Monday, September 7, 2009

Receiving Feedback

I had to write about this, for, as those of you who've been following me know, I've read quite a bit of other writers' work lately. And I've read it with an editor's eye--tough, critical, pointing out what doesn't work, what doesn't fit, what makes me uncomfortable or bored, etc. The only ways I haven't been an editor is 

1.  I don't actually work for a publisher (so I'm not looking for books to sign).
2.  I am actually telling people what's going on with their book, instead of sending them a generic "Thanks for mailing us your manuscript but we don't want it" letter. 

Had these novelists and playwrights sent their stuff out to the real editors of the world, they would have gotten no information. And often no information feels better than my feedback (I am very willing to admit it), but in the end, the bland letter isn't going to help them get their book published.

I keep thinking back to a few years ago. I was seeking an agent for my first novel--a novel which I am letting fester right now, as I work through how I am going to transform it--and I met a nice guy who had found an agent recently. Excited, I asked if he could read my novel, and I'd read his (since his was not yet published, even though he had an agent). 

We exchanged novels, and he got mine back to me in less than a week, saying he really enjoyed reading it. His wife read it too, and "liked it." I took a bit longer with his. You see, on the first page alone, I found 9 errors--NINE--and this was the manuscript his "agent" was sending off to publishers! I considered reading it swiftly, telling him it was "nice," and leaving it alone. I considered it for a few days, mulling around the house, unsure what I should do. 

I chose the hard road. I spent the next month poring over that novel, filling it with Post-it notes remarking on errors, slips in narrative POV, places where I had legal questions, situations where more explanation or detail was needed. It took me a very long time, and by the end the folder was filled with five different colors of Post-it notes (I kept running out of pads). Even at the end, I contemplated pulling all those notes out and just telling the poor boy nothing about his work. 

Shakily, I left it for his wife (she worked in my husband's office), and she winced when she saw it. "That bad?" she asked. 

"Just let me know how he takes it," I answered.

That was Friday. On Monday, I called her. "He's okay, but he took it hard." I felt a dip in the pit of my stomach, but it was about to get worse. "He wants to talk to you," she added.

I was frightened, honestly, expecting him to yell at me, curse, or do something equally understandable. After all, I'd shredded the baby he'd been birthing for five years. He called me that afternoon, and he told me frankly that he'd been crushed when he got it back. And then, after a day of being crushed, he started back to work on it. 

The end? He asked me to read it--again--for pay. And when he published it, not only was I in the acknowledgments, but he gave me a copy in thanks. Will everyone be so grateful? Nope. They don't have to be. But with every paper I grade, every play of someone else's I look over, I have to make that same choice. A few years ago, I tended to play nice, looking over most of the problems and centering my replies only on grammatical errors. But errors are not what sends manuscripts to the trash. If I am truly to help those whose work I am reading, I have to do a better job, even if it means they don't speak to me again. 

It's the golden rule. When I want someone else to read my stuff, I want honesty--even brutality--so that I can fix what's wrong and make the whole thing work better. I can't say I always take the criticism well--coming from my husband, it usually irks me--but eventually it sinks in, and my writing is the better for it.

Can you think of a time when your writing was criticized? How did you take it? How do you approach criticism of the works of other writers? 


  1. I truly appreciate having my work critiqued by accomplished writers and past instructors. Their criticisms give me great satisfaction because I can see how I have improved and where I need to go next in my writing. However, I dislike peer reviews. Whenever an instructor incorporates peer review into an assignment, I cringe. Some students still do not know how to punctuate a sentence and will concentrate on the content of the paper. I can appreciate this because the comments allow me to see how well I have conveyed my message. Unfortunately, one or two students will think they are the next great novelist and rip into another student's work. Recently, a peer tore up my work saying I needed to rewrite nearly every sentence because of poor punctuation. I chose to ignore her comments and received the highest grade in the class.

    Because of such bad experiences, I try to remember how I felt when my work was trashed, and I strive to show the writer where the paper could be better developed. I think about how my work has been critiqued by trusted reviewers and attempt to pass on like comments for the writer's benefit. I admit it is hard not to mark every error, but the instructor's job is to make such corrections, not mine.

    Having completed the lower-level English classes, I hope peer review is a thing of the past. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

  2. If I haven't said it clearly enough, let me say I DO appreciate your comments, your details, your perspective. I recognize getting information you didn't want (don't we ALWAYS want people to enjoy our work?) can be frustrating and I'm no exception, but I'd much rather get someone's honest opinion, even if it's painful, that a happy lie. ALWAYS.

    It takes time and effort to read something critically, to try to convey your issues without crushing someone but still be honest. It's hard when you're coming from a different perspective or aren't necessarily the target audience, but I still appreciate the thought and effort that go through there and I always listen. Always, whether I act on the comments or not.

    I do know what Neenee's saying. Many's the time the suggestions from other would-be writers clearly indicated they had no idea what I was trying to say. That's frustrating, but still instructive. Clearly I wasn't clear in delivering my message.

    With your recent comments to me directly, I'm not actually arguing with the comments as if they are wrong, just that the were a side effect of trying to implement another set of comments; however, it's a change I didn't want to do and, after to talking to my favorite copyeditor, I've decided not to go with that change I didn't want in the first place. If you hadn't read it and basically agreed with the awkwardness, I might not have written it the way I'd originally intended.

    So there you go.

  3. i agree with every statement from above...

    tell me how bad it is and where i need to fix it, such as tighten it up or eliminate unneeded chars or even worthless chapters.

    i don't need fluff i need it to be correct and better than when i sent it to whom ever.

    any serious writers wants criticism and an editor than makes them look good.

  4. Neenee: I agree with you. In fact, you'll never guess it, but I actually assign students to do peer reviews, not to help each other out, but to help themselves out, by getting them to read the work of other students.

    If someone who is turning in something crappy reads several better papers, that person often returns to their own essay and improves it as well. Sorry I deceived you! If I told students what it was really for, I don't think they'd get it.

    Stephanie: It's okay to feel bad after a rough critique (or even a not-so-rough critique). I know you had several pile on you all at once, and that's even worse. I'm glad you want truth, even if it's hard to take. I feel the same way.

    Jeff: Sounds like you're ready to have your stuff ripped to shreds. I know you've been considering paying an editor to look at your stuff. It may serve you well.

  5. Getting the book perfect for publication should be an author's goal in life, but many seem to think that getting their book published-word for word and dot for dot-is what counts. It is funny how many writers like to think that they are Shakespeare and that never a line should be crossed out.

    I am often in need of some serious guidance myself, but as of yet, I don't have that complete novel to be given the once over. I tend to get stuck in the second draft.

    Anyway, interesting post. Do be gentle though, writers can be a sensitive lot you know.

  6. Relax Max has a quiz on British trivia that I bombed big time. You might want to check it out.