Monday, 21 November 2011

Feedback is Personal And Shouldn't Be Taken Personally

We were doing some workshopping last Friday in class, and a discussion sprang up about a specific area in a piece of writing. What struck me was how personal to the feedback-giver some of the comments were - by which I mean, their comments on a piece of fiction were coloured by someone they knew personally in real life.

Other people had had a different experience, so their comments were different and so the discussion merrily rolled along. Of course everybody was right, even though their feedback was in conflict, because it was their personal take.

So, what is the poor writer to do? How are they supposed to react? Person X says one thing, Person Y says another, Person Z has a third take. There are several choices:

1. Ignore everyone because they're all saying different things. Fair enough, but it's not going to move you forwards.

2. Listen to everyone until your head aches through trying to reconcile all those different opinions. Not advised, you'll probably lose confidence in your own judgement, and even in your ability to write.

3. Decide whose opinion you most trust and go with what they say. Understandable, especially if you've found them to provide good feedback in the past. The drawback here is that this time they may be really commenting on how they find the person/situation in real life rather than your writing.

4. Listen to what the majority are saying and use that as your guideline. A good approach, if you can disentangle what the majority are saying.

5. Can you work out if there was a specific word that is triggering this feedback? This may sound strange, but I've done enough workshops to know that a single word can send readers into all sorts of directions that the writer never intended. For example, put a man in a vest* and as far as I'm concerned he's at least over 70. I will find it hard to shake that image off, however much dashing about the character might do.

6. Decide they're all idiots. You may be right! On the other hand, you may not be.

7. Did you have a particular reaction in mind when you wrote those lines? If so, are you getting those reactions? In other words, is your writing effective? Is it doing what you want it to do? If not, how can you change it to make it get the reactions you want?

Your reaction will depend on how you feel about your writing. That bit is personal to you. But you should always remember that feedback is coloured by the experiences, both in life and of writing, of the person giving the feedback. It is personal to them.

Feedback in my experience rarely says anything about you personally. I've only once come across someone saying something personal about the writing. It was on my MA, and someone wrote all over a piece of my work that I obviously had huge issues with my parents to deal with. Er, no - but I'm pretty sure the feedback giver had.

Sometimes, feedback says more about the giver than it does about either the writing or the writer. It's personal to them. Don't take it personally.

*apologies to American readers who think a vest is what we call a waistcoat. I think you'd call our vest a singlet. Bruce Willis wears one in Die Hard, so perhaps it's not just for the over 70s in the US.


JO said...

So true, Sarah.

We had such a lively discussion in a writing group last week on whether it is possible to love all one's children equally. It was central to one person's story, but brought up such individual angst there was a risk we lost sight of the writing. But we got back to it eventually, and no feelings were too bruised - we were able to care about each other as people and still work critically with the writing.

penny simpson said...

In order to avoid 2. which can lead to abandoning several years work, accept that what you're trying to write is outside of your group's comfort zone and is best kept to yourself. And then move on.

Sarah Duncan said...

Jo, I think all writing groups have a tendency to slip off the point from time to time. It sounds like you have a good group there.

Penny, yes, sometimes you have to accept that your workshoppers just don't get what you're doing (or that some don't, and they're the ones being vocal about it).

Philip C James said...

Examine one's own motives for reading your work to a group and be honest with them.

Do you want your ego boosted? If so, say it up front. It's legitimate to do so, if it will help you over a crisis of confidence and hope you have colleagues who'll play along!

Are you interested in constructive criticism (a critical friend)? If not, don't waste their time and energy (and potentially damage relationships).

Are you reading the piece because it's your turn and it's the only new piece of writing you have to present to the group. If so, firmly decline rather than run the risk of receiving negative reinforcement of your own concerns the work needs polishing.

Treat all comments with respect, but ultimately be firm inwardly and diplomatic outwardly, in accepting or rejecting advice that doesn't fit with your view of the world that, in the final analysis, you've created.

Sarah Duncan said...

Phil - great advice. I like the idea of asking for an ego stroking - I must try it and see what happens!