Tuesday, July 3, 2012

IWSG July 4th, or why I'm scared of giving feedback

Well, since everyone is doing it early, I guess I'll post for today too (I know, what a silly reason, but sometimes, I'm more sheep like than I like to admit). If you haven't heard, this is the Insecure Writer's Support Group, and we are lead by the Captain Ninja, Alex. Go, sign up, and release your fears into the world. 

I’m terrified of giving people feedback. Terrified.

It’s scary because there’s no way to gauge their reaction. Will they suddenly hate you for your suggestion? Will they flame your blog forever more? Will your helpful suggestions be the last straw that puts someone over the edge to trunk their novel for the end of their days?

Will they hate me?

Long ago, in a galaxy far far away, I received some bad feedback. I gave some bad feedback too. In fact, if you tally all the feedback I’ve received versus how much I’ve given, well, I’ve got a lot more bad feedback to receive before I’m square with the universe. The point is, that feedback hurt. We’ve all been hurt.

And almost as annoying, I’ve given someone heartfelt feedback and in return I received a “Well, it’s clear you don’t get my work, but thanks for trying, I can see we won’t work out.” While honest and much harder to say, I was pretty urked that I’d sunk in time, and the other writer didn’t give any return feedback. That was solidly not fair.

In short, I’ve been judged on the feedback. The other writer didn’t even take the time to look over my work, just wrote me off as worthless, and since they’d gotten what they wanted, they were done with me.

That was frustrating, but then there are times when you read someone else’s work and all you can see is how terrible it is (no, this isn’t anyone’s work I’ve read in years). How do you give feedback on unmitigated disaster?

Worse, is it really an unmitigated disaster? What makes me qualified to say so? How do I handle that?

I’m always worried that when I give feedback on public feedback sessions (MSFV for example), the other participants think I’m a raging bitch because I didn’t keep my feedback to “Wow, this is so wonderful.”

For the record, I’m a scientist, I don’t do fluff. If I say I’d love to read something, it means I would be genuinely thrilled to read that thing.

Which leads me to the problem I have. I think the reason that I get nervous about giving feedback is that I don’t code things. There’s nothing to read into my words. I’m a scientist. I try really hard to say what I mean. Sometimes I fail miserably, and sometimes I get it just right. I am honest. Over the years of giving horrible feedback, I’ve learned that straight honesty isn’t all of it. There’s the sandwich method, the straight talk method, the comedy method (DO NOT DO THIS! IT DOESN’T WORK! EVER), and even the bereaved method.

I know how much time and effort writers put in to understanding an agent’s form rejection letter, how much time are they putting in to decoding my feedback? And there’s nothing to decode! Am I accidentally sending mixed signals? Is there a secret way of saying ‘you and your book suck’ that I just don’t know about? Is there some secret language that I’m just too dumb to have found? Is “I love this,” code for “Not another one?” What does it all mean?

Right, that might be a little extreme, but that is exactly why giving feedback scares me.

::sigh:: back to the trenches.  


  1. I've sometimes avoided giving feedback because I don't know what the writer wants from me. For myself, I prefer honesty - so your method sounds good to me - but I know that lots of people will be offended. It's a minefield. I have no advice - sorry!

  2. Aye aye aye, I know what you mean. I just did my first "for pay" editing job, and I was TERRIFIED that my client was going to request her money back... because I took the mickey out of her manuscript. The thing is, that was what she paid for, and my criticism WAS constructive... and she's making her 'script that much stronger now because of my feedback.

    It's a question of knowing your audience and outlining expectations at the beginning, I think. If you headline yourself as a "no-holds-barred" kinda crit partner, pretty soon you'll find someone who is thanking their lucky stars they had you read for them. But people who aren't looking for honesty ALWAYS react badly to it, I find. Sad, but true!

  3. A very insightful post. I think it would be natural to be scared of giving feedback after those experiences you described. Criticism is a tricky thing - artists need it to get exposure and to learn from the experience but they are often sensitive to it, even though feedback is often needed for them to grow. The problem is they have trouble letting go - they are only words in the end. It is admirable that you stick to your principles. Good luck. Cheers

  4. This one was all about the practice for me.

    I am also a victim of bad feedback, but now realize the feedback I got was useful, but just not phrased in a way that would give me direction.

    Maybe that is why I rarely look at a piece of writing and find it hopeless. If the writer is earnestly trying to express themselves, I look at it as my job as critiquer to help them do that. I almost always find something to smile about in someone's words, and make sure to point those parts out too. To me, revision is as much about building up the good parts as it is about slicing out the objectionable ones.

    One benefit of doing critiques is that I have learned to look at my own writing in the same way, finding the positives and being more cavalier about the negatives. I didn't expect that, but I was glad it happened!

  5. public feedback, like comments on blog, i make more friendly & find the positive, and mention helpful hints

    personal one on one feedback has to be specific, honest and also have suggestions for improvement with likes and dislikes, good, bad and ugly...i take feedback and use it my way, thats what it's for! it's still mine, and i cant please everyone!

    nice piece!
    and dont sweat it!

  6. I can relate. I want to be honest but I don't want to lose a friend by saying something really doesn't work. So far I've been fortunate with my critique partners.

  7. I don't yet have private CPs, but of the critiques I've received as contest prizes, I enjoy a healthy mix of the sandwich method and brutal honesty. Our work is going to be ripped to shreds in slushpiles and in reviews. So why not have someone you trust dissect it in private? I want to know the base, non-sugarcoated reactions to my writing before it's in print so I can do something about it. In private, though, after asking for that kind of critique.

    Publicly, I want someone to find the needle of good in my haystack of crap. To tell me that, yes, it has the minutest amount of potential and this is why. Yes, it needs work and these are the specifics, even if it's an overwhelming amount. Or even, this couldn't possibly work but you... you're great. I totally see potential in you. Because, like Dr. Cox from Scrubs, this machine runs on props. I don't get paid yet, so I need something to keep me going. And that's what a helpful critique does. Brutal or sugarcoated, it should always help the writer move forward, even if it's not on that particular project.

  8. I am so feeling you on this one. I, for one, really like brutally honest because it forces me to grow thick-skin about my work while remaining open to feedback. But I know a lot of people don't want that type of feedback. I try to be honest but hopeful. I always find something(s) to compliment (sandwich style), and when I'm critting privately, I dig deep. I don't stop at surface stuff like, "I love your characters," but I really try to find things I love. That way, when I have some criticisms, maybe the writer will be able to take them.

    1. You know, that's a really good point. I hadn't thought about pointing out exact reasons that I liked something to increase the chances that other criticisms are heard. I'll definitely use that in the future.

  9. I have to agree that giving feedback is hard. I think as long as you balance the negative comments with positive ones you're okay. Sometimes I have to let a crit sit for an entire day to try to come up with positive comments. They're there, you just have to put yourself in an average reader's mindset, not a a professional one.
    The bottom line is don't worry about it too much. Some people just overreact, some like to argue, some will stick to their way of doing it no matter how many critters tell them it isn't working. Forget them. Life's too short.

  10. I like my CP's to be honest with me. How else will I know what doesn't work if they don't tell me? What they also do though that is nice, they tell me what does work too. What they like. What they found funny. Their thoughts as they're reading. It's helpful. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don't. We made an agreement when we started that we be truthful with each other. It helps if you have a great relationship.

  11. I don't do fluff, either. It isn't helping anyone. I know a girl who will NOT take criticism at all. She asked for critique. I gave it to her. She called me mean and told me I didn't have to put her down like that... thing is, I was very nice about the crit.

    The first thing writers should know is this: learn. Fluffing crits isn't teaching much. Keep doing what you're doing.


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