Friday, November 7, 2008
Critical feedback and professionalism
When an author asks for feedback, or publishes a book, what is a professional response if the reviews or the feedback criticize the work?
To me, these are unprofessional responses:
1. “Lots of other people liked my work.”
If something didn’t work for a reviewer or critiquer, it didn’t work for them. If they felt a character was unsympathetic, telling them that ten other people loved the character is unlikely to make them agree and decide that they love the character too. Mothers usually express this in terms of what their children would do if all the other kids jumped off the bridge.
The exception to this is when the ten other people are agents or editors, meaning their professional opinion carries a lot of weight.
2. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
This shows a misunderstanding of the purpose of reviews or feedback. Reviews are not intended to make the author feel good – they are intended to give potential readers an idea of whether the book (or film, or product) is worth spending money on.
Likewise, feedback (except when it’s from one’s family) is not meant to make the author feel on top of the world. It’s meant to give the author an honest assessment of his or her work. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to hear only good things about one’s work, but it’s best if such an author is careful when asking for feedback. Rather than saying, “Please read this and tell me what you think”, the author should specify, “Please read this and tell me what you think as long as you don’t say anything negative”.
At least that way, people who provide honest feedback will be warned in advance.
3. “You only said something negative because you don’t like me/don’t like my genre/don’t like my publisher.”
These are a form of the Ad Hominem fallacy – rather than focusing on the quality of the feedback, the response attacks the motives of the person who gives the feedback. It often comes from writers who don’t want to think that there might be problems with their work. If they can somehow turn the review or feedback into a personal attack, then it’s no longer about their work – it’s about some other issue.
The most professional response to critical feedback is to thank the person who took the time to read and respond to the work. If it’s a review, the book obviously cannot be changed, but if it’s still a work-in-progress, writers can often benefit from hearing about what doesn’t work for other people.
It doesn’t feel good to hear that there are problems in one’s work, but there are a lot of things in life that don’t feel good and yet are necessary. And responding in an unprofessional way is a good way to not just lose readers but to halt one’s own growth as a writer (for an example of a major author doing this, google “Anne Rice” and “meltdown”).
I recently read a blog where the author linked to an excerpt from a book and asked readers to tell her what they thought. When I did - briefly and tactfully - she said she felt "disappointment, hurt, sorrow, anger". Reacting professionally to feedback is a skill almost as important as writing, and writers who don’t have it would do well to learn it.