Writers are insecure creatures and, to make matters worse, often isolated creatures slaving away in a small corner or a coffee shop somewhere. So to get feedback is a rare treat for us.
While the only feedback that matters is that of readers, sometimes another writer’s perspective is the next best thing. Which is why so many writers around the table at Writers Write ask me for criticism or advice.
‘What tips can you give me?’ ‘Do you really think I can write?’ ‘What should I be writing?’
The truth is I don’t like to give advice and for a simple reason. Another person’s opinion is always subjective. A style may be different to mine and I may not recognise it or appreciate it. A genre may not be my favourite genre and I could be the wrong person to ask.
But when pushed to answer, I will always tell writers where I believe their strengths lie and then encourage them to work on those. Some writers have an amazing sense of tone and voice – a rare gift. Others may not have a clear style but they write fearlessly and honestly – which is another even more rare gift. And still others have talent for humour, for plot twists, for awesome descriptions.
When it comes to advice, I believe that hoary old maxim always applies: take what you like and leave the rest.
Four Things To Keep In Mind
But if you are going to ask for advice, here are four pointers that may get you constructive feedback rather than vague praise or frustrating negativity:
- Don’t be vague. Be as specific in your request as possible. Rather than saying, ‘Is my writing any good?’ say ‘I’m struggling with how much plot to put in a romance novel’ or ‘Do you think my chapters are too long?’ You will probably know where you are comfortable and confident in your writing, so it is better to ‘zoom’ in on the parts that keep you up at night.
- Don’t get your back up. If someone says they didn’t like your main character, for example, don’t feel the need to angrily defend your writing. ‘But I was trying to show the dissociation and alienation of a millennial generation – how can you not see that?’ If you were trying to create a likeable character, it’s perhaps worth taking some of the advice to heart.
- Don’t hear criticism that isn’t there. This is the opposite of the point above – if someone points out one glitch, you assume the whole story is broken and irredeemable. ‘I don’t really see how the subplot with the talking cat fits in with the thriller storyline,’ someone might say. In your mind, you hear: ‘Your whole story is terrible – best you throw it away and start again or, better yet, take up adult colouring books as a hobby.’ Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water – to quote another threadbare cliché.
- Don’t be too quick to change your story. Here’s another scenario. Someone you trust or admire gives you feedback on a story you’ve been working on for months, maybe even years. ‘I think this story would be so much better if it was set on a spaceship rather than a seaside village.’ You rush back to your laptop and start re-writing you story, but a couple of chapters in you stop or hit a dead end. You’re not motivated or excited by the story. ‘I don’t like science fiction – why am I writing this?’ Let things simmer for a while before you tackle a change. And, in the same vein, don’t ask for feedback too early – or too late.
Feedback is a useful way for a writer to set about improving the craft of writing. It’s not useful if you’re using it as a fall back to soothe your neurotic soul or seek false praise.
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