Monday, July 10, 2017

Comments to Expect When Giving Writing Feedback (And What to Do about Them)

Being a teacher seems a little like how many people describe hell: a continual time loop of the same conflicts with no end in sight.

Once you start to really experience criticism, patterns show up—certain emotional walls, repetitive arguments, and the even the exact same comments will rear their ugly heads. While this can become incredibly irritating, at least, over time, you start to understand how to solve the problems and learn what to expect when giving someone your opinion.

“I write for myself.”

“I don’t write for the money,” “I don’t write for the fame,” “I don’t write for the praise.” Several similar comments explain the same thing: “I don’t define success by ‘superficial’ things.” Legitimate, right?

I hear this said most in writers’ groups after someone receives feedback they don’t want to take. Whenever anyone suggests a change, the writer responds, “Well, I write for myself.” The frustrating part is, while it is your prerogative and responsibility to take the path that is right for you, if you write for yourself, why are you here? Why are you giving the work for other people to read? Why get criticism?

If you publish or ever even give a manuscript to another person, you obviously don’t write solely for yourself.

Dealing with someone who isn’t concrete about their intentions can be difficult. In some cases, sure, the person is flat out lying. They did give it to you for praise and when they did not receive it, they pretend, maybe even convinced, that wasn’t what they wanted. I think many times, however, it’s more of an issue of oversimplification. When they claim that they don’t care what other people think as a blanket statement, it can really mean that they take issue with that specific solution, seeing it as selling out or seeing that individual decision as being important to them; they’re not willing to betray what they consider a literary quality for the market. They do use their own tastes as a measuring stick, but they’re looking for aid in how to craft something that meets those tastes. My reader side is a fickle beast and my author side doesn’t always know how to make her happy.

Whenever you don’t want to make an alteration, it’s important you be honest and concise about your reasoning; open dialogue in which all parties are forthcoming is where the best understanding comes from. Or, if you know for certain you don’t want to make the change, no further information needed, simply don’t say anything. The point in putting forth your opinion is to discuss it, to have your feedbacker explain their feelings and thoughts, to explain yours, and to come to the conclusion as to what’s best for the project. If you can’t be truthful and specific about what you’re trying to do, people can’t really help you.

What to do about it:

Ask the writer, “What do you hope happens with this book?”

Do they want to get it published? What do they hope a reader gains from reading it? When they say they don’t write “for the money,” a lot of times what they mean is they don’t make decisions for the money, not that they don’t want it. Other occasions they mean they feel it isn’t okay to write for the money. Unless they outright state that they don’t want a lot of readers, they probably do. The trick is getting them to be honest with themselves. Don’t imply that your solution is the only way to achieve those goals, but ask to gain an understanding on why they came to you in the first place, use that goal to determine if the criticism is best for them, and how to phrase it in a way that is convincing. It might be true that they’re not looking to sell millions of books, but if they’re not, what are they trying to do? Answer that, and you can better state your advice.

Generally speaking, the “I write for myself” author tends to have a strong, moralistic abrasion to selling out (either genuinely or as an excuse) and shut down on any normal, understandable hopes he has for his story. If he still wants those things but feels shame, as though it makes him less of an author, his words may contradict his actions. It might be about making a safe space for him to be fair to himself.

So, avoid using words like “selling,” “praise,” or even “gaining and maintaining readers” when speculating why they’ve come to you. Remind them that, in the context of feedback from a non-investor, they have full power to do whatever they want. Use their own words, if available, as a reference point for their goals—“You have stated being upset about the few sales you’ve been having”—and give the solution as personal belief—“this would be my main deterrent when considering giving your book a chance.”

On the other hand, people know if they argue artistic integrity they’ve won; even if the speaker does have the nerve to say, “Well that’s just stupid,” the writer can still feel morally superior because he writes for the right reason. If it’s not a genuine belief, just a cheap argument, try and pin them down in their own words to what their goals are, and take whatever they say seriously, even if it sounds like they’re lying. If it comes down “I don’t want anything,” as it often does, then say, “Okay. Then you’re good. Let’s move on,” and start talking to someone else. Next time they’ll be less likely to play the artistic superiority card if it loses them attention or aid.

“If it’s so good, why do I need to change it?”

Many people true to infuse compliments with their criticism, and sometimes that can backfire.

I’ve never liked the “sandwich criticism” technique in which you offer up a compliment then a suggestion then a compliment again. For one thing, it’s usually obvious that that’s exactly what you’re doing, for another, people often give some vague, succinct praise before launching into a tirade and then offering up another vague, succinct praise again.

Personally, I try to tie the compliment directly into the suggestion. By analyzing what the writer’s goal was, I can tell them how they succeeded, give them credit for their decision making while still discussing why it (or often the magnitude of it) didn’t work for me.

“Jimmy’s such a vibrant and funny character that when I hit Crissy’s P.O.V., she doesn’t compare. I’m less invested in her story because she’s is less complex and more negative, so her sections slow the book down for me.”

But obviously, giving compliments can mislead the author about the reader’s true feelings.

For example, I once gave feedback to a gentleman who had an explanatory and perfunctory writing style, typical for some new writers. He was a memoirist, and he deliberately focused on clarity. He did not believe in wordplay at all. This could be fine in some contexts, but his clarity was overkill, often condescendingly so, explaining and re-explaining things everyone already understood, using very basic words that often came off as choppy, almost juvenile. He was writing about a boring subject in a boring way. He “told” instead of “showed,” refusing to put in any sensory descriptions because, as a memoir, he didn’t remember what it smelled like or what the temperature was and he wasn’t about to lie. It was mostly editorializing and summation.

I told him that he was a clear, concise writer, that I always understood exactly what he meant, and so now he could he could take more risks with being confusing. He gave me this scoffing look that I can only describe as “But if my work is so good, then why fix it?”

What to do about it:

My decision was to just flat out tell him the truth. “I am bored.”

But in most cases, that’s not the desirable option.

He immediately shut down. He was one of those put-together sensitive types, the kind that seemed confident, seemed like a know-it-all, but you knew was seeking validation. He wasn’t rude or malicious, though often judgmental. He was good at taking feedback, but struggled with taking it effectively—he took what everyone said way too seriously. Afterwards, I saw him one last time in that group. He hadn’t written anymore. I don’t think that that was my doing—at least not completely—because in the many weeks he attended, he only had one chapter which he’d brought back to show us the changes. He had never written anything before and didn’t like to read, so it was likely he’d quit anyway, but you can see why I don’t believe outright saying, “It was boring,” convinced him to solve the issue.

You complimented them in the first place because you didn’t want them to be hurt. And while their ego can make you suddenly revoke your desire to be kind, usually that’s an impulse best censored. In some cases, being blunt might be the best and only way to be clear about your feedback, but diplomacy is still possible, and I don’t really want to take the high of the praise away from the author, even if I feel like he’s preventing him from understanding my point.

First, admit to personal preferences. Criticism isn’t about winning the argument, but helping a person understand their readers. If you admit it might just be you, know they’re rarely going to accept your argument as the outright truth—initially. But the problem here is if you compliment them on something they highly value, they’re more likely to shut out concerns that they haven’t thought about. This is even more true if they actively disagree with them, so let them know that their tastes (even if they might not be honest about what they’re tastes are) are valid and they’re less likely to write off the entire criticism.

By saying, “I know you don’t want to write anything too dense,” you give them an escape route before you admit, “Still, I’d like to see you toy with how you describe things more, challenge yourself to widen your palate.”

It is unlikely to get them to agree with you instantaneously, but they’re also less likely to get defensive. The idea is more capable to take seed for when someone else mentions it again.

Finish off with a frank explanation of how the decision did not achieve what you would want for the book. “There were times in which the focus on clarity was hard to get through and took away from the mood of the scene.” It’s difficult to be honest about what you’re feeling when something like, “It’s boring,” is hurtful, so specificity is key.

“I don’t want a character arc.”

Authors, including myself, balk when someone says, “A book has to have this.” Oh really? Challenge accepted.

So it’s not uncommon for writers to decide they want to write a book without a character arc, or a climax, or an introduction, or an inciting incident, or a likable protagonist. And, honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Testing out and challenging the rules of society is exactly what art is about.

Except when you’re the one trying to help them improve their writing.

By handicapping themselves, they also handicap you. Often your main criticism will be exactly about that weird thing that writer is obsessed with. Likely, you don’t even think it’s that important. You find it the biggest downfall of the work, but they refuse to change it. They said so even before you began. There’s a reason these things are described as necessities, even if it’s just our cultural expectation.

So what do you do when someone refuses an element you think is a quintessential part of the story?

What to do about it:

Well, for starters, I believe you should try and work with their vision, even if you think it’s incredibly stupid. For one thing, there’s so many books in the world, we don’t really need another “just good” one, so why not let them take a risk if they’re willing? Again, unless you’re an investor of some sort, it’s not your choice.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be honest.

Before addressing their concerns, feel free to speak yours. State your experience with this kind of comment. When you have been going to writers’ groups, classes, teaching others, and just generally giving feedback, it’s something that comes up fairly frequently. It’s possible that the writer has no idea how common his staunch decision to go against the grain is.

“I am here to help you do whatever you want to do. Keep in mind that I have dealt with this kind of thing before, and many times I feel like writer thinks it’ll be an easier path when it is a much, much harder one. I’ve seen a lot of people get frustrated and abandon the idea. If you truly want to write like this, just be prepared for a difficult road, but I’ll support you.”

Then they’ll argue that they’re not doing it because they think it’ll be easy, citing “artistic integrity,” but just smile and nod. Any argument or explanation will make them more upset. The point is to make clear where you’re coming from, not convince them of anything.

Address exactly why they want to do it. Are they just challenging themselves? Do they feel like it will have some artistic umph to it? Worst case scenario is they are being lazy or aiming for originality with something big and obvious, but at least then your options won’t be restricted. Just tell them in order to consider their vision, you need to fully understand it.

Then address your arguments against it, but pose them as obstacles, things to consider, not reasons not to do it.

“You will have to find an alternative way to make sure readers don’t find the script a waste of time. Readers like progress. If the characters didn’t change, what did? What happens in the story that changes the reader since the moment he picked it up to when he put it down? Maybe the character didn’t learn anything, but that doesn’t mean the reader doesn’t.”

The good side is that it will enhance your critical thinking, force you to question your assumptions and really examine the importance of this “rule.” It not only challenges the writer, but the critic into rethinking everything they thought they knew.

It can be appealing to just shut down after faced with the same attitude time and time again. Having the same arguments, being confronted with the exact same statements—you might feel compelled to just tell them to knock it off.

But like with everything, the trick is truly listening and learning to ask the right questions. Criticism isn’t just about imparting one singular opinion; it’s about the exchange of opinions, ideas, and vision. Seeing someone struggle can be painful. Having them be egotistical, angry, or stubborn is worse. It’s useful to remember that understanding is achieved by conversation, and even if someone doesn’t immediately agree with you, even if they don’t take your advice, it doesn’t mean you didn’t help them in some way.

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