Feedback: The Scary Lineman

This week I’ve been working on incorporating some suggestions for my fantasy novel. Not all of it was flattery, but it was good feedback.

Input of any kind, given constructively is greatly valuable. Any writer desiring to improve their writing has to learn how to take critique. Some people may roll their eyes at this. Back when I edited for the college newspaper, I found one of the biggest deterrents to potential writers was fear of criticism. Most had the dignity and honesty to tell me so. I respected that and told them the offer was always open to write for the paper. 

Then one applicant submitted a creative short story, what we now call a flash fiction piece. Grammatically correct in every line it read awkwardly with stilted and wordy language and the story ended as abruptly as a Queen song without going anywhere. She flatly refused any criticism as she handed it to me, saying her writing was perfect. It WAS flawless, but it was also unreadable as a creative piece, riddled with passive verbs and rambling descriptions which lost my interest after the first paragraph. Her biggest qualification for writing lay in the fact she partied with the paper’s editor-in-chief on the weekends and said she was sure “there would be no problems” as she hustled out the door on her way to class. Creativity was my section, and it was my call. I printed a half-dozen poems that I didn’t like, but they painted pictures and rated infinitely higher on the readability scale, even though one aspired to Emily Dickinson’s standards of punctuation.

A month later I overheard Perfect Grammar Girl in the cafeteria telling her friends that I was a bitch for printing her masterpiece. After all, she was the daughter of an English teacher! How dare a science major deny her glory? Granted a rookie professor threw out an essay by that “science major” because, I kid you not and quote directly, “It’s written too well. It HAS to be plagiarized.” I ended up writing an entirely new and different essay overnight and got the same suspicious reaction before the professor realized I wasn’t lying about being on the newspaper staff. Back then, I knew everything and words flowed better. I’ve been taken down a few pegs since.

Taking criticism takes humility. Everything we write reveals a little of who we are. When someone else reads our work, we feel naked and vulnerable with vital parts of ourselves exposed to fatal injury. But once a writer crosses that line into personal confidence, their potential is truly unleashed. Unfortunately, taking that leap has no magic remedy. You just wince, jump and deal with what happens.

The best thing to ever happen to my writing career was an editor my freshman year who took the time to coach me and straight-up save me from sounding like a moron until I found the right way to say things. I was the only staff writer not in the journalism program or something tied to English or Literature. I wanted to write, but writing was not an acceptable career choice. So I hazarded my way through and, with his help, became a decent writer. I don’t know where he is now, but I’m sure he’s doing well. He knew his business and his craft, and I have every confidence he has gone far.

A key part in learning to take criticism is finding someone who provides good, tactful feedback. Many of us “Independents” (shiny Firefly reference) can’t afford professional editors after every draft. They have to make a living too, but with $200 disposable income at the end of each month, that would take me almost a year to pay for one edit. That’s where our fellow writers are great resources. Sadly, several of us work primary jobs to support our daily lives, so time is often a scarce commodity. So for those who take any time to beta read and return notes, you folks are awesome!

And finding the right input is so hard! I’m not talking about finding someone who always sings praises about your work filling you with warm fuzzies. We all want to know we’ve done well and that people like our stuff, but “good” feedback is not about saying good things. Positive feedback means it says you did a good job and all related things. Negative feedback is the inevitable, “This book needs a thorough proofreading,” and related statements. What you want to get, and give, is good quality positive and negative feedback. It’s about saying things in a good way. If part of a story needs work, good feedback points that out and may offer suggestions but, ultimately, leaves it up to you how to fix it. If a reader doesn’t like something and explains why, that’s good feedback. On the other hand, the “THIS BOOK MAKES NO SENSE. TYPOS EVERYWHERE!” type review helps no one except maybe make Captain Caps Lock feel superior.

Sometimes, people hold back saying anything because they fear hurting someone’s feelings. That may be true, but someone needs to speak the truth eventually. Writing constructive criticism is good practice in writing from exercising and expanding your knowledge of story structure to choosing effective ways to say anything.

To sum it all up into one blunt package, give feedback! When you read stories on group sites, or Kindle, anywhere, rate and review! Help out your fellow writers and they’ll eventually do the same for you. Team efforts usually get the best results.

With that, y’all have a great week! Stay safe, and healthy and I’ll talk to you next week!

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