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.