On Monday, while browsing through my Facebook feed instead of writing the story like a good little writer, I stumbled across an article by The Writer’s Circle entitled “How To Take Feedback (And Trust It, Too).” This article not only provides helpful tips in establishing what feedback is trustworthy versus feedback that may have a hidden agenda, but also ways to apply this feedback and showing appreciation for your critic. In preparation for residency, I thought I would consider the tips that stood out the most for me. Whether they are things I forget to do in workshop or reminders to myself that encourage me to continue writing.
After all, the notes we writers receive on the early drafts of our manuscripts can be pretty brutal. If we do not encourage ourselves to continue writing, who will?The first list of tips helps writers establish what kind of feedback is trustworthy. Below are the two suggestions that stood out the most for me. In the workshop setting, I often forget that I am surrounded by other writers who are also learning with me so their advice may adhere to their writing style rather than my own. Also, they may have mastered a skill that I may be struggling with, offering advice on ways to improve the weaknesses in my story. For the full list of how you as a writer can establish what kind of feedback is trustworthy click here.
- Ignore Purely Personal Attacks
- While a workshop is meant to be a place of comfort and security, people are still entitled to their opinions. When you ask someone to share their opinion, be ready for whatever comes flying out of their mouths. Hey, you asked. As a writer, I close my eyes and remind myself that not everyone is going to like my writing style. Not everyone in my workshop may find the subject matter of my story interesting. Maybe someone will despise the amount of time I spend on showing vs. telling but please, please dear writing Gods scribbling away at your desks by candle light, please let at least one person, preferably the workshop leader, like my story. I spend a lot of time hoping that at least one person in the workshop genuinely likes my story. One way to tell is if they approach you after the workshop and tell you that they liked your story AND they are willing to discuss it with you. The personal attacks are the down side though now, as I’m working with fellow writers trying to earn their MFA, they are difficult to spot. The most personal attack felt in workshop is when that one person doesn’t say anything or they just repeat what everyone else has to say. Did you even read my story? Some times the readers attack the author, forgetting that the writer is a completely different person from their character (this coming from a fiction writer participating in fiction workshops). Obviously, when the writer is suffering from a verbal onslaught of harsh critiques that are only meant to damage their ego, it is safe to ignore this person.
“There are plenty of people out there who will provide thorough feedback that is actually helpful, and focusing on the negative-just-to-negative won’t get you anywhere.” – The Writer’s Circle
- Look For Common Themes
- Now if everyone in the workshop is confused by the same thing, you probably need to fix it. A common theme in all of my stories is my logistics (I laughed when my mentor pointed this out for a second time because my personality type is known as the Logistician! Crazy!) So I expect my readers to say “I couldn’t tell where your character was in this scene” or “Where is character A in relation to character B?” I just got over my need to describe EVERYTHING (how a character walks down the stairs, touches the doorknob, turns the doorknob, opens the door, which foot they use to walk into the kitchen, etc.) so now I’m trying to master this challenge. Listening and looking for the common themes in which my readers struggle the most with also provides me the opportunity to show that I am capable of correcting my mistakes. At the end of every workshop we, the writers, are tasked with drafting a one page revision based on the critiques we received. At first I disliked that I only got one page to prove myself worthy of being present in the workshop until I realized what I and my fellow writers could do with that one page. Some show that they have taken the advice to heart, others switch scenes around, play with sentence structure or rewrite an entire scene. This one page provides me the chance to take the common theme plaguing my story and see if this revision fixes the problem (or if I’m still missing the mark completely).
“One of the toughest things about wading through feedback is separating what’s just a matter of opinion and what’s more objective, so looking for those common points can help.”
Once you’ve established that the feedback is trustworthy, the writer is then tasked with applying this feedback to their story. Once again, this isn’t the complete list, just things that stood out for me. For the complete list, click here.
- Look For Feedback The Explains Why and What
- This is more of a reminder to myself when I’m critiquing a story. One of the headers of my bullet point critiques is “What Works.” Easy enough and self describing. I’m listing all the things I like about the story (in general without getting into the small details because I’ve marked them in the story/highlighted them). However, saying something works is not describing why it works. Massaging the author’s ego by saying “I like this” is not the same as saying “I like this because…” One statement makes the corners of my mouth lift while the other makes my lips part until my teeth show. I want to know what I am doing well and why my reader thinks this is one of the good aspects of my writing!
- Look For The Positives Among the Negatives
- Sometimes our critiques seem to point out all the negative aspects of our stories, so much so that soon we writers become desperate in finding the positives. I like to list the positives first on my critique so I remember to say them first in workshop and they are the first thing the writer sees when I return their story. The article suggests that the writer may dismiss a comment that calls their work boring or they can dig deep and find the positive in this critique. A boring read may mean that the author needs to take a different approach, varying the length of their sentences, give more life to their characters or take more risks. I however would dwell in the fact that someone wrote the word “boring” on my story for a day before trying to give this comment a positive spin. What I will take to workshop with me is that every critique has a hidden gem of positivity.
- Say Thanks
- So as many of you know, I’m an introvert. I enjoy sitting quietly and continue to do so even when people are done critiquing my work. I keep my head down, never looking at the person offering advice, positive or negative. Looking up, staring at people as they flip through the pages of my story and getting ready to speak throws me into a state of panic and gives me the sweats. Then I’m expected to speak afterwards? Every time I remember to say thank you and my workshop leader always tilts their head to the side and gives me a quizzical look (probably because I look like a lost hush puppy). Then they ask if I have any questions and I always say no because I’m swimming in all the comments I just received and am officially ready for the attention to be off of me. I’ve had my hour of fame please talk to and look at someone else. Though my thanks may seem insincere, an attempt to turn the attention off of myself and on to someone else in the room, I truly mean that I am thankful for all the comments I received.
And that I’m ready for the attention to be off of me.
As a writer, I find myself defensive of my work though I would never open my mouth to argue with a critique. After all, that would stall the process and why do that when I can just sit there and let the person finish talking. give a meek “thank you” and leave! I know not all writers are like this, some ready to explain what a particular sentence means or what they were trying to show in a scene. What I took away from this article is that a critique is meant to help improve my story.
That those personal attacks or words of bitter only distract from the meaningful messages other writers have taken the time to write in the margins.