Kill Or Cure? the feedback dilemma

It’s difficult to hear someone say they don’t understand the particular part of your writing that, in fact, was the bit you loved most – and what you based the whole piece on – and to know whether it is their failing or yours. It’s difficult to take on suggestions that come from someone else’s head when all the original writing comes from your head. Will their suggestions mix successfully with what’s there already? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. To me it’s like being invaded. Or being spoken to in a foreign language. It’s difficult, above all, to know whom to trust to suit your particular style and voice. If we all received and acted upon feedback from the same critic, wouldn’t the literary world be a dull place?

Sometimes (or maybe often!) I write something and it’s not good. I get so wrapped up in keeping going and producing words I don’t see until I come back later that it’s not working. When I read it again I see that it’s collapsing under the sheer floppiness of its weak characters and lack of structure. It needs to be ditched, begun again or completely re-renovated. But, amazingly, if I show it to someone else they can see what I have lost: a good twist, an interesting starting point or a thought-provoking dilemma. Maybe the skeleton is broken but there are some good bones worth putting back together. Are they right, though? Should I work through it using something that someone else has recommended? Or should I stick with my gut instinct and drop it? Someone else’s “promising” might be my waste of time, after all.

Or sometimes I write something that tumbles out of me. Strong characters play in my head and soar through my fingertips, and interact in ways that make me feel as if I am merely a tool to record their story. Conflicts, dilemmas, actions, conversations, resolutions, all layer up and slide into the laptop, and “afterwords” (do you like my typo?) I sit back and smile, knowing I’ve enjoyed the ride – which surely means that someone will really enjoy the read…? It’s one of the best things I’ve ever written and it will be one of the best things my reader has read for a while, yes? Well no. Unfortunately it doesn’t always happen like that. The very first person who reads it may not get that ride, that enjoyment that I thought I was sharing. Are they right? How many more people should read it, then, until I decide whether it’s as good as I first thought it was? Do I keep looking and waiting for my ideal reader? Do I take advice and change it? But whose advice do I take? Who do I trust? What if everyone who has read it has said something different? Oh maybe I shouldn’t have shown it to anyone! Maybe I should have just submitted it to a magazine or a competition or self-published it or just shared it on my blog!

What about the times you submit something for publication, a competition, an anthology, etc and you simply get no reply? Or after a while you merely get a “No thanks.” Isn’t that worse? Don’t we want to know why?

If you’re writing for the sheer love of it, though, should you be constantly putting yourself in situations where you get knocked back and you’re not sure who’s right or wrong?

I don’t think there is an answer to this. It depends who you are, why you are writing, what your intended outcome for each piece of writing is and what you hope to achieve personally from not just writing but from every individual piece you write. And your favourite person to give feedback may not be the best person to give feedback and vice versa.

I guess I have a kind of conclusion though: Messages can get lost in our writing, mistakes do get made, and clunking great errors do absolutely need sorting out because there’s very little point writing to be read if something isn’t working.
So, in my opinion, it’s important to find out what it is we are writing and find a few people who we would consider our ideal reader and don’t bother with those who have no interest in reading something of our genre – and that includes loved ones.
And learn to take the knocks.
Which ones are deserved, though, and which are not will still always need filtering and I, for one, will never get that right.


N.B. Although feedback and the reader’s experience is something that is always on my mind and this post is a common theme among writers, it has been inspired today by a disappointing grade from my final writing course result. The disappointment has been heightened by simply not knowing why?
I have no feedback to go on other than a percentage, which is at least 15% less than I was expecting. I’m usually pretty self-critical but I felt that the story I wrote was one of the best things I’d ever written and yet it got the lowest mark of all my work this year. However tough to take, if something doesn’t work for someone, I absolutely need to know why.

9 thoughts on “Kill Or Cure? the feedback dilemma

  1. To stay sane, I’ve broken down the way I write into several stages. First there’s the writing of the initial draft (draft zero) which I do purely for me. I have fun. I just let what’s in my head come out, and I try not to be self-critical (Note the word ‘try’!). What comes out usually ends up messy and jumpy with maybe a few diamonds in the rough. Then I rewrite. Again, I do it for me. I figure out what the story’s all about, and I settle down to write it ‘properly’. Then, I put it away, maybe for months. It’s only then that I can come back to it with a truly critical eye and a thick enough skin to ask for feedback. It’s hard on a writing course to get that emotional distance though … deadlines are always looming! As for feedback, I never, ever, ever show my stories to my loved ones (and by that I mean my immediate family). Knowing me as they do, they are incapable of being subjective. I only show my stories to people whose writing I enjoy and trust as I figure they’re more likely to ‘get’ mine. And then, maybe, I’ll send it off to a magazine. I’ve had more rejections that acceptances, but I’ve picked editors who offer some kind of feedback and that’s been really helpful. It’s hard to hear that someone doesn’t like your work for one reason or another, especially if they haven’t understood the whole thrust of your story, but it’s important to keep showing it around as someone, somewhere will get it and may offer advice on a tweak or two. I recently had a rejection saying that ‘The conclusion was a bit of a let down. It all ends up rather tamely with no explanations.’ but when I read the same story to my writers group they all said that they liked the ending because it didn’t spoon-feed the reader. That was encouraging because I figure I might be able to find a magazine that is looking for something more subtle … Here’s hoping!

    It’s a real shame the OU don’t offer any feedback on the ECAs for A363. I seem to remember getting some sort of tick-sheet feedback for the ECA of A215. I totally sympathise with your need to know ‘why’. *hugs*

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  2. I hadn’t noticed the slip! Thanks, Nat. I agree about the endings – I love endings with possibilities. Why tie everything up? Life isn’t like that. I prefer when I am reading or watching a film to feel I drift into a world or a life for a while and then out again. As long as there’s a story in there.

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  3. Rachel, My heart went out to you this morning when I saw your post. I would have been on earlier but have been suffering headache from hell. Anyway total empathy with your need to know “why”. When I was completing my health degree, I took a pain module, by this point I had 30 years experience of the subject had studied every research paper going. I submitted my paper after been read and critqued by my peers (also many years experience). I was told my module had failed as her view of pain did not fit into her boxes. She wanted black and white, I did disagree as life is full of grey and every shade inbetween. My view on pain was never to match hers, so I abandoned my degree. However just as pain is unquie to every individual, so is writing. I am sure you wrote a brillant piece, as you are a very talented writer. I enjoy your blog posts which in itself speaks volumes as they are many I do not.
    Just as I have written and self published my book on pain so you can rise above this tutor and firmly put her grade in a box.
    The reason there are so many writers out there is that we are all unqiue, write for you and your reader not your tutor.
    Keep smiling and put it behind you.
    Best wishes,
    Lesley

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  4. Hi there,

    We did get a sort of tick-sheet for the final module of A215 but I would have liked a short narrative commentary as well, just to see where tweaks could have been made.

    What I would say is that just because the piece you wrote didn’t tick the boxes for that particular tutor, that doesn’t mean it’s not good. Why not leave it a few weeks, have another read through and if you still feel it’s strong then send it off for publication – you might be pleasantly surprised and you’ve got nothing to lose!

    Claire

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  5. I’d be asking for the score to be checked over if it was me…

    You write really well, but as Claire says above, if it’s to tick several set boxes it is difficult to know how each marker will interpret that. Of course, we all react to writing differently; another reason to ask for another hearing?

    Anyway, disappointing as it is, in a few months/years you will just be saying that you’ve got your OU Writing Cert and not even mentioning the mark so don’t worry 🙂

    Kathy

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  6. Hi Rach

    I can relate to this, as I experienced a similar thing at the end of A215. It’s not so much the mark (although that certainly stings initially) but the frustration of not knowing why and wondering if it is more to do with an individual’s taste, rather than something you did (I’m sure tutor’s can get it as ‘wrong’ as the rest of us!).

    At the time it left me quite raw and completely undermined my confidence to the extent where I didn’t write for a while and I still won’t share my writing with anyone. However, a year down the line, having recently revisited the story in question, I can see why I received the mark I did: the story is unfocused, trying to cover too much ground, the voice is inconsistent, and some of my characters’ are weak and one-dimensional. I can only see this with distance and wish someone had been able to articulate this for me at the time.

    I tell you this not to suggest that there may be weaknesses in your story that you cannot see, but to suggest that perhaps another objective opinion might help you establish if there was an underlying problem (that you can address) or whether it was merely because of the marker’s subjectivity (in which case you may be re-assured, although obviously cross about the mark!). In short, to remove the frustration of not knowing.

    Either way, don’t be despondant: you are a lovely writer and brave enough to regularly share your work. And certainly don’t waste a year on it like I have!

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  7. I’m doing this via mobile and can’t see other people’s comments, but I bet we all experience a lot of this. Some stories are easy to write, others stumble, and the reader is an unpredictable soul. I just want to say I think you’ve done brilliantly to complete your course and I for one love your stories. I hope you’re celebrating and really chuffed with yourself!

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  8. Rachel,

    I can relate to your frustrations, the not knowing why is what really bothers me too.

    i think the final grade is a combination of subjective grading and the discretion of the board to lower or lift the barrier when deciding the final grade for the module.

    Having had all distinction in the last 5 of TMA’s i thought i was well on my way for a great mark.

    My EMA was knocked by 13 % from the TMA6 grade. All the tick boxes were GOOD except presentation (CLEAR PASS) and received a grade 2 pass .

    Fair enough : distinction in the TMAs /good in the EMA = grade 2 pass.

    Then i find out by chance that others with the same overall % average (TMA and EMA) as mine got distinctions on their final mark since their EMA was slightly higher than mine. So i guess the EMA counts MORE than 50% at the end of the day.

    So there you have it:

    One grade doesn’t make –or break–a writer!

    if you love writing, keep writing, that is the main thing. Remember creative writing is all subjective, you could have ten readers read your stuff and they all may have different opinions.

    keep on writing, that’s what i say.

    Anyway, I agree, would have loved an explanation too, like you said it’s the not knowing why.

    good luck

    A363 survivor

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