The sweet and the sour – on the art of giving (and receiving) feedback

When it comes to dealing with feedback and rejection, I’ve long felt that poets are luckier than prose writers. Poets tend to have more individual pieces of work in circulation than novelists, or even short story writers. So it follows that poets have more experience with the awful feelings that often follow the opening of emails from publishers.

It’s the same with feedback. Unless poets are busy penning verse novels or epic poems, they tend to have more pieces of work ready for comment from workshop groups or trusted readers. This being the case, when it comes to dealing with critique, I’ve always felt that poets develop thicker skins more swiftly than the average writer. And let’s face it, writers need thick skins. There aren’t many other occupations that require you to open yourself more fully to the opinions of others than writing.

Until recently, I didn’t just think I had thick skin; I thought I had a hard-earned, leathery hide. I’ve been sending work out to literary journals and publishers for nearly a decade and have a correspondingly thick sheaf of rejections. I’ve been in several writing groups over the years and received face to face feedback on my work that has reduced me to tears on more than one occasion. I’ve had bad reviews of my work published in national newspapers. I took it. I learned from it. And I think my work improved because of it.

But the ability to shake off the pain and get to the kernel of truth in the critique has been hard won. Some days it takes more strength than I can muster to block out the voices whispering in my ear not to bother because my work sucks and that I’ll never be a ‘real writer’. But I keep going back to the keyboard. Eventually. It takes time to rebuild my confidence but, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett, I fail. And then I fail better.

The key point about feedback is that I think it comes in different flavours. The sweet and the sour. The sweet kind feeds your motivation, sending you back to the work inspired to keep going, to redraft and do better. The sour feeds the inner critic and in the worst cases can poison your confidence so badly that it can stop you working altogether. This is not to say that sweet critique is just glowing, positive feedback; the kind that doesn’t really engage with the work, just blows smoke up the writer’s arse. That kind of feedback is useless and can even be damaging in its own way. The sweet critique I’m talking about is feedback that helps you see the work more objectively and then inspires you to improve it rather than crushing your confidence.

A couple of years ago, I decided to try to write short stories. I’d written a few pieces of prose in the form of articles and reviews but I’d never attempted storytelling.  Despite being an avid reader, it soon became clear I’d not been reading with a writer’s eye. I had no idea how to construct a story, choose a narrative style or write dialogue. I was a rank amateur and knew it.

At that stage, there may not have been much going for me as a writer of fiction but what I did have was a brilliant mentor. Her skill was not in showing me what was wrong with my work but where the opportunities were to make it better. A session with this mentor would have me waking early the following morning, bursting with enthusiasm to get back to the story. I’d dig through the sentences, keen to find places to deepen the writing, give characters back story, make dialogue flow more believably. Her feedback was inspiring and motivating. I’d leave her studio feeling as though I’d been given a personally-tailored masterclass in the art and craft of short fiction.

Recently, I attended a feedback session for fiction with a some talented and successful writers. It was a challenging meeting. The feedback I received from one of the writers was very difficult to hear. What she had written on my draft was even more confronting. Clichéd. Gimmicky. Unempathetic. Lacking depth. While I’m sure she meant her comments to be helpful, her delivery and word choice were anything but constructive.

Rather than learning how to improve my story, the over-riding lesson was that the thick hide I thought I possessed only applied to criticism of my poetry. To my shock, it seemed as though my status as an amateur prose writer unfortunately came with a beginner’s thin skin and vulnerability to harsh critique.

Being a good writer does not automatically translate into being good at offering feedback. The ability to critique constructively is a skill and, just like writing, it requires a great deal of practice and thought. Being able to analyse a creative piece and offer advice on how to go about improving it entails skills in areas that are both literary and social, including but not restricted to critical analysis, diplomacy and empathy. I’m not fabulous at it myself. But one thing I have learned from my time in writing groups is that preserving the motivation of the writer for the work is more important than the cleverness of my critique.

Interestingly, I’m sure when reading my work, both my mentor and my critic identified similar problem areas. However, one was able to inspire me to keep writing while the other cut deep into my confidence.

This all sounds very melodramatic. Despite the days I’ve spent mulling over the feedback and nursing my wounds, I know I’ll return to this project. It will just take time. And time is precious. Not many people have the luxury of being able to afford the days or weeks it takes to face that draft covered in crushing critique and find the courage to start the rewrite.

At some stage, I’ll once again ask people I trust for advice. The difference will be that having experienced this stark contrast in feedback styles, I’ll know what to look for in future readers: critique that shows me where opportunities to improve can be found and that motivates me to keep rewriting until I get it right. The sweet and not the sour.

2 thoughts on “The sweet and the sour – on the art of giving (and receiving) feedback

  1. Yep, spot on. Personally, I’m a feedback junkie, but I also understand that not all feedback is equal – nor are all feedbackers. As you say, it’s a skill to do it well. And though intellectually I can deal with it &, really, critique the critique, that doesn’t mean my response is quite as mature emotionally.

    The thing is, you’re a good writer, in fact very good. And you know that’s true. But also, you need to be told. It’s bizarre isn’t it, but that’s equally true. It’s small consolation, but that’s so often the case with talented people. Oh well. Much worse is to be terrible but think you’re good.

    BTW, just to be annoying, there’re a couple of (tiny) typos in your post – but I’m not going to tell you where they are! Celebrate the imperfection! Wabi-sabi!

  2. Thanks Russ. Argh. Typos. Bane of my life.
    Yeah, I don’t really need to be told it’s good. Ultimately, praise (especially false praise) is not helpful because I know the work can always be better. But when telling me it’s bad, at least value me enough to be kind about it. We’re meant to be insightful and empathetic as writers so I think it’s important to extend those skills to each other and not just save them for the work.
    Lovely to hear from you and I’m looking forward to reading your book when it hits the shelves!

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