Feedback Fraught with Fear, False Findings, Fruitlessness

I know well the desire to have approval, the boost we get from a genuine compliment.

I also know that asking others for feedback when what we really want is a pat on the head is fraught with peril, asking for trouble, bending over and begging to be kicked.

Some general thoughts and specific comments on feedback:

  • Feedback is a minefield. Proceed with extreme caution.
  • Know what level of feedback you seek. Rosanne Bane explains.
  • Do you really need someone else to tell you whether what you’re writing is what you should be writing? Veteran editor (and publisher of The War of Art) Shawn Coyne says “That’s a recipe for disaster.” Mick Torbay says to avoid the committee like leftover brussels sprouts:
  • I have found general feedback from readers and writers to be useless. USELESS.
  • Feedback from a professional editor is golden.
  • Answers to specific questions can be helpful if
    1. you know exactly what the question is, and
    2. the person you ask is eminently qualified to answer that question, and
    3. the person you ask will tell you the truth, and
    4. the answer actually matters, which should really come before ‘a’ above.

What I’m Doing About It

I’m writing my first scifi adventure. I’m going to share the first draft, ugly and stinking, with a reader who loves Asimov and Burroughs the way I do. All I’m going to ask her is, does this feel right? Does this feel like them?

If yes, good. If no, I’ll ponder whether that matters and whether I’ll do anything about it except perhaps adjust my marketing message. I highly doubt I’ll change my writing because of the feedback. So that’s marketing research, not writing feedback, isn’t it?

Don’t Wait to Be Picked

Marketing guru Seth Godin has been saying it for years: don’t wait to be picked. Pick yourself.

Learn your craft. Know what a good story is, and isn’t. Do your best work, at least, best for now.

Don’t wait for someone else to tell you whether or not you’re good, whether or not to publish, whether or not your story matters.

Once your brain has enough information to get the basics done, it’s your heart’s turn to run with the story and scatter it to the four winds. And hopefully, more than four fans.

7 thoughts on “Feedback Fraught with Fear, False Findings, Fruitlessness

  1. “General feedback from readers and writers is USELESS; feedback from a professional editor is golden.”
    If you have the gold, go for it.

    I basically agree with your advice, but wonder at what point to bring the pro in. Last week I asked for a price quote from a pro editor, and she told me 1.25 cents per word for a general manuscript evaluation. Probably quite reasonable, definitely worth having. But when you do the math, you realize you need to get all the free (or critique exchange) feedback you can before laying out that much money for the pro. Especially if, once you’ve made all the recommended changes, you’re apt to want the pro have another look.

    1. A good editor will charge about that price.

      Rather than paying for a full edit right from the start, ask the editor if they’d be willing to go through a short section (whatever seems like enough to them) and get feedback on your writing in general. Instead of getting editing, specifically get feedback from an editor.

      I know know know what it’s like to not have the money to spend on bringing in a pro. Finding a way around it is better than doing nothing. But here’s another list to consider: anyone who gives you feedback needs to

      1. know something you don’t,
      2. know how to communicate that thing, and
      3. understand your writing style

      What happened to me all the time, early days, was people who didn’t understand me or my writing, and who frankly weren’t as good at writing as I am, offered advice I thought I should take just because I’d asked.

      Feedback is gold when it helps you. Pay careful attention to what you’re hearing from critique swap partners and how it turns out a little way down the road. Take notes. When you find folks who are good at it, treat them like stars. Folks who aren’t giving you value, stop asking them.

    2. Also, “general manuscript evaluation” is vague. If they’re charging $600-$700 for evaluation that’s way too much. If that really means developmental editing, analyzing your story, characters, and all that, it’s a steal. I’d charge about $1,500 for a full eval and report on a completed first draft.

      Same applies to evaluating your writing. They only need 5 pages to point out 80% of what you’re getting right, and getting wrong. I might charge $300-$400 for that, but I’m expensive.

      Get more details about what they’re offering you.

      Also, know beforehand what it is you really need.

  2. Joel, finally you at least suggest that Brussels sprouts are evil (though I include fresh and just-cooked too). I have done a lot of fiction workshopping in the past, and have found some commenter’s observations to be helpful. I have found many more to not be, but any writer must winnow.

    And even though I know I need to be a pro, it does still sting to see lousy reviews of one’s work, like the one I saw on Goodreads for a novel of mine this morning that sent me into a funk.

    Always, yes, it’s one person’s opinion and it’s pointless to be a five-year-old again, yet that five-year-old in me still whimpers.

    But, agreeing with you, do your best work and move on.

    I do sympathize with Christine inquiring about editing above. I can’t afford the rates I charge people for editing. But good editors can do good things for pieces of writing.

    1. Let’s be clear: I’m only cursing left over sprouts.

      Knowing that I am fragile as a soap bubble, Best Beloved has forbidden me to read reviews of my books. She reads them all, sends me a copy of the nice ones, promises to pass along any value shared by the not nice ones, and we move on.

      The only negative review I’ve ever enjoyed was the chap who said my book read like a restaurant review, not a mystery.

      So in the sequel, I intentionally included a long, detailed restaurant scene, and made the buildup cause it to make sense to the story.

      The people who aren’t your fans don’t count. It’s hard to remember, but in a world where some people don’t like chocolate there is not, nor will there ever be, any accounting for taste. (And among many business majors, there is no taste for accounting, but that’s a different matter.)

  3. Well said, Joel (as usual). I would only add that we need to get clear about what we want and need and ask for that. It’s frustrating for everyone involved when a student hands out writing for critique when that student doesn’t want and isn’t ready for critique. We are, however, always ready for feedback and I believe it is appropriate to ask for kudos on your writing process — “You’re honoring your commitments, way to go” — and your progress to date — “You completed a draft, that’s awesome, keep going.” Often writers ask for critique when what they really need is reassurance that regardless of the quality of the writing at that point, writing is a worthwhile pursuit because it brings them joy even when it’s a struggle. (If writing never brings you joy, it’s okay to find another creative pursuit.)

    1. Excellent point, Rosanne. We all seem to think it’s wrong to ask for the pat on the head, and then wonder why we never get it.

      I was raised in a household where if you did what was right, that was expected and silently accepted. If you made a mistake, that got pointed out. As a result I grew up craving praise, but still recognizing false compliments.

      When I started writing music I had the gloriously perfect setup: my wife loves everything I do, so she was my first audience, and she’d tell me what she loved about every song I wrote.

      Then, my step-daughter, a brilliant songwriter and singer, would listen, and give me both praise, where warranted, and constructive feedback. Once I’d gotten the love for the song, it felt ready to be asked to sit up straight, tuck in its shirt, and comb its hair before going out.

      Always a delight when you stop by. Thank you!

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