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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Critical feedback is like wheatgrass. You know it's good for you but it still tastes like shit.

Critical feedback is like oral sex in that it’s better to receive than give. Some people are very good at gently pointing out the merits of your work, followed by a long list of what’s wrong with it, followed by something nicely positive that leaves you wanting to get on with it rather than kill yourself and go into a massive sulk. Others either offer a few blanditutes or occasionally rip your work to shreds, only pausing to say in a pained voice: I’m only being honest. I’ve been giving and receiving feedback for several years now. This is what I’ve learned:

Giving Feedback

At the moment I’m reading several manuscripts from would be children’s writers and it’s astonishing how few of them actually read what’s currently out there. How can you write for a particular genre if you don’t read from it?

I generally adopt the ‘shit sandwich’ technique – this is good, this is not so good and this is great. I also go through my feedback and remove any ‘demands’ I may have drafted. So no ‘do this or that’ but ‘I suggest’ or ‘perhaps you could try’. One of my writers usually responds to my suggestions that perhaps a heroic bunny might not appeal to the 8 – 11 age group by rephrasing my words in inverted commas. I don’t think it matters that a rabbit is not ‘appealing’ he says. Well I do and so will your reader. He also baulked at the idea of a title change just because it might ‘sell’ better. Such writers are the ones who bang on about editorial suggestions compromising their artistic integrity. To which one can only reply, ‘Grow the Fuck Up.’

Receiving Feedback

It’s all down to remembering that feedback is designed to make the writing better. It’s not a personal attack. Which is what I tell myself when my first draft is returned with copious notes and red pen. I suppose that’s why I get so irritated when would be professional writers get so arsey about my carefully phrased suggestions. How I wonder are they going to survive in a professional world where their baby is returned with stuff like: ‘Not Funny’ or WTF? Or I don’t believe it! – like Victor Meldrew. One writer in another group was so resistant to any kind of feedback other than grovelling that I finally asked her why she wanted to write in the first place. ‘Because I have great truths to tell’ she said. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t.

Red pen stings though. So I sit and sulk while my producer (as it happens) tells me how and why this or that doesn’t work. But while I’m sulking I write down what she says. Then I carry on sulking. Then I leave it and go back to the piece a few days later when the sulking has dropped to a more manageable level. I used to think everything I wrote was shite and if someone didn’t like it would flagellate myself thinking of course he’s right – I’m useless what am I thinking? I was perhaps too ready to hear something was rubbish. Now after the initial (silent) roar of Fuck off! What do you know!? I feel confident enough to take on board the detail of the criticism without hearing the criticism as a destructive attack on me.


Kit Courteney said...

As you know, I'm in edit-like-a-loon phase and have others reading my work. I say 'others', but really they are nasty, spiteful, evil little toads.

Well, that's how I see them for a day or so.

And then the mists clear (a bit).

I love your 'great truths' woman. My, wouldn't you just LOVE to have her as a relative...?

Jane said...

@Kit - you could try TLC - the literary consultancy - they will read and report on your ms for a fee. I read stuff for them (children's books) and I know they are fair and know their stuff. They can also help with agents etc if they like your book.

Yes the 'eternal truths' woman. She couldn't write because her head was so far up her arse anyway!

Gillian said...

I STILL pull a bit of a face if people don't immediately love what I did and think I am the funniest, cleverest thing on the planet. Anyone would think I was ten years old.

The difference between my reaction NOW and back when I was ten is that I keep the name calling to a minimum and keep it in my head (and not push them over and flounce off). Well, you know, most of the time.

Jennysmith said...

Ooh, I remember submitting a radio play once, and it came back with feedback from one of their readers. Well, they slagged the thing off! A whole page of absolute venom.

Now, I stuck two fingers up, and carried on writing (with not that much success), but some other poor person could have leapt out the window with these stinging comments.

So I have mixed feelings about this

Jane said...

@Gillian - I flounce and sulk in my head too. And slam doors. And plan elaborate revenge.
@Jenny - I'm so sorry. That's horrible. And really unprofessional. Email me privately if you like and I'll try to help you.