I was in the 7th grade and I had written a masterpiece. It had been carefully crafted between the blue lines of loose leaf notebook paper, college-ruled, of course. As a nod to the temporary nature of art, I had written it using a No. 2 pencil. The words melded to the pages, though the graphite had a tendency to smear when handled by amateurs. The divinely-inspired work was artfully bound in a three-ring binder of brown vinyl so as to keep it accessible to the commoner who might wish to bask in its literary greatness. Who knew my preteen self had such talent and ability with the written word? Well, I did, of course.
How I managed to get my first reader is still a bit of a fog. My older cousin’s college roommate was a freshman majoring in journalism. Perhaps he had seen my potential and wanted to get in on the ground floor of such a discovery. Or, perhaps I begged for his opinion and approval. Either way, he graciously agreed to read my “novel” and give me feedback.
About a month later, we returned to the college town to visit my cousin. As promised, his roommate had read my story. The margins were dotted with snippets of thoughtful feedback. I listened to his comments with the impatience of a king hearing about some inconvenience. When he finished, I waved him away with a flourish and proclaimed that he simply didn’t know what he was talking about. My story was amazing. He couldn’t grasp that and , as such, had outgrown his usefulness to me. And that, my friends, was the last time he offered to help.
The thing about feedback is that it is valuable. My 12-year-old self didn’t know much about the craft of writing, nor was I mature enough to accept constructive criticism or, for that matter, helpful advice. I insisted on doing everything myself. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And I don’t remember that guy’s name, but my adult self would like to issue a formal apology for my behavior and a hearty helping of gratitude for his patience. He actually read that piece of crap. He had plenty of other things to do, but he took the time to help a kid and take it seriously. I wish I had had better manners back then. So, whoever you are, thank you and I’m sorry.
As writers, we get so protective of our work that we can lose our minds and our manners over any feedback that does not meet the “this is the best thing I have ever read in my whole entire life and has ruined me for other books” standards. Of course, it’s great to hear how enjoyable and well-written our work is. Who doesn’t want praise and encouragement? But we don’t want to wind up in the situation like the Emperor with his new clothes. If we’re unintentionally naked, someone needs to be able to tell us before we leave the house.
When I ask my students to give feedback of peer work, they cringe. Some do not feel confident giving criticism to others when they are still unsure about how to write well themselves. They feel insecure because they don’t know the proper terms for identifying problems. To many, a dangling participle sounds like something in need of medical assistance rather than grammar assistance.
To help my students feel confident giving feedback, I ask them to focus on the “what?” factor. When we read along and something stops us, that voice inside our heads often blurts out “what?” If we are kind, we might read it again to try and figure out what it was that confused us. Many times, we simply skip over that part and move on. Sometimes, moving on means we stop reading altogether. This is the worst-case scenario for a writer.
As writers, we want our work read. Yes, I know. We write for ourselves first. That’s fine. But we also write for others. And before we release our work into the ether, it would be nice if we could polish it up a bit so that it sparkles and shines for the readers. In order to do that, we need to learn to accept and apply feedback.
But what about that one lady who rated my book one star because zero stars wasn’t an option?
Look, by the time reviewers are looking at your work, it’s probably too late. I know there are self-publishers who can release a new version after fixes, but that’s a bit lazy. Accidents happen and no one is perfect, but a self-published book should be free of typos and plot holes the same way a traditionally published book is. Also, reviews are none of my business. What readers think/feel about my work after it’s published is up to them. They are commenting based on expectations and as consumers. Sure, one-star reviews hurt, but only if you read them.
The feedback I’m talking about comes pre-publication. That’s when feedback counts. It may be from editors, agents, beta readers, writing groups, or some random guy on the bus who had a little time on his hands. It may be from a college student who is gracious enough to read the work and offer detailed feedback. Regardless of where it’s coming from, it is of value and should be appreciated.
But they want me to change the thing, and I don’t want to change the thing.
Then don’t change it. It’s still your work. I’m not suggesting that you apply every piece of feedback. Some feedback will contradict other feedback. You still have to wade through it and determine what will work for the story. It is, after all, your name that’s going on the thing. But regardless of the feedback, thank the giver. Be grateful that someone took the time to say something, even if you whole-heartedly disagree with it.
And please, whatever you do, don’t shame people on social media when their feedback doesn’t meet your expectations. I know if Twitter had existed in the early 80’s, I would have blasted this guy for saying my story needed work. I’m glad social media wasn’t even a figment of my imagination back then. As it were, no one else except him knew what a jerk I was. With social media, everyone sees it. So…slamming one person for feedback you don’t like means other people will be less likely to offer their services.
Sometimes, even when someone says something that isn’t kind, or carefully crafted in a way that saves our feelings, there is still value in what they say. I shared a plot point with someone a couple of years ago and his first response was disbelief. “What could be so bad it would make someone do that?” Again, my first thought was that he didn’t know what he was talking about. After all, he hadn’t read my story. We were just talking about it. But, as annoyed as I was with him, I couldn’t stop thinking about the question. The truth was, I had no valid answer. I didn’t know what was so bad. In my head, no one argued so it had worked. But after hearing someone else give pushback, I had to admit that he was right and I needed to work harder to find the “something.” And this time, I apologized for saying the person didn’t know what he was talking about.
Feedback is valuable even if you don’t ask for it or use it. Always be grateful for feedback when you get it. If nothing else, it will give you the opportunity to test your knowledge about your story. Can you answer the “why did the character do that” question? If the answer is “because I said so,” you need to keep looking for answers. The plot has to make sense. The characters have to make sense. If someone hits the “what” factor, ask for more details. Who knows, it may save you from those pesky one-star reviews.