Monday, July 17, 2017

Asked: “Where Can I Safely Put My Writing for People to Give Me Feedback?”

After giving his manuscript to a friend, a writer received his book back with a nasty note reading, “I don’t have enough pens to edit this.” It massively demoralized him, made him afraid to get feedback, and he wanted to know where he could anonymously post his work for review.

Now, some of you may be thinking, "This is the wrong question!" As others told him, you don't want safe. Safe will get you no where! But I don't see it that way.

Funny thing is, I’ve never had someone tear my work to shreds. I’ve spoken before about critiques that bothered me, that I struggled with understanding, or in which drama ensued, but while I’ve gotten critiques that I found naïve, and ones that I found sort of callous, and definitely ones that embarrassed me, no one has ever said something that served no purpose other than crushing me, something where they announced some vague and clever insult that gave me no direction put made their judgement of my abilities, and their sense of superiority, clear.

I realized this, some weeks ago I was talking to a friend and fellow writer and she told me about a play she was rewriting after years of shelving it. When she first revealed it in a college class, people were nasty, in my opinion. “I don’t like it,” they said. “I just don’t like it at all.”

She wishes she had more of a physical presence to request more useful advice, but instead she just took it, and went away mostly demoralized, and didn’t touch the play for four years since.

Even though I’ve had hurtful experiences, and even though someone has tried to tell me some stupid things—“Star Wars doesn’t have any backstory in the first act!”—No one has ever said to my face anything remotely like, “I just don’t like it at all,” or “I don’t have enough ink.”


That brings me to the answer to the question in question: How people treat you has less to do with location or skill, and a hell of a lot to do with your attitude.

The conversation between my friend and I came up because I was getting agitated about trying to find someone who pushed me further without being closed-minded. People felt either too malleable, agreeing with whatever I said, or they were too opinionated, not listening to alternative goals, tastes, or options. Moreover, I was getting advice from some less experienced women I knew which was fairly naïve, but when I tried to explain that I had been doing this a long time (and therefore had already tried their obvious suggestions) each jumped all over me as if I was saying I was too good to stoop to actual work. In the past, I’ve had issues with people jumping to the unsubstantiated conclusion that I wouldn’t take criticism—long before I ever even introduced myself. It wasn’t my actual actions that made my reputation, it was something about my first impression that made people somewhat intimidated by me.

And therefore far more cautious about giving me feedback.

My advice to this young writer who wants to improve? Learn to speak softly and carry a big stick.

Be friendly, fun, and cavalier. You put out this positive vibe that makes people feel comfortable, that makes them enjoy throwing their ideas out there, arguing with you, and challenging the both of you. It’s no big deal. We’re not on a time frame. Let’s just be honest and communicative. Neither of us expect any one idea to be an end all.

The big stick is your confidence, the fact that even though you want them to have fun, you still have your opinions. You’re still selective. You still have standards specific to you, and you’re not going to accept any idea thrown your way. If they say something naive or poorly thought out, if  turn into an asshole, you’re going to let them know it.
You want people to think that if they say what they really believe in a way that is helpful, you will both have a good time. You also want them to fear having to defend a half-assed idea that they threw out there because obviously those thoughts off the top of their heads is far superior to the ones that you’ve spend months thinking about.

Criticism is a learned skill on both sides, and it’s wrong to think you have to take abuse. But safe places are usually created and shaped, not found.

Safe places must evolve over time because each person works differently and needs different things at different speeds. In fact, the dynamic between my critique partners and I vary drastically. I have one friend in which we spend most of the time swearing at each other. We’ve known each other for a while, she’s my biggest fan, and I know she respects me, so she doesn’t have to constantly say nice things. We can be more emotional without worrying about offending each other, and we don’t have to think as hard about if we’re being clear because the other person will just say, “What the hell are you talking about?” so we can just speak from the heart. Other times, I’m with people who are very professional and informative, which has benefits that being emotional and playful doesn’t. If they said something to me that my friend might, I’d actually be pretty damn offended. I have a different partner depending on each stage in the manuscript because our dynamic, history, and skills are more useful at one time than another.

Also, there’s a jackass in every group. Pretty much guaranteed, so you can’t pick the right location and avoid them. You just have to learn to navigate around them.

You want people to feel comfortable speaking their minds, but you don’t want them to think they can get away with tearing you down just because it’s empowering for them. For one thing, those types of critiques are less consistent with everyone else’s, even each other’s, because they’re highly biased about what the speaker WANTS to believe; they want you to suck, they want their knowledge and opinions to be useful. But also, in the case of the above, being demoralized is a problem. You should leave feeling inspired, with several active ideas about how to improve, not just like you suck in some vague, all encompassing manner.

You have less control online, but I would recommend when you find a place, start by reading and critiquing first before posting. You’ll get a general idea of the other people you’re working with and develop a rapport with them, making it harder for them to just spew out every half-baked thought that feels good to say.

Just have a good attitude. Laugh, be friendly, be encouraging, but be opinionated. Really think before you speak, but be willing to argue if you don’t see eye to eye to someone. Argument is a core part of processing, and you both learn more if you challenge each other’s opinions. For me, argument is more likely to lead to agreement because I understand what they mean better. People should believe that if they’re genuine and helpful, they’re going to have a good time, but if they are rude or asinine, they’ll be called out on their bullshit.

You make a good critique group, you don’t find one. Sometimes you do have to say, “This isn’t right for me,” but in most cases, you develop it over time. Walk in, act like the person you want to be around. Speak your mind, but with tact and compassion. When someone tries to start drama, keep your voice level, and be honest and clear about what is happening.

In the case of the friend who makes uninformative jokes at the writer's expense, I would probably say, “I felt like you were more interested in being clever than being helpful. I came to you because I valued your opinion and insight, but instead you gave me no respect, offered snarky comments instead of specific issues, and I found your vagueness and choice in phrasing ineffective and insulting. I’m pretty angry with you thinking this was the best way to talk to me about your opinions, and you lost a lot of credibility with me.”

It’s important to be able to speak like this, honestly, articulately, and confidently when being torn to shreds, because it carries a lot of weight for your mental health and your reputation. Plus, people need to learn that making “clever jokes” isn’t the same thing as being honest. It’s just being a dick.

In any case, when this happens, I would recommend accepting that she’s was being a self-serving jerk, and feel comfortable with what you need in a critique. It’s okay to not work well by being abjectly insulted. Think about what you need, think about how your attitude is standing in your way, and then analyze the next situation to see how you can shape it into what works best for you.

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