Avoiding the Pitfalls of Feedback as a Writer

Photo © 2006 Mark Adams CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I ran across this post about how important feedback is to a writer, by the pseudonymous “Frootbat31” on her blog A Writer’s Journey. She makes four stimulating points regarding criticism, and how to manage it as a writer.

As someone who’s gone through a career cycle of first seeking feedback (as a beginner), then trying to distinguish criticism from critique, growing to loathe feedback of any sort, and finally appreciating thought-provoking feedback… Here are some of my comments on the topic, for whatever they’re worth.

(BTW, I did manage to find Frootbat31’s real name. But I’m resisting the urge to refer to her by name, even though names come across as much more personable, because she doesn’t appear to use her real name as a regular practice on her sites. So, Frootbat31, just because I call you “her” in this post, please don’t feel that I’m trying to whisper behind your back or to avoid addressing you directly, even though it may come across that way. I’m merely trying to add to what you wrote and respect your pseudonymity at the same time.)

1. Get a fresh perspective on your writing.

When I finally show a story to readers, inevitably someone is going to come up with some part of the story that confused him, or that he couldn’t get into, or that he thought was stupid. Sometimes, he’s simply not the reader I’m going after with my stories, and I just have to admit that. It still upsets me when something like this comes from a friend or acquaintance who I thought was on the same page with me, especially when he is clearly reading his own idiocy into the brilliance of my story. (Ba-dum bum.)

But seriously, sometimes it actually does happen that way. Like when he says my main character is boring, and then goes on for 10 minutes complaining about how stupid she is. (True story, by the way.) At some point, as an author, you have to realize that sometimes when someone complains about your story, it’s their problem, not yours.

Even so, I’ve grown to appreciate honest feedback about how a reader reacts to my stories. A beta-reader of “The Widow’s Granddaughter” (back when I believed in beta readers) pointed out how he didn’t understand what my character was thinking. (The character purchased a package of prophylactics and left it lying on the kitchen counter. Then the character’s date misinterpreted his intentions. How could anyone possibly misinterpret that?!) When I revised the story, I added a sentence here and there to clarify what was going on in my character’s mind. I probably wouldn’t have thought of that revision without honest feedback.

More recently, the flash-fiction story “Perhaps to Dream” I posted a couple weeks ago, it generated some useful feedback. Readers seemed to have enjoyed it, but one commenter thought the whole story was a dream. (Only part of the story involved a dream.) Another commenter thought the main character was suffering from a hangover. (She was overworked, running on caffeine, and under extreme stress—When did she have time to get hungover?) If I revise this story, I’ll be sure to clarify these points, which probably only involves tweaking a few words here and there.

2. Feedback must be offered as a means to help the writer improve their writing.

Be careful of the mythology surrounding this nice thought. Many commenters do see their role as helping the writer “improve,” and by that they mean to correct the writer’s mistakes. And the more experienced the commenter, the more likely this is true, because experienced readers (and fellow writers, too) think they know more about the market and the material than you do. Or at least, they want to feel useful, so they feel they have to offer some suggestion or other.

But Sturgeon’s Law still holds true, even after 53 years:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

Yes, 90% of everything is crap, and my own experience has borne that out. 90% of online fiction is crap. 90% of unpublished manuscripts are crap. 90% of self-published books are crap. 90% of traditionally published novels are crap. And 90% of the New York Times Bestseller list is crap.

The only question that remains is: “… ‘crap’ for whom?”

My definition of “crap” is bound to be a little different than your definition of “crap,” because each of us has different tastes and values. Or the corollary: there is no “best”; there’s only “best for you,” and “best for me,” and “best for whom?”

Practitioners in every field seem to realize this, at least on some level. A musician may thrive on classic rock, and he may even look down on listeners who enjoy modern pop, but he still recognizes the legitimacy of jazz and R&B and classical and, yes, even Lady Gaga. Yeah, so maybe 90% of everything on the radio sucks, but that’s what Last.fm was invented for.

Practitioners in every field seem to realize this, except novelists. Maybe it’s just me—and I hope it is—but it seems that there’s still a culture of “right way” among writers, even with the explosion of self-published and indie fiction. Writers and editors still talk of “good” fiction as though that meant anything. Even after Twilight, they still perpetuate the myth that “good” stories succeed and “bad” ones fail.

What does this have to do with feedback? Be careful of the mythology that if you accept criticism, that it’ll make you a “better” writer. Accepting criticism doesn’t make you “better”; it only makes you more like the critic. Because there is no “better.” There’s only “better for me.” That’s why improvement as a writer always comes from within. Criticism can help you find new ways to express what’s inside you, and if you use it to help you find new pathways on that voyage of self-discovery, you will become a better writer.

3. Sandwich your feedback with the bad and the good.

I actually disagree with this advice, because a crap sandwich still tastes like crap. Destructive criticism in the middle of a criticism sandwich: still as destructive and still as unpalatable. Moreover, arranging useless criticisms in this way seems only to enable some critics to act like assholes. That doesn’t help anyone.

If you have something useful to say, you shouldn’t need to sandwich it in the middle of writer-aggrandizing fluff. And if what you have to say is not useful, it’s still going to be useless, no matter how you package it.

My alternative advice is to reframe your feedback. (Or as an author, if your critic doesn’t know how to reframe his feedback, feel free to reframe it for him.) Criticism is not “bad” or “good”; it’s useful or useless.

To keep it useful, realize that each reader’s mileage may vary. Keep your criticisms I-centered. For example, “This character didn’t work for me. For instance, I didn’t understand why he melted down on page 72.” You can only speak for your own impressions and reactions, because you only know what’s going on inside your own head.

If you’re more experienced, you may be able to speculate as to what other readers may think. But again, keep it reader-centered. “I think I understood what you were doing here on page 17, but some readers may think that your character is psychological unstable, because blah blah blah. You may want to think about whether you want to clarify, or whether you want to leave the ambiguity.” As a critic or critique partner, you cannot write the author’s story. The best you can accomplish is to help the author see possibilities that he might have missed.

That said, there is definitely a place for so-called positive feedback. The things we do well are even more important than the things we do poorly, because fans read an author for his storytelling strengths, not for his weaknesses. So you should definitely point out when an element of a story particularly works for you or excites you. Not only will that make the author feel good about himself and his work, but it will also support him in his strengths, keep him going down the path that seems to be working for him. (And I should add that this kind of feedback is an absolute joy to receive.) But again, keep it reader-focused, because it’s not about the story, but rather your reaction to the story.

4. Be mindful of who you allow access to your work.

While you’re writing a story, you don’t want to accept feedback from the world. In fact, you probably want no feedback at all. So even if you release your zero-draft or first-draft story, on your blog for example, you’re doing so just to let your fans feel connected to your latest project. You most likely want to ignore any comments these posts spawn.

After revising the story, before it’s published, you probably want to limit who you accept feedback from, and what feedback you accept. If you get useless feedback, you can still be nice and say “Thank you.” But that doesn’t mean you have to take the feedback to heart.

But no matter how hard you try, you will always have readers who simply don’t “get” you or your work. Don’t take it personally. And eventually, you’ll need to release your work into the wild, where every self-righteous jerk-wad in the world can pick over it and tear it apart. (Or tear you apart personally, sometimes without even having read the work.) When that happens, feel privileged, because you’ve arrived! That’s proof that you’re a real author.


About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

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This is a great topic and it certainly is interesting the different views on it. I happen to know frootbat31 as a writer and a friend. I may not agree with all her views, but her take on feedback mirrors my own, though it is refreshing to see a different side of the coin. In fact, it inspired me to give my own two cents on my own blog. I can’t help myself, I love to dig deep into controversy to see where it leads and often find myself quite exhilarated by it. Thank you for the challenge. 🙂

Thank you very much for your advice. I’ve had a really personal attack over a section of my novel. This person did not seem to understand anything of it. My other colleagues did not agree with him. In future I’ll take your advice to heart.

J. Timothy King

Glad you found this post encouraging. I think it makes perfect sense why we care about what others think of us and our work: we need to be acknowledged for our achievements. So here’s some acknowledgement for you…

Did you write a novel that you would want to read? Are you generally happy with how it turned out? If so, then congratulations! Job well done! (And I mean that sincerely, and not exaggerating at all.)

Keep writing!

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