Friday, June 9, 2017

What to Remember When Getting Feedback

Everything you did for a reason. It might be a stupid reason, but it’s useful to know why.

I just read a piece of writing advice complaining (again) about adverbs. It was filled with the typical complaints of unnecessary words and fluff, but it didn't really catch my attention until she complained about a book she was reading which said, “Troy spun around, grabbing for a gun…”

“Around is pure fluff—can you spin in any other way?”

Yes. Yes, you can. “Partially.” Your feet don’t move. I could spin my torso and head, or I could put my whole body into it. “Tony spun, grabbing for a gun,” could mean he turned just far enough to seize the weapon. In some cases, “Troy spun around,” tells a different story. It was a complete about-face, throwing his entire body into it, which fit for the tension of the scene.

Now, you might think I’m reaching or being pedantic, and that’s your prerogative. But this is not about advocating for keeping it. The point is, changing it does change it. If it didn’t, cutting that one would wouldn’t benefit it either. ‘Spin’ might be tighter, faster, and even, yes, better, but the point is, it’s different. And yes, sometimes slow or sloppier actually might be preferred for the point of the scene.

When I cut 60,000 words from a manuscript, it changed the voice, the tension, and even the characterization drastically. Not because of plot differences, but because the way you describe something is important. While some parts improved, I lost some magic in others. I learned just how much of an effect those “unnecessary” words can have on the bigger picture.

While you don’t have to pick your brain for every minor decision, unintellectually cutting everything will affect your prose, your pacing, and your point.

Writers don’t just do things for the hell of it. As much as it looks like even the most rambling tangent filled mess, just someone’s stream-of-consciousness spewing, as much as we would like to think that bad writing just happens, end of story, the best way for an author to improve his writing skills is to not just assume that it was a weird mistake. He said ‘around’ not because he likes to waste time, but his subconscious thought it was important, it believed—perhaps incorrectly—that around did something. It’s also possible though that it knows something you don’t, that it does do something?

Is that something useful? Does it add to the work? That is a different question. Even though the writer didn’t just jam in excess words for the sake of it, and her insistence that it is absolutely pointless is insulting, it still may be that the phrases is better off without it.

The real question is what is the sentence trying to do. What are the pros and cons of the word ‘around’? Prepositional phrases are notoriously redundant yet necessary for an immersive, non-distracting cadence.

“He thought about it,” and “He thought,” are the same sentence, but one sounds weird; we just don’t talk like that.

Mostly though, how is “He spun,” more effective? What does it do for the book?

The blogger’s opinion is that because both “He spun,” and “He spun around,” illustrate the same visual, the shorter one is obviously better? Should he remove “around?” then? If it means the same thing, if it shows the same visual, is shorter always preferred?


Shorter sentences tend to enhance tension, indicate a precision, and are often clear. You are less likely to make a mistake with a shorter sentence than a longer one. However, length of sentence also implies duration of moment:

“He snatched the gun.”

“His hand moved for his holster, squeezing the handle of his gun and quaking as he extended it before him.”

Each tells a different mood. One is a quick, decisive moment as conveyed by a quick, decisive sentence. The other tells the audience the gesture is slow without needing any of these dreaded speed-based adverbs the blogger hates so much. Speed conveys intention.

Also, there’s a question of rhythm, the music of the speech. If a series of short sentences proceeded or followed the “he spun around,” he might consider the longer version for the sake of variation.

In the blog, she left out context. She didn’t describe the sentences around it, she just said, “This sentence is bad.” On its own, ‘around’ lacks the tension of ‘he spun,’ and if the writer’s goal is to write shorter sentences, than prepositions are often a great place to do it. But without the whole paragraph and the blogger’s obvious lack of faith in the writer, it could very well be that she was just looking for pre-existing opinions to prove the writer sucks, not criticizing him for actual results.

When someone gives an author feedback, it can be very hard to tell how successful or even positive the change will be. Because it’s so often phrased in an absolute, do-or-die sort of way, it might be directed towards the context or it might just be what they’ve memorized. They might not be aware of the ramifications of the change.

Before altering anything, ask yourself why you/your subconscious chose to do it in that manner. Sometimes people are so fixated on the obvious, they can’t see the bigger picture (it technical means the same thing, but the visual is different). Or maybe via this self-reflection you’ll not only realize they were right, but have a far greater understanding of why. Maybe you’ll realized that you were lengthening your sentences to sound smarter and that’s why your readers find you pretentious. Instead of just making the one small change, you learned something about yourself. Most commonly, you’ll know how to save the material that you love/is important and yet fix the problem at the same time. If nothing else it will make you feel better when someone treats you like you’re an idiot for doing it the way you chose.

You’re not always lying when you feel it’s a matter of tastes.

What is overwriting? When are we being different or just being ostentatious? Does anyone actually enjoy drama, or are they all just a bunch of liars? Is it fun to say, “her mouth furrowed,” or distracting?

Who knows.

The trick to using criticism is to have a good balance of disagreement and agreement. It’s hard not to walk into a situation and act like a sponge or baseball bat, to equally respect your critique and yourself at the same time.

One of the things that took me an unreasonable amount of time to understand is that there is such a thing as personal tastes and I’m not lying to myself when I feel like I disagree.

A primary and easy example of this is the contemporary story argument:

I do not like realistic modern day. I have no interest in it, I want my fantasy, I want my other worlds, I do not want reality. I am also in the minority. Not a lot of my friends/coworkers/family are into speculative fiction. Most of them prefer nonfiction. My longest writer’s group had one other fiction writer and a couple of poets (who write about their real lives.) alongside a myriad of memoirists. Even people who like magic often like magic that could “really happen,” urban fantasy that is set in the real world and hidden from the eyes of the mundanes.

The comment I get? “Why don’t you just write a contemporary novel?” Literally. Why don’t I just write what they like?

I could make a statement about how “Why didn’t you just…” is always a horrible way to give advice, but we’ll stick to the current point. I have personal tastes and my personal tastes matter. I can disregard them if I choose, but doing so often handicaps me.

To clearly understand the problem, I’ve gotten this a lot. It’s not uncommon for people to suggest that I rewrite a whole play/book for a more accessible setting, often in which the plot wouldn’t even work anymore due to the influence of certain social mores. (I can’t just make a piece about family forcing their daughters into marriage in modern day Wyoming; it’d seem like everyone was insane.) These people aren’t lying, they like contemporary settings and they don’t like fantasy, they would truly prefer my story if it wasn’t magic or historically based. But does that mean I shouldn’t write it?

In this scenario, the response to the criticism is obvious. Genre and setting is one of those things that is fairly straightforward when it comes to subjectivity. I’ll never be sitting on my bed, huddled up in a ball, saying to myself, “Do I actually like fantasy?”

But there are forms of feedback that fall into this same category of “taste” which aren’t so cut and dry. Word choice, for example, is highly influential and yet inane at the same time. Is the writer being pretentious and unnecessarily confusing, or he is challenging with a new perception? Sometimes, the author can’t tell. He doesn’t always remember if he chose a word because it came naturally to him (sometimes it does) or if he thought he was sounding smart. He thinks he doesn’t like simplified work, that he likes poetry, but then he consistently asks himself, “Or am I just being stubborn?”

I don’t have the answer. I probably wouldn’t be talking about it if I did. But it is okay, at times, to realize that you do have differing opinions than other people, and just because you keep getting responses that you should just write in one way doesn’t mean you actually should.

What is the problem they are trying to solve?

For my senior year in college I wrote a play as my final project. Long story censored, my professor, who gave me very little feedback on it, told me that I needed to add another character.

I knew that he had a problem with the dynamic of the two women speaking, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I thought they were fairly believable, the dialogue was catchy, and that they had a good chemistry together. He really pressed that it would be better with a third woman.

Considering this would mean a complete rewrite (I mean complete) and that I didn’t understand what his problem was, I opted out of it. We had other arguments to deal with anyway.

But for a full two years after it still bothered me, and I still couldn’t figure out why he didn’t like the two characters together.

Then, one day, I was ranting (as I do), to a friend of mine. Mid-complaint, I got sidetracked (as I do), into this tirade about how I have consistently been told I need to clarify my two female characters aren’t lesbians. Not just asked if they were, but told it needed to be made clear. For three completely separate plays. And not just by male readers.

I have my theories as to why this is—starting with stupid and ending in pervert—but the point was more about how irritating it was over why it was. Now, my professor had said this exact thing on my senior project, but he only mentioned it once, I said, “No I don’t,” and then he never talked about it again.

It was in this conversation years later, as I’m going on and on about it that suddenly, immediately—and probably because my whole point of the tirade was about being confused on someone’s criticism—I figured it out. It came to me in a flash of inspiration: The problem with their dynamic that a third character would solve? Poof, it clarified it wasn’t a date. Thank God.

A weight was lifted off my shoulders, and not because I was worried about outing my characters.

When I am aware of what their problem is (It’s distracting, it’s boring, it’s confusing), I can better understand how to solve that problem. It might not be in the way they suggest, or I might not think it’s a problem at all, but I understand, which means the decision can be made far easier.

In this case, there was no way just asking him would have clarified things. He didn’t want to admit that this was important to him, and I didn’t understand enough to say it in a way to get the right answer. This is pretty typical as most people don’t know what the issue is (or don’t want to say it.) “I like what I like when I like it, and I don’t like this.” It takes some massive years of self-reflection to be able to put your finger on why something did or didn’t work.

And while normally not being specific has to do with more sensible things, like they don’t want to hurt your feelings or they’re trying to be clever, this problem comes up a lot, and the first step is to realize that they may not be talking about what they say they are.

Once you understand what their problem is, you’re more likely to figure out if the solution is the best option. Not only can trying to solve something you don’t get be a waste of time, it can also be inhibited when you don’t know how best to implement it.

If it’s important, someone else will say it again, better, later.

When in doubt, stick a pin in it. Many people have pet peeves, they’re coming from a unique perspective that won’t apply again, they care about things others don’t, or even they are just bad at understanding and explaining themselves.

It’s important to do a cursory attempt to hear them out and make people feel like you give a shit about their opinion, but if they can’t (or won’t) explain anything to you, then you can assume it’s incorrect with the faith that someone else will bring it up again if it’s important. And even if that person is terrible at articulating their points, having the two criticisms will often enable you to supplement information and figure out both.

If you are on a deadline, hopefully you’ve gotten enough feedback that you know if this person’s criticism has come up before or not, and can ignore it with the (albeit sometimes incorrect) hope that it is just them. If you haven’t really gotten a lot of feedback, but are on a deadline, your options are to push it back or to take a risk, but making a change you don’t understand last minute is always more of a chance than leaving it as it is, which is why I recommend not “fixing” it until you can get it or have the time to change it back.

It’s not about proving yourself.

This applies in two ways. One, the more obvious, don’t go into a criticism expecting everyone to acknowledge what a wonderful author you are. If they do, that’s great, but it’s not the point, and being disheartened by it does no one any good.

But the other side is to also not try and prove you’re good at taking criticism. It’s still not about looking like a good person, it’s about getting the information you need. The more you try to look like you have thick skin and a logical heart, the more people will think you are trying too hard, but more relevantly, being overly polite isn’t going to help you get to the meat of the problem. Sometimes you need to speak softly but carry a big stick. Getting stern or even argumentative might serve a situation better than being a doormat. Sitting back and letting someone abuse you does no good for anyone, and refusing to ask questions or admit that you don’t understand what they’re talking about hurts their ability to explain themselves. Open and respectful dialogues are extremely useful, and they require honesty and assertiveness.

When getting feedback, always remember to trust your instincts, ask questions, and focus on the main goal of retrieving information. Don’t confuse respect for humility or kindness, and never belittle yourself just because you’re in over your head. Your opinions are important too, and considering them is the best way to be a genuine and unique writer.

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