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Acquiring Feedback

By Rsharon

I believe that feedback and criticism are an essential part of the writing process. I don't care if you're an absolutely brilliant writer with an eye for detail and a penchant for revision--a good reader will still be able to make observations and suggestions which, if nothing else, will provide you with an idea of how other people will see your story.

So how do you get it?

First, know what you need. What kind of feedback you want may depend on how far you are in the writing process. If you've just developed an idea, and you want to know whether it might make a good story, you'll want a very different sort of response than if you've rewritten the piece six times and are about to submit it for publication.

Make sure, too, that your reader knows what you're trying to do. If you're developing a character for a novel, and you already know the basic plot, tell the reader about it first. If you give readers a passage of poetry, let them know if it's part of an epic. If you're about to submit a story to a magazine or journal, make sure your readers are familiar with its basic guidelines: A piece you're sending to The New Yorker might require a completely different set of criteria than one you've got slated for Science Fiction Age. The more context and detail you give, the more helpful the response will be.

This is especially important if you're writing for a specific market (e.g. romance, young adult, Sword-and-Sorcery). Once, in workshop, I commented that a piece sounded cliched--that, in fact, it read like a Harlequin Romance. 'Well, yeah,' said the author. 'It's the first chapter of a romance novel.' I had read the piece without knowing that it was written according to very specific conventions; all of the feedback I gave was therefore useless.

Ok: Now that you know what sort of feedback you want, where do you get it?

Different readers may perceive the same piece very differently. Your friend Kyle will get all of the elf jokes and orc puns in your satire; they'll probably be entirely lost on your Aunt Sally, but she'll pick up the grammatical errors Kyle misses. Even within a writing workshop, different readers will give you vastly divergent advice and comments.

So, you have to know who you can go to for what sort of feedback. For example, I like very detailed criticism, so I give stories-in-progress to folks who I know will tell me exactly what they liked and disliked, and why. When I'm brainstorming or coming up with detail, I go to my friend Harrison, because I know he's great at helping me to develop concepts into characters and stories.

And collect teachers! If a friend of yours is a really detailed reader, or a really good editor, or simply brutally honest, ask them if you can bring them your work sometime. Past teachers are also an incredible resource: I still send stories to my freshman writing professor, who has since left my college, and he still gives the best criticism I've ever gotten.

Don't be afraid to accost relative strangers, either. If, for example, you like a guest lecturer or reader's ideas about writing, or you think you could benefit from his feedback, ask him if he'd be willing to read and respond to some of your material. Odds are decent that he'll say yes, and with any luck, you'll develop another good feedback source. (A warning on this one, though: DON'T ABUSE SOMEONE'S WILLINGNESS TO HELP! Don't leave a novel on someone's doorstep and expect a response the next morning. Anyone willing to take time to read and respond to your writing is doing you a BIG favor--be gracious. If you've got a deadline, let your reader know when you ask, so that they will know exactly what they're getting into, and you won't be stuck relying on feedback without knowing whether you'll get it on time.)

Writing workshops are an incredible resource; if you're not in school, or you're not comfortable getting face-to-face criticism of your work yet, check online: many universities and authors offer online workshop groups and forums. My favorite online resource, Uncle Orson's Writing Class, provides network of workshops and writing FAQs by author Orson Scott Card: if you sign up for a workshop, they'll group you with other writers in your genre and even create a listerv for your group. A workshop will give you the opportunity to get a broad range of responses to your work, primarily from other writers.

Sadly, however, many workshops and teachers are unreceptive to sci-fi or fantasy--anything they perceive as 'genre writing.' I remember one guy who had written a short story set in a standard sword-and-sorcery world (dragons, goblins, elves, etc.) being lambasted by classmates who felt that he had failed to properly define the term 'orc' for readers. He argued in vain that the story was aimed towards a specific school of readers. In another creative writing class, a teacher refused to let me write a paper on Bram Stoker's use of multiple unreliable narrators to create one reliable narrative: Dracula, she informed me, was gothic fantasy, and therefore not literature. If you're going into general workshop with plans to submit anything except straight fiction, understand that your work may be brushed off or criticized, regardless of its quality, simply because of the narrow definition some closed-minded folk allow to 'literature.'

Also, be wary about asking for help from anyone who is likely to be either too harsh or too kind. One extreme will prevent you from revising a piece out of discouragement; the other, a false sense of confidence. Either way, you lose. 'It's great' may be nicer to hear, but as feedback, it's no more useful than 'It's crap.' Show your work to people who will give you detailed, honest criticism: folks who will tell you exactly what does and doesn't work for them, and why.

But wait! What if two readers give you conflicting advice? Or if you disagree with a part but not all of someone's criticism? Who should you listen to?

Sometimes, when you show a piece to multiple people, they will give you advice that conflicts with each other's. Aunt Sally loved your ending, but Professor Teufelsdroech though it was weak. Your friend Amy thought the story was perfect in the first person, but Kyle thought an omniscient third-person perspective might work better. Or maybe both Aunt Sally and Kyle disliked a passage that you think is essential to your poem's meaning. You're going to have to make some choices.

If you've got a lot of time, you can follow ALL the advice: create a few versions of the story (e.g. one in first person, one in third), and see which you like best. It's effective, but it's also time-consuming and tedious.

Another option is to see which advice rings true to you and simply follow that. Don't ignore the rest, but choose what you will use. It is, after all, your story, not theirs. Frequently, you'll find that readers point out the same weak spots that you were concerned about, which is a sure sign that you need to put more work into those portions of your piece.

Finally, don't shy away from negative comments, don't take them too personally, either. It's easy to become discouraged by a story returned with more red ink than text or to ignore altogether anything short of glowing praise. Learn to use criticism as a tool to develop and polish your writing--there exist no better means of perfecting your craft.

FARP Article Guestbook

3 Mar 2013:-) Lucas No
Yes, I agree. All writers need feedback. Well, mostly all. Not the fantastically genius writers, in the equivalent of Shakespear and/or Dickens.

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