Feedback is always difficult, or it should be.
When a sound system suffers feedback, it is a loud resonant noise that increases in pitch as it slowly and achingly bores a hole into your head. Feedback on a piece of writing (or any other piece of art) can feel very much the same.
Unlike the sound system example, however, feedback is vital to the survival and improvement of your art. It will help you understand the places in which people struggle to see your vision. But just as importantly, it helps you see where your efforts resonate—in a positive way—with your audience. The challenge is understanding how much weight you should put on the feedback.
When we first start writing, we tend to wait forever to ask for feedback, often for fear of being told our work sucks. And when we finally do receive feedback, we take all the negatives to heart and may never hear the positives. We then destroy our work by either shelving (deleting) it or by trying to incorporate every piece of feedback into the work. The latter effort results in a work that is either a complete mess that makes no sense, or worse, reflects the tastes and preferences of the person providing feedback and not us, the artist.
We also tend to ask the wrong people for feedback—friends, parents, partners—perhaps in the hope they’ll be gentle with us. Unfortunately, these people don’t tend to have experience with this kind of thing—the “but I know what I like” syndrome—and so the feedback runs the brevity gamut from “I really like it” to “I’m not sure I get it”, none of which is particularly useful or informative.
As we mature in our writing, we may ask a larger number of people to review our stuff, but then we run into the problem of conflicting opinions. And as with the eggs in one basket scenario, we may try to please everyone with changes—destroying our own voice—or simply shelve the whole project. There’s also the possibility that we’ll take the attitude that everyone’s crazy and we’re brilliant, but that doesn’t happen very often at this stage.
We still may not be asking the right people, but we’re more likely in the right ballpark, focusing on other writers. If those writers aren’t at our level or higher, however, the feedback we receive will be helpful but probably won’t get us to the next level. Nobody’s fault. They just probably haven’t developed the critical skills needed to help us find not just challenges but also ways to solve them.
So, what’s a poor writer to do?
In Part Two, I’ll offer some thoughts on how best to approach the challenge of asking for and receiving feedback.
I want this to be an open conversation, however, and welcome you to contribute your experiences or thoughts to the conversation as well.