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.

20 comments:

Marian said...

If you're wondering about the blog on which I commented, go here. The comments are on the first post. It turns into a real train wreck.

gypsyscarlett said...

Another excellent post.
Anyone who wants to be a professional writer needs to be able to accept constructive criticism. I have some friends who write simply for fun. They have no desire to be professional, so I read their work on that level. However, for those who tell me they want to be published- what service am I doing for them if I lie and tell them their first draft is amazing and ready to be sent out?
I did have a girl once tell me she wanted her novel published and she'd like me to critique it. I politely pointed out grammar issues, places where character could be developed, etc...the hurt was all over her face. I quickly realized she was one of those who didn't really want opinion or advise- but verification.

Marian said...

The people who have helped me the most are the ones who pointed out the errors in my work. Don't get me wrong, I love it when people compliment me on my writing. :) But if no one ever mentioned any problems in my work, how would I ever improve?

On a somewhat related note, I'm reading China Mieville's The Scar at the moment. That's a great example of a book where the author's superb imagination and voice overcomes technical problems in the writing.

GunnerJ said...

It's impossible to stress how important feedback is to a serious writer: that is, someone who writes with the intention of being read. This is because as authors we have a tenuous grasp on how our work will be read and interpreted. We know everything about it, we know why we do what we do, the things that will happen 100 pages on and what happened in the setting's past, but no one else does until they read our work.

I often feel like I am sending my child naked into a dark forest to survive or be swallowed when I send something for review, but there is no help for it. I must risk my work being savaged because I need the pure, blank slate interpretations of someone who has no idea what my intentions are.

GunnerJ said...

"It's impossible to stress how important..."

Well, obviously it is possible because I just did; I meant to say "overstress."

Once again, Blogger's amazing "can't edit replies" feature strikes.

Marian said...

And someimes, it's as simple as keeping readers.

If someone points out a typo in my work - or on my blog - I'll thank them and change it. Primarily because I want my work to be as good as possible, but also because that person took the time to respond. Those who are readers now may be paying readers later.

Getting overly hurt, like the girl whom Rachel critiqued, or accusing the reviewer of having an “agenda”, like the author whom I critiqued, don’t seem likely to have the same effect on readers.

GunnerJ is spot on with that description of sending your child out into the forest, though. It’s nerve-racking. Now I won’t be able to crit his chapters without thinking of a poor wee vulnerable babe in the woods. :)

GunnerJ said...

"Now I won’t be able to crit his chapters without thinking of a poor wee vulnerable babe in the woods."

lol. Hopefully, this (possibly accurate?) image does not unlock some predator instinct to increased ferocity. ;)

Polenth said...

(On the blog author who reacted badly) I'm very hesitant about offering feedback for personal experience books, particularly when it's about abuse. I have to be very sure the writer understands the difference between writing as therapy and writing for an audience. Too often it becomes apparent the book is therapy and was never intended for critique.

Books about dark plots in fairyland suffer from this a whole lot less.

gypsyscarlett said...

"Getting overly hurt, like the girl whom Rachel critiqued, or accusing the reviewer of having an “agenda”, like the author whom I critiqued, don’t seem likely to have the same effect on readers."

Hey Marian,
I've noticed you've addressed me as, "Rachel" a few times now. My name is actually, "Tasha". But no worries- "Rachel" is a very pretty name.
I just thought I should let you know. :)

Marian said...

I'm so sorry, Tasha. I thought I saw someone address a post to "Rachel" on your blog, and I assumed that was your name. They must have been responding to someone else! Thanks for letting me know. :)

Marian said...

I have to be very sure the writer understands the difference between writing as therapy and writing for an audience. Too often it becomes apparent the book is therapy and was never intended for critique.

That's an excellent point, and one I'll keep in mind if I'm ever tempted to respond to someone whom I don't know in advance will take feedback well.

I thought any writer who made their work public would be aware that not everyone would love the work, but in this case, the personal-story factor probably trumped everything else.

gypsyscarlett said...

I'm so sorry, Tasha. I thought I saw someone address a post to "Rachel" on your blog, and I assumed that was your name. They must have been responding to someone else! Thanks for letting me know. :)

Not a problem at all. I think you may have gotten me confused with Rachel who posts comments on my blog sometimes. She has a nice blog of her own where she details her life in Chicago.

on to read your latest post...

writtenwyrdd said...

Truly, if you cannot respond with gushing thanks to a critique, you should respond politely. As in, "Thank you for your comments."

Nice blog. I found you via your comment on December's blog.

Marian said...

Hi writtenwyrdd. Thanks for commenting, and glad you like the blog.

On www.fanfiction.net, a few writers respond to critical feedback by saying that the negativity has turned them off writing forever. I always want to reply, "Is that a promise?" when I read that. Have to bite back the snarkiness - not sure whether the writers are genuinely feeling upset enough to quit or are trying to make the reviewer feel guilty.

colbymarshall said...

Very big truth in this business is if you can't take criticism, it's not the business for you. Good post. BTW, I'm loving your new avatar pic. The pink looks lovely on you :-)

Marian said...

Thanks, colby. :) The pics are from the Thanksgiving vacation, where I actually ventured out of the bright lights and the big city.

By the way, here's the ultimate unprofessional response: threatening to assault or kill the rejecter. Wow.

Becky Mushko said...

Several years ago, the president of a writers group I was in decided that the back and forth discussion during critiques wasn't friendly enough and/or not everyone was participating, so she decreed that we would go around the table and everyone in turn would say "something positive" about what the writer had read.

That pretty well killed off anything helpful.

Jane Smith said...

Marian, this is an excellent blog post (but then I've come to expect them from you!). And you've beaten me to it--I roughed out a blog post on exactly this subject just this morning. I'll put it up in a few days, but link to yours too, if that's OK.

Marian said...

Becky, I went to one meeting of a critique group like that. After the Share Your Work forum, it was a bit of a surprise to find people saying, "The grammar is great" or "The three paragraphs of description at the start really set the scene".

I may go to another meeting, but it'll be for the social interactions rather than the crits.

Marian said...

Thanks, Jane! Of course, please feel free to link to me. I look forward to reading your post.