Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

I had an experience with a past writing group that really shook my confidence in my writing ability. Every member of the group had an opportunity to share a short piece of their novel and the other members of the group provided comments in writing and then a discussion on the piece ensued. I had never shared my writing with anyone before and I was nervous, for good reason as it turned out. The theme of the conversation was “sure it would probably sell in the romance genre, but are you proud of it?”

I’m still sorting through my emotions regarding that experience (for many obvious reasons) and unfortunately, that’s about all I remember from the session. I’m sure there were encouraging and constructive comments given as well, but I couldn’t get beyond that piece of feedback to hear any of the others. I went home and filed the manuscript; I have never looked at it or the comments since.

However, the session wasn’t a complete loss. I put some thought into how to more effectively receive feedback so that I can make better use of it in the future. If you are ready to share your work with someone else, here are some things to keep in mind when asking for feedback…

1. Be open to feedback.
The first step is to ask for it: is the person reading for pleasure or do you want their honest opinion? If you ask for it, you have to listen to it (it is up to you whether you implement it). Don’t forget to stay tuned to your body language and facial expressions. It is hard to accept negative feedback; but it is also hard to give it. You may not agree with what they say, and that’s ok, but defensiveness may discourage future feedback.

2. Listen to understand.
Set aside your fear, worry and anger and try to listen closely to what is actually being said. Summarize what you have heard and repeat it back to them. Even feedback that is delivered in a less than ideal way will likely contain information that is useful.

3. Ask questions to clarify.
Actively listen and ask questions. Be sure you understand the feedback you are receiving. It is often helpful to ask for specific examples that illustrate what your reviewer is trying to say.

4. Assess your own performance.
Take time to reflect honestly on your writing. Interpret the feedback you have received. Is what they said true? Try to take your emotions out of the equation and view your work with fresh eyes—this may mean setting aside the piece for a few days. Don’t forget to go back to it!

5. Evaluate feedback.
Take some time to consider the feedback from their perspective. Reopen the discussion if you need to. Ask other sources for their feedback.

In the end, feedback is just feedback. Just because you ask for advice, doesn't mean you have to take it. Ultimately it is your story and any changes you make have to be your decision. Be respectful and thank them for their time no matter how helpful (or unhelpful) you find the experience.

What was the most valuable piece of feedback you’ve ever received regarding your writing? A quick tip that made a difference?


Janet said...

Excellent post about taking and giving constructive criticism, Anne! That critique group really did not have your best interest at heart - and I'm thinking they came to the table with some preconceived and prejudiced views of genre fiction. Too bad for them - narrowmindness begets a narrow life (in my opinion).

When I critique, I always try to give positive criticism, too. If someone does something good, then they should know that - it's just as important to know our strengths as it is our weaknesses. In the constructive criticism, I always remind the writer that the opinion I express is just that - mine. You summed it up nicely: Ultimately it is your story and any changes you make have to be your decision.

When I get a critique back, I read through it first - star that which resonates - then let it sit. My first critique - I changed everything the critiquer suggested (everything). Now, I'm a little wiser. Not necessarily thicker of skin, but that comes with time and lots and lots of practice.

I hope your future experiences with critiquing go much better, Anne. Just think of everything you've learned, though, from that one horrible experience.

Anne Germaine said...

Hi Janet! The experience was definately an eye opener. It underlined the importance of getting people who read the genre to critique it.

Paula R said...

Hi Anne, this blog topic is very timely for me. I am going to a crit group on Saturday, and the points you make here are very helpful.

As a "new" writer, the self-doubt already kills you. Prior to sharing my work, I did a lot of reflecting, and ran a lot of what if scenarios in my head. I realized that I wanted the truth above all things, and I think I can take it. I am the kind of person who will tell you the truth, and sometimes that truth is not what some people want to hear. The way in which that truth is told, will impact the way in which it is received. I plan to attend this session with an open mind. Going over the piece now, I already found some things that people will probably point out and I am prepared for that.

Thank you for the reminder.

Peace and love,
Paula R.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hey Anne,
Great post, and I appreciate your ability to be honest about your emotional reaction and how you were able to turn it around and apply your learning to future situations.

I have had the same reaction from most critiques, but it's getting easier. The first time hurt the most (probably because the work was at it's worst!), but I have tried to apply most of the suggestions you made in your post, and ultimately my work is better for it.

Keep on truckin'!

Silver James said...

The theme of the conversation was “sure it would probably sell in the romance genre, but are you proud of it?”

Wha'?!?!!! As a proud romance writer, I take a lot of offense at that slam on the genre. (Not at you personally, obviously!) But...the second part should resonate. ARE YOU PROUD OF IT? That should be the bar every writer uses to measure their work.

As to the points you made, right on! Or write on, as the case may be. ;) I'm so blessed to have the critique partner I have. We are very much in tune with each other and know which buttons we can push without upsetting. When judging contests, I always find something to praise, even if I have to look hard for it.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Anne, that's quite an experience! I admire you for sharing it. I agree with Silver's comment, the second half of that criticism really does matter. What's not acceptable is someone suggesting you shouldn't be proud of it because it's not their thing.

I love your list of suggestions, very appropriate. Especially that you mentioned to be mindful of body language. I don't think that's something many people realize. Even if someone doesn't mind giving hard news to a writer, the point won't get across if the writer is closed off and sulking. Things may sting, but once the sting wears off, we can see things more rationally. A few years of creative writing critique groups in highschool did wonders for me that way.

Best feedback I've gotten was from my highschool English teacher, who was also my poetry and creative writing teacher, and a talented poet in her own right. I wrote a poem, I don't recall it at all, and considered it brilliant and witty and amazing, and handed it in. I got a horrible mark back on it, and the suggestion (it was actually encouragement, but you know, bad mood and all) to do more editing on my pieces before I hand them in, rather than just banging off a first draft and being done.

I was so furious, for next week's assignment I wrote a scathing piece entitled "Perfect Zero" (see, that one I remember), championing the unseen merit of woe-begotten poetry everywhere. It was a first draft, written, read over for typos, printed, and handed in. I've never been sure if my teacher got the reference, surely it was a much bigger deal to me than her, but that poem received glowing comments, including a note that this was what she meant in terms of spending more time on a poem, and gave it a 10/10. She also read it aloud in the hand-back class. I thought it highly ironic at the time, but it brought home a very good lesson -- it's the passion that matters. All the self-absorbed navel gazing in the world won't do anything if it's only about the writer and not about something the writer cares about.

Helena said...

It took me a long time to decide to join a writers' group, because I thought I didn't want to share my work during its 'infancy.' More likely, I was scared to be critiqued.

Once I discovered the mutual value of proper critiquing, I began to enjoy the process of both giving and getting. Now I have adopted the attitude that the members of the group serve a useful function as a sounding board, a first look at potential problem areas, and NOT the final word, I am comfortable with the process.

Your tips are excellent, but esp. the one about having the last word no matter what feedback you're given!

Anne Germaine said...

Hi Paula - I'm so glad you found the posting useful. Good luck on Saturday!

Anne Germaine said...

Hey Joanne! "Emotional" is an understatement. Looking back now I can smile, but it sure did hurt at the time!

Anne Germaine said...

Silver, that was the comment that upset me the most. Of course I was proud of it--that didn't mean I didn't want to improve it.

Write on is right!

Anne Germaine said...

That's fantastic Hayley! What a story. Good for you for channelling your anger into something so successful...and look where you are now. :)

Anne Germaine said...

"Now I have adopted the attitude that the members of the group serve a useful function as a sounding board, a first look at potential problem areas, and NOT the final word, I am comfortable with the process."

Very valuable advice Helena!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Wow, can I ever relate to this post! Sure reminds me of a couple months ago and yet the advice was all given in love.

I can't pick the best advice I've received because it was mostly all good. And there was a lot of it.

Sometimes it's harder to accept criticism from someone in person but we need thick skins if we want to stay in this business. I'm sorry you had an awful experience but you have to take something good from the experience even if it is to toughen up. Just think... you don't have to worry about sitting with an editor or agent now because you know you'll live through it. :)