On Writing: The Feedback Dilemma

“It is hard to believe that someone is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in their place. “

–  Henry Louis Mencken


Because I’ve been away from blogging a fair amount lately, I feel like I owe my readers an extra packed post. I’ll start by falling back on my old tradition in which I spout off a useless fact.

Did you know that a giraffe’s kick can decapitate a lion?

There! Now, even if the rest of this post is awful and/or you’ve closed out the browser, at least reading this far has offered some small benefit to your life. Plus, that was a nice throwback, wasn’t it? I haven’t attached a useless fact to one of my posts since November of last year.

I digress. Today I hope to outline a problem that I’d like to think the majority of writers face at some point, myself included. It’s the one super annoying thing about going to get feedback on a piece of writing you really want to improve.

Let me paint a picture: you’ve just finished a bit of writing, or even any type of artwork. (This problem can apply to all involved in the creative process; for our purposes, I’ll use the example of a novel).

So you’ve just finished writing a novel. In the back of your mind, you think it’s actually good, even if the front of your mind is screaming at you to delete it. The back of your mind is loud enough that you don’t destroy said novel; instead, you decide to look for some feedback on it. You want a handful of people to read it (or maybe just one person), then tell you what they liked about it. And, more importantly, what they didn’t like about it.

I hope everyone can relate so far, assuming you write or paint or do something with a creative medium. It should go without saying that we put faith in anything we create. If we thought it sucked to begin with, why would we bother creating it? That’s like someone making themselves French Toast for breakfast when they know that, no matter how much help they get, they’ll never be able to make edible French Toast. Somewhere in their mind, they have to believe they can be taught to make good French Toast, however long of a shot it is.

So yes, I’d like to think that when we create something, we already believe in it just a little bit.

Slowly inching towards my point: so, you create something, you think it could be good but it isn’t there yet, and you want to move it along. What do you do? Well, that’s open-ended, but I think the common answer is ‘get feedback.’

I’ll continue the question bombardment:

What is the most annoying thing about this? What irks you personally when you hand someone something you’ve made, they look it over, and they give you feedback?

Naturally there are a million different answers to that question, but I’ll tell you mine, which I think is pretty common:

Why. In the world. Can’t people. Just. Be. Honest.

Sorry that was a bit fragmented, but it’s late and I’m too tired to type in all caps. But seriously…why is it that when you write something bad and give it to someone, they refuse to tell you how awful it is, and—more importantly—how to fix it?

I call this the ‘criticism dilemma,’ and it’s the most irritating thing about letting people read things I’ve written. Because if I want you to read something of mine, it’s generally for two reasons: either I think it’s flawless and I’m showing off, or I think it has a huge problem and I need fresh eyes. 99% of the time, it’s the second option, and rest assured if it’s ever the first I’ll let you know.

One of my friends wants to be an editor, and I think she’ll be fantastic at it. Why? Because she’s helped me edit my manuscripts before, and she’s ruthless. She’ll tear up an entire page with comments, leaving scarcely any white space left. She points out concrete issues such as grammar/spelling as well as subjective ones like dialogue, phrasing and questions like, “would he/she really act this way?” She knows that I crave insults, as many as I can get, because they help me understand how to improve. I LOVE it when people criticize my writing. It lets me know they still hold me to some sort of standard.

Another one of my friends helped me get my manuscript out of its five-year gutter back in October 2012. I knew something was wrong with my book, I asked him to read the first five chapters, and bam! First, he fell prey to the criticism dilemma and told me it was “pretty decent.” Which of course is code for “egregiously putrid with a spark of potential.” I had to beg him to be honest with me before he pointed out a few things wrong with it. And then, just like that, he made one suggestion that clicked everything into place. Everything. All of my work on the manuscript for five years just fit together, finally.

Why can’t everyone be like this the first time around? Most people I know aren’t like this ANY time around. I’m very selective in who I ask to critique my writing, because I need people who aren’t afraid to tell me how awful it is.

To anyone who gets asked by an author to look over their book: please, PLEASE be honest with them. If they ask what’s wrong, tell them. If the entire thing has an icky smell, tell them that too. Most writers can work with brutal suggestions but they can’t work with useless B.S., which is all you’re giving us when you tell us our writing is “pretty good.” Believe me, it’s easy to tell.

I know, sometimes feedback is hard to formulate. But you don’t have to write a formal list of grievances out on fancy papyrus. Just be honest, no matter what. No work is ever perfect the first time around, and if you’re asked to help improve that work, you suddenly have an important job. Lying isn’t part of it. There’s a reason a writer asked YOU to look over their work, and if you answer truthfully about what’s wrong with it, maybe they’ll be able to finally figure out how to make it the best thing they’ve ever created.

Hey, it worked for me.


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