Feedback on your fiction is, on the surface of it, a sensible thing. You’re writing for readers, and people reading your draft and giving opinions is bound to be helpful, right?
Sometimes we end up feeling undermined or, conversely, falsely assured. Feedback can be useful at times, but for reasons that are often invisible to writers, may fail to help us. In pursuit of the deeper truth about feedback, here are some observations.
Motivation and self confidence
- We writers are in an insecure vocation. Connecting with readers can seem unfairly difficult, even random. In such an environment we may turn to others for feedback. But we may not be ready to handle criticism, and this can weaken our intention, especially if we are already lacking in writerly confidence.
- If you’re really ready to hear honest opinions, then it might be a good idea to get feedback. Personally, I tend to avoid feedback (except under strict conditions), because I find myself susceptible to doubt and confused by too much input.
- I know I’m being a bit contrary, but give it some thought. At a deeper level, you know why you want feedback, and you may well be right about whatever decision you come to. But: Sharer beware.
Writers’ groups and friends
- Writers’ groups can be helpful. They provide psychological support and motivation. They may also give usable feedback at the page level or slightly beyond. (“I got confused when . . .” “I haven’t warmed up to your character yet.”)
- Don’t go to writers’ groups hungry for validation or fearful of criticism. Repeat this five times before every meeting. You’re there to find out what the piece needs in order to be better, period. Is this hard? Yes. Really, there’s no way to sugar coat this truth.
- Critiques from family and friends are not “at arm’s length.” Their praise might feel good, but may not be helpful in practical terms or to your attitude and mood. Stop, stop giving your manuscripts to people hoping for praise.
- Unless your writers’ group reads full manuscripts, getting piece-meal feedback on your novel can take months or even years. You’ll get feedback on your writing, but not on your story, the arena where most drafts falter.
- Don’t engage your group with fixing problems. They can help identify issues, but getting them involved with creative decisions fosters dependency and can undermine your creative intuition.
- I end this section by saying I believe writers’ groups can be great support in the writing life. They’ve helped me see issues I might otherwise have missed. They’ve inspired me and nurtured friendships, not inconsiderable benefits in the writing life. But, honestly, I go for their sharp perspective on issues, not hoping for praise. I want them to catch stuff.
Learning to dance with the marketplace
- Despite all of the above, I do think it’s a good idea to take seriously feedback from agents and editors who take time to read your material. (Your acquiring editor’s feedback is a different case entirely. Stuff of another blog post.)
- When your work is published, you’ll enter the arena of validation. It’ll loom large in your mind–as it does in mine–but we shouldn’t let it define us. We keep on, practicing gratitude that we found the writing life and also working on humility should some success arise.
- When you’re on contract, there may not be time to get feedback. One idea is to find several excellent readers. Give them your second draft of the first three-quarters of the novel. While you’re writing the last section, they are reading. One month before your deadline, the critiques come in and you revise. I only recommend this if you have healthy relationship with feedback (as per the Motivation section of this post).
The big picture
- Read extensively. Practice judging how your story compares with writers you admire (at least the first few books that launched their careers.) Get tough, be diagnostic in your approach to evaluating your stories. Then send them out and see if they connect with readers. Accept that, in the main, your exquisite and excruciating task is to decide what to write and how to do it.
- Learn to navigate the writing life having faith in the worthwhile nature of your work, knowing it will sometimes succeed in reaching others, and other times will not. Our writing practice is a deeply personal commitment and is worth nurturing every day lest the world and its constant comparisons cause us to lose heart–or forget how much fun it is to write stories!