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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Giving good feedback

Neil Gaiman has a quote: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” When I first read that, I didn’t understand it at all. Since embarking on crafting usable feedback for my good friend and partner-in-pen Becky, it’s make more and more sense to me.

It’s a rare thing to read a book that is exactly what you would have written, if you had written that book. You might have had the protagonist make different choices; you might have used more (or less) figurative language, you might have incorporated more teddy bears. Whatever the case, a lot of the joy and value of reading a book that is not your own comes from those things that you would have done differently. It gives you a different perspective on something you feel you know.

When you have the opportunity to critique a work in progress, and your goal is to give actionable feedback, I think the hardest thing is to not try to force your critique-ee to do what you would do. Although sometimes it feels true, it is not accurate to say that yours is the only right way to do a thing. When you say “I wouldn’t have used this word here,” think to yourself, “Is that because this word is being used incorrectly, or because of my personal aesthetic choices?” If the word is used correctly, then that’s a good sign that you’re projecting your personal narrative voice onto the project you are critiquing.

When you’re picking out perceived problems, and you suggest a solution for it, you run a high risk of becoming attached to your solution. If your critique-ee decides to keep it the way it is, or change it in a different way, you may be inclined to take it personally, or even be disappointed that the “story you want” isn’t getting written. (Tangent: this is why I don’t understand commissioned stories. How could it ever be exactly what the commissioner wants? /tangent.)

As a critiquer, I am absolutely addicted to giving suggestions. I have found that I can’t not give suggestions, most of the time. If I see a word or phrase that bugs me, I leave a comment like, “reword this. Maybe something more like this?: [ . . . ]” I do that because I’m worried that if I don’t leave a suggestion, the full meaning of my criticism won’t be clear. Will she think I mean it’s awkward, or that the words don’t mean what she thinks they mean, or that they convey a different message than she was going for? I could say “reword for clarity / definition / mood” but... my tendencies are to suggest solutions. And I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. The key, very important thing, is to not become attached to my suggestions. For that purpose, I try to give not-great suggestions that get my meaning across. Something to point an arrow in the right direction but not push the author through a portal that leads to the destination.

One way to keep yourself in check when giving feedback, if you’re finding yourself trying to rewrite the story in your own words, is to always leave your feedback in the form of a question. “Did you mean to make so-and-so sound like an asshole here?” “Is this the definition of this word as you understood it?” “Are you sure giraffes are adding something to this scene?” “Could you be using more teddy bears?” And so forth.

I think it’s very important to be criticized, as a writer. You don’t spot your own biases and erroneous beliefs if no one calls you on them. You never have a reason to think about things differently. It’s incredibly hard not to have your feelings hurt by critique, but even so, it’s possibly the best tool in your belt. You’re so, so lucky if you have people in your creative circle who can give good, meaningful feedback. As a person receiving criticism, it’s important to take what they say into account. But, to paraphrase the Gaiman, they don’t know exactly how to fix it. Only you can write your book. As givers of criticism, it’s important we remember that.

So, if something doesn’t work for you in the WIP you’re critiquing, sometimes a vague “this doesn’t work for me because…” is plenty. Sometimes a person wants to find their own way up the mountain; they just have to know the mountain is there.

1 comment:

Becky Munyon said...

This is good advice and very insightful.