in mind?
Your role isn't
to "fix" the work; it's simply to provide an honest
reader response. (You don't even have to be right; you just have to be
sincere.) Be specific, both in terms of what you like about the work
and why (writers are suspect of sweeping affirmations), and what isn't
working and why (broad condemnations—"this piece is boring;" "I don't
get it"—rarely do the writer any good). Mostly, remember what it feels
like to have your own work on the table, and treat the writer the way
you would like to be treated.
What are the
advantages of participating in a workshop or belonging to a critique
group? What are the potential pitfalls?
really don't need or do well in a writing group. But
for many more, being part of a community of writers—whether it's
through a workshop or a small clique of friends—has so many advantages.
You can motivate each other with feedback and deadlines. You can
commiserate. You can share publishing contacts. You can gain
perspective. Being in the company of writers reminds us of the value
and rewards of the writing process itself, and that success isn't only
measured by a publishing contract or a decent Amazon ranking.
Here's a related
story. The other day I was talking to a woman who
has been in my writing workshop three successive sessions (each
workshop runs for ten weeks). This woman was telling me how far she's
come, and I assumed she was referring to the quality of her writing,
and the excellent progress she's made on her novel. But what she was
really talking about was validation. “A year ago, I never would have
dared to call myself a writer,” she said. “But now I really feel like
one.” And for that reason alone, it's a great idea to be in a writing