Feedback junkie – give me your worst!

by Julie Frayn on January 23, 2012 in  Writing

The first writing instructor I was lucky enough to study under (hi, Ernest Volkman!) taught me an invaluable lesson.  Take your lumps.  Nope, not sugar cubes in my coffee – my feedback lumps.  If you put your work out there and ask to be critiqued, get ready to reap the whirlwind!

That was many years ago, during my first creative writing course outside of high school.  So many years ago that I actually snail-mailed, via Canada Post – stamp, envelope, the whole enchilada – all of my writing assignments, and he snail-mailed his comments back.  Weeks would go by between completing a piece and getting feedback – an excruciating length of time by today’s online near-instant gratification standards!

I was so proud of the first piece I sent.  I checked the mail every day, anxious to hear how much he loved it too, how brilliant he thought I was, how soon he estimated my work would be flying off store bookshelves.  Then the envelope arrived.  To my utter horror, he found flaws!  Errors in my writing, holes in the story. Gasp!  How could that be?

When I sent the next assignment I included a letter explaining all of my ideas, letting him know how he had misjudged me, misunderstood my work.  Now he’d get it, and he’d love this next piece for sure.  Alas (which was how he started all bad news), there were still issues.  Changes in tense, mixed points of view, and some stuff that just plain made no sense to him.  The point he politely made, the point that took a while to get through my thick head, was that it doesn’t matter if it makes sense to the writer – if the reader doesn’t get it, then jump off your high horse right this minute! Once you’re back on solid ground, edit, rewrite, edit some more.  It’s the toughest lesson for any new writer to learn.

How do I feel about feedback now?  I seek it.  I crave it.  I need it.  Not just niceties and platitudes.  Preferably none of those.  Honest, objective, brutal feedback.  The bad stuff is more important than the good (although it’s always satisfying to hear that you made someone cry).  When you are writing, you are too close to the words to see the errors and the holes.  You fill in blanks with the knowledge of the story, the characters, their history, from what’s still bottled up in your noggin– what you’ve forgotten to put on the page.  Critiques are critical (hah!) to resolving those issues and growing as a writer.  Maybe even as a person.

Another fine instructor (hello, Eva Shaw!) taught me another valuable feedback lesson. No matter what message needs delivering, you can always transmit it kindly and with respect. Critiquing doesn’t mean, well, being mean.

So, please. Pretty please. Pretty please with respectful sugar on top. Kindly give me your worst!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

kymber January 25, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Great post Jules, and oh boy, you are so right. Without the truth, we’d continually turn out drivel and think it was something wondrous LOL. I recently re-read my first manuscript (shudders). I pulled it out from under the bed (which is where it really did belong) and to my horror, discovered how much it sucked.

Since turning it over to my beloved ‘book bashers’ I’ve re-written it. Now it doesn’t. IMHO of course. :).


Julie January 25, 2012 at 8:21 pm

Yes, I can relate to realizing that earlier stuff sucked. Even since restarting Suicide City, with fresh eyes critiquing it, there’ve been huge improvements in just the past few weeks. I think that’s one thing I love about writing. It’s a fluid process and there is always something to learn. Very cool!! You know how much I love to learn…

Sean P. Farley January 25, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Not the lumps! Well, I’m like you, I am now at a point where I crave the lumps. I mean, how else do we know? I like your point, though, about giving your work to someone thinking THEY will think it’s just brilliant! Then, lo and behold, they’ve put a red pen to your work. A RED PEN!?! Not good. BUT, when all is said and done, it IS good. That way we learn. :)


Julie January 25, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Yes, we do. :) I gave my novel to 14 friends/colleagues WITH red pens attached! Amazing the different perspectives they all have and what that brings to bear on their feedback. Very enlightening.

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