Thursday, May 19, 2011

Five Fatal Feedback Mistakes

1.    You don’t ask for feedback.

Breathes there a writer so humble that he or she does not believe, at least for a nanosecond, that the piece of prose inching out of the printer is not ready for its New Yorker acceptance letter without first showing it to a Trusted Advisor and asking, “What do you think?”

I caution you that, unless you have a solid collection of literary awards smartly lined up on your mantle, you must not indulge this deranged line of thinking.  Even the most decorated NYT best seller list authors thank their editors, among others, in their Acknowledgements for saving their manuscripts from fatal flaws.  Lesson:  Even the greats need help. 

Always ask a critical but compassionate reader to first point out the strengths of your manuscript (a little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down), and next the less than stellar prose.  This can prevent an editor from slamming the virtual door in your face and forever associating your name with one dimensional characters, mixed metaphors or some other writing trap that a little (or a lot) perceptive feedback might have corrected.

If you find asking for feedback humbling, do it anyway and then make an appointment with your therapist.

2.     You receive feedback but don’t pay attention to it.

I’ve read that Philip Roth sends his manuscripts to four or five friends for review.  They make comments, which he always ignores, and sends the book off to his editor just the way he wrote it.   Now such literary lights have earned the right to march to their own drummer.  But those of us who run to our writing groups waving the latest draft of a story and make notes all over the pages as our readers make comments, then promptly throw those notes away and say to ourselves, what do they know—well, what was it Mark Twain said, those who can read but don’t are not better off than those that can’t, or something like that. 

It is hard to hear criticism of a piece you love like your own flesh and blood.  It is maddening to realize that a spot on suggestion to tighten a paragraph requires rewriting of the whole damn chapter.  But do you want to be like the architect on a project I once saw who had placed the gate to a circular stairwell opposite the steps?  I’ll never forget the owner of the property bellowing, didn’t he ask anyone to review the plans? 

Bottom line:  when your brain is telling you the story is perfect the way it is, don't believe everything you think.

3.     You ask for feedback from the wrong people.

Don’t ask a science fiction writer to review a chapter in your YA novel.  Don’t show your cookbook draft to a poet.  Don’t email your latest short story to your friend who just received a blistering rejection letter.  Don't ask someone who can't even write a grocery list for advice on point of view.  And NEVER ask the guy who wants to bed you right then for his opinion on your newest poem—even when the guy is your husband.

Always pick readers you trust, who understand what you are trying to say/accomplish in your writing and who respect your efforts even when they question a method or two.  This is especially important on days when you just can't read another word of your own writing without someone telling you whether it is worthy.  Resist the urge to show your pages to a stranger on the street, take a deep breath and wait for your Trusted Advisor to pick up the phone.

4.     You ask for feedback when what you need is unconditional love.

As a dear friend used to say, some days the bear gets you and some days the bear gets you.  If it’s a day when the manuscript is too new, the fear of rejection is too great, the sense of overwhelm at the requirements of a publishable piece of prose threatens to crush you, or you will confuse feedback with rejection, then by all means, show your poem to the guy who wants to bed you.  He’ll say this is the best thing I’ve ever read and your words will live to face an honest critique another day.

But when your confidence is in the gutter, don’t ask the writer who flourishes her red pen like a rapier with spot on comments to take a look.  Ask your mother instead, or anyone who will say, this is wonderful.  How do you do it? 

Writing is a mind game.  Do whatever is necessary to help your fragile writer’s ego (we all have one) to survive.

5.     You ask for feedback from too many people.

You can’t get enough.  Of people saying your prose is deathless, your protagonist is memorable.  Maybe you can’t get enough of someone just reading your work.  So you ask reader, after reader, after reader to take a look.  And you end up with too much feedback to process, conflicting opinions (you can’t please all the people all the time), you lose track of the notes of readers who get your work and whose comments help you to ratchet it up a notch.

Be careful and selective in your requests for feedback and follow the advice of someone who helps you open up the story you are trying to tell over someone asking you to write a different story.  And stop there!

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