Everyone wants feedback on their work – or do they? That might sound like an odd question, but let me tell you a story. When I was in college I once did something really stupid (only once?) and was on the receiving end of some negative feedback from people in the group I hung out with. Frankly, I was pissed. Who the hell were they to judge me! I grumbled about this to an acquaintance who gave me a funny look and asked, “You like it when they compliment you, don’t you? They’re judging you then too. Do you complain about that?” I was stunned, and just kind of stared at him. Not because I was angry, but because I realized he was right.
So what does this have to do with writing? Simple. Many people look upon positive feedback (praise) not just as good, but as justified and deserved. Negative feedback (criticism) on the other hand is hurtful, unjust and undeserved, which means the giver of that feedback is an evil jerk. Now ask yourself this question (and answer truthfully). You know the novel or story you just finished is really great don’t you? Of course you do. So if you get negative feedback you’ll be in shock, won’t you?
So how do you learn to take negative feedback? Actually the first step is to learn how to give feedback. By learning to give careful, well thought out feedback, you learn to examine another person’s work carefully and writing a detailed, respectful review. When you learn that, you will also be able to appreciate a helpful, if critical review of your work. So how do you do that? Well, here’s a few suggestions:
Always find something positive to start with. There is always something you can find if you think about it. Was the concept interesting? Did the character(s) do something that set them apart? Was the writing generally good (grammar, etc.), or was the style interesting? Anything that can come in for some small bit of praise – use it. Remember the song from the Sound of Music – “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Never use harsh words. Don’t say “your story sucks” unless your goal in life is to be an internet troll. Couch your criticism in terms of what needs to be improved. “Your writing is totally descriptive – break up the paragraphs and try adding more dialogue.” “I’d start to get carried away by your story but then I’d hit a number of badly misspelled words (or typos, or bad grammar, or whatever) and that would just take me right out of the story.” “I had a hard time connecting with your main character because your description of her was inconsistent. As soon as I thought I understood, and liked, her she’d do something totally out of character.”
Notice that I’m not pulling any punches, but I am trying to talk to the author in as helpful and non-judgmental a way as possible. Remember, detailed feedback is always helpful.
Another thing to consider is your own personal biases. If you are not a big fan of the story’s genre or you are just totally unfamiliar with it – say so. Sometimes in a writers’ group or an on-line site you come across someone who tries to be very helpful to you and you would like to return the favor, but that person writes stories you are totally disinterested in. Go ahead and review, but emphasize mechanics (spelling, grammar, etc) and let them know your biases. If you dislike fantasy, don’t review a fantasy story and say, “I really had a hard time following this.” Of course you did – what did you expect? Now that doesn’t mean that the book wasn’t poorly written and confusing, but at least if you admit you are unfamiliar with the genre, the writer can take your criticism in the proper framework.
Truthfully, no matter what you do you will always come across those for whom the slightest criticism is a mortal wound. I’ve had cases where I’d post some gentle criticism and go back a few days later only to find the story post gone, never to come back. But at the same time I’ve also gotten a lot of appreciative comments from writers who understood that my criticism was just there to help.
So in conclusion, give feedback the way you (hopefully) want feedback. Frank and helpful, but not nasty.
Okay, next time Receiving feedback.