Feedback from a Non-Writer to a Writer

non-writer

Feedback from a Non-Writer to a Writer

So, this is the post to send to all the non-writer friends and family who read your writing. You want useful feedback but it’s actually hard to get unless they know what you want. Because—

They are readers

You remember the continuous dream. It is the state you want to put readers in. They sink into the world you’ve created and live happily in it. If you’ve done it well, your readers are reacting as if they’re living the story with your characters.

Great for the reader. Bad for the writer. In fact, the more successful you are at creating this dream, the less successful your readers are likely to be in giving the kind of feedback you need.

An example

Your non-writer friend has kindly read your magnum opus.

You: How did you like it?

Reader: Oh, it was great.

You: Thanks, but what did you like about it specifically?

Reader: Well, uh…well, I liked Jillian—I really felt for her.

You: But what about Jillian made you feel for her?

Reader: Well…well…

The reader is focused on how he feels about the story. The writer is focused on how to create the feelings the reader experiences. To give you the most useful feedback, the reader must break out of the continuous dream to notice why you made him feel the way he did and how you did it.

It’s a tough ask.

And not really the reader’s job.

But without this kind of feedback, the most you get are general statements of what the reader liked and didn’t like. Sometimes helpful but often not.

You need more specific instructions.

Note to your non-writer reader

Dear Reader

I really appreciate that you’re taking the time to read my writing. Naturally, I’m very interested in knowing what you think of the story and the characters. But in addition, could I ask you to do a couple of things?

  1. Track your reading. That is, record the page where you put the book down every time you stop.
  2. At what page did you flip to the end to see how many pages were left?
  3. Were there any points where you just kept reading even though you had other things to do? If so, where were they?

Thanks so much. The answers to these questions will help me improve the story.

Analysis of the feedback

Tracking the reading

Where people put the book down can be, but isn’t always, where the interest might be waning. Look at the few pages prior to the stop to see if there is anything which could be improved. Too much description? Lots of talk, no action? A lot of inner dialogue? You might get clues where to tighten up, rewrite, or dump.

Flipping to the end

This often happens around the middle of the book. Knowing exactly where can help you determine if you can move the plot along faster or otherwise help people to get over the hump of the middle.

Had to keep reading

So, your reward. Where this reader couldn’t put the novel down. Take a look at these spots. Do a little basking but then give them a careful read. What made them work? Could you apply this learning to other chunks in the novel to ummph them up?

This isn’t a foolproof way to get the feedback you need but signaling what you want to the non-writer can be useful. I’ve talked more about getting the most from readers’ opinions in another post.

Role of Talent

talent

Role of Talent

I vacationed with a group of friends, one of whom took tennis lessons from the resort pro. Although a complete novice, she stepped into the moves as if she had been doing them her whole life. This was athletic talent on show.

I think it is sometimes assumed that writers have or need to have the same level of talent to write.

I would be the last to deny that talent at anything allows you to learn faster and sometimes better than others. It might even give you an edge on how easily your imagination transforms into something magic on the page.

But talent is not enough over the longer term.

The role of skill

If my tennis friend had turned pro, she’d need to learn the moves and strategies more likely to promote winning; she would have to practice obsessively. What she ate and how much she slept would no longer be only her business.  In short, she’d have to acquire the skills of a professional tennis player.

Similarly, with writing, there is a huge body of craft that needs mastering. It is essential to learn how to move easily around the page, employing the techniques that help create the continuous dream for your readers. Without control of your craft, you won’t be able to produce the kinds of effects which best serve your story.

Even more is needed

Unfortunately, as with all things worth doing, there’s more. Here are a few.

Perseverance

This is tough for writers because they seem to discourage so easily. Ten positive statements are outweighed by a single negative. Even if you know your friends have not a literary bone among them, it still hurts if they aren’t encouraging. It can be hard to keep the faith.

But it is important to remember a line whose author I forget but whose wisdom I constantly rely on:

Courage does not always roar. Sometimes, it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

Hard work

Making the time to write is a bugaboo for all writers. But serious writers, like serious tennis players, set up their lives to have the time. They forego some pleasures to leave space for the greater joy of writing. They constantly work at being in control of their craft. And write and write and write.

Profit from feedback

Not everything will spring from your imagination, whole cloth and perfect. In fact, the earlier on in the journey you are, the more the feedback is likely to be instructive rather than rhapsodic.

This is hard to bear. But you cut yourself from ever improving if you don’t listen to criticism without automatically assuming any negative comment confirms your lack of talent. Cultivating an inquiring rather than a defensive stance is more productive. I have spent several posts on working well with feedback because I think it is critical.

The farther you advance in the field, the more you will find that those whose self-belief has faltered, who never made the time, or whose defensiveness prevented improvement have fallen away. Who is left? Those who have persevered, worked hard, and were open to criticism. You need to be among them.

But what if I really don’t have any talent?

News—there is no fairy godmother who taps some of us on the head with the blessing of writing talent. Like all artistic endeavors, you’ve got to put the work in before you know whether you’re successful. Work hard, keep learning, welcome feedback, and write, write, write.

Categorizing Reader Opinion

opinion

Categorizing Reader Opinion

In the last post, I suggested you decide on your own how to treat reader opinion of a piece of your writing or memoir. That leaves the question open, of course on how to decide which to keep. Here’s my not-very-rocket-science way of doing it.

The obvious

This one is, well, obvious. Spelling mistakes, seasons of the year out of whack, missing one place where you changed the character’s name from Wendy to Sue. These are no brainers but are nevertheless valuable as you need to fix them at some point.

This category you change immediately.

The doubtful opinion

Sometimes you’re not sure whether the feedback is applicable. Here are some examples:

The opinion

Why you’re doubtful

The historical period you’re writing about doesn’t seem real or credible

 

If you know the period well, you might be unsure that this is a piece of feedback worth taking. Follow-on question might be: Were there particular points which didn’t seem credible to you?

The premise of two cats talking is not particularly funny

 

Well, you think it’s funny. The definition of funny is wide so you should try it out on others. Follow-on question: Can you point out where you didn’t think the humor worked?

The main character’s constant malapropism is annoying

 

You think it gives the character an eccentric appeal—at least that’s what you were going for. Follow-on question: Is it the quirk itself that is annoying or its frequency of use?

The subordinate characters take the spotlight off the main protagonist.

 

This surprises you as you know whom you intended to be the key character. Follow-on question: Where (i.e. what scenes) did you feel that the subordinate characters dominated the main one?

In all these cases, feedback from other readers would be helpful to allow you decide whether or not you agree with the initial feedback.

The rejected

Okay, so you’ve gotten a range of feedback and the consensus seems to be that the cats really aren’t funny.

Generally speaking, it probably makes sense to look at your piece to see if it is salvageable or whether it is destined for the trash heap.

The only exception is if, all the feedback notwithstanding, you still believe in the potential of the piece. You might take some of the minor suggestions but fundamentally, you feel it works.

While I think this category should be used sparingly (i.e. not like Fred), it should be used. You need to think hard on it before you reject the reader reaction (especially consensus) but if you feel strongly about a point, do it. After all, whose writing is it anyway?

Using Feedback Well

Feedback

Using Feedback Well

In the previous post, both the defensive writer and the one who accepts all feedback are not doing themselves any favors.

Dealing well with feedback is a three stage process.

Listen

First of all, when you are receiving feedback, just listen. Take notes if useful but the key thing is to listen. Sheila has this stage down pat. For the Freds in the world, listening is not simply keeping quiet or running counter arguments in your head until the others stop talking. This is not listening—that’s just not putting your hands over your ears.

Try to take in what’s being said. And say nothing. I repeat this for Fred. Say nothing.

Understand

The time to speak is when the feedback is finished. But (Fred) not to jump into the defenses you’ve been storing up. Nor (Sheila) the time to thank everyone and vow to make all the changes suggested.

You want to make sure you understand the feedback, whether or not you agree with it. Possible questions:

  • You said you couldn’t understand Alfonso’s motivation. So the paragraph on page 5 wasn’t enough? What else would be needed?
  • One of you thought the flashback was too long. Does everybody feel that way?
  • Patty thought that Melissa needed to be more wild and crazy while Donald wanted Melissa more introspective. Could you tell me how each of you came to your conclusion?

This is a period of clarification, not defense of the best laid plans of mice and men.

Decide on your own

After the feedback session, and in a quiet time with a glass of wine, go over each comment. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Review each comment seriously, making sure you understand the point. If there’s a split opinion, read over why each person felt the way they did and choose the one which makes the most sense to you or ignore both suggestions if you don’t feel they fit.
  • What to do with consensus opinions. If there was general agreement on a point, this is important information. But it still doesn’t mean you automatically make that change. Consider whether this change is taking the piece in the direction you want to go. Will it help or take you off course? If the latter, then even a unanimous view may not be enough to make you change it.
  • This is your work not a composite effort and only you can decide what changes are improvements. If the suggestion helps the piece, great. If it doesn’t, then it’s okay not to take it.

Balancing belief in self with listening to feedback

You are after a Sheila-Fred amalgam. Be Sheila in the feedback session itself, with the addition of ensuring you understand the reasoning behind the comments. But when you are later considering what to change, be a little more Fred (although don’t take it too far). You should take the piece in the direction you feel is right. Hold onto that when you consider what changes you will make.

 The next post will help you make the decisions on which piece of feedback you’ll accept and which you will not.

Criticism: A Tale of Two Writer Types

criticism

Criticism: A Tale of Two Writer Types

In writing groups, there seem to be two kinds of writers when it comes to criticism of their work. Both shoot themselves in the foot (feet?) without realizing it.

Type 1: No, no, no.

This writer spends all his time telling you that your suggestions are impractical, impossible, and artistically wrong. There is already an example of this in Feedback Defensiveness, but I think the phenomenon bears repeating.

You:

Fred, I was really liked your premise. However, would people adapt quite so quickly—

Fred:

Well, how long should it take?

You:

I don’t know, but a clearer indication of the timeline—

Fred:

The vagueness is intentional—it will all make sense eventually.

You:

But if the reader can’t situate himself—

Fred:

Well, no, you can’t. I have more faith in my readers.

Might as well have spared your breath. Not only did Fred fend off any feedback but handed you an insult as a bonus.

Fred wins the battle and loses the war by turning the feedback session into a combat zone.  He leaves with his manuscript unaltered and may even have the mistaken impression that, by fending off all criticism, his piece is closing in on perfection.

Yet I have a sneaking sympathy for Fred. You have to believe in yourself and your writing. Otherwise, why would you keep going?

And, let’s face it, there is usually a variety of levels of experience and talent in any writing group. Some give great on-point feedback and others can’t distinguish between how they would write your piece and helping it be the best it can be.

I get why Fred might be defensive but it’s not an effective way to improve his or your work. But there is another more insidious way to prevent progress.

Type 2: I agree with all your criticism

This writer usually takes copious notes in a feedback session. When anyone suggests a change (Didn’t buy the motivation; the flashback was too long; don’t have the protagonist tell the story), Sheila writes ‘change motivation,’ ‘shorten flashback’, ‘lose story frame.

This writer seems the perfect antidote to Fred. Tries to benefit from all the feedback. But her approach is also ineffective in the longer term. Here’s why:

  • You get different points of view, which of course is why you’re in a writing group. But one piece of feedback might be, ‘I found Melissa cold and distant,” while another says, “Oh, no, she reminds me of my aunt Zebby—we all loved her.” So, cold and distant or warm and loving? When Sheila tries to fix her piece, she doesn’t know which feedback to choose.
  • You are allowing others to shape your voice. While Fred’s belief in his writing is getting in the way, so is Sheila’s willingness to treat all feedback as equally applicable. With this approach, you run the danger of establishing a voice which is a composite of your writing group rather than one which is uniquely yours.
  • Feedback can be idiosyncratic. Perhaps the group member liked Melissa because you put her in a blue dress which was Aunt Zebby’s favorite color. Which is not to say that the feedback of Melissa being cold and distant is right, either, since it may also be an idiosyncratic response.

So, where are you? There is a way to receive criticism which would work for both Fred and Sheila. Next post.