I’ve been thinking a lot about feedback this week. A friend of mine – let’s call her Jane – asked for my thoughts on her novel so I emailed her my feedback, both positive and constructive, a couple days ago…and haven’t heard a thing from her since.
Jane and I aren’t super-close - we talk once in a blue moon - so it’s not like I’m getting the silent treatment. It’s totally possible she just hasn’t had a chance to write back or feels like it doesn’t require a response. The point here isn’t really Jane, but that I started considering whether I might have offended her and thinking about whether – in general – people find honest feedback offensive.
Sometimes. Offensive is probably a strong word, but yeah, when I ask my husband what he thinks of a dress I’ve already bought, I’m not actually looking for a critique. And if he gives me one, I usually shrug it off because I’ve already decided I like the dress so if he doesn’t, so what? It’s only one opinion.
I’m not sure my fifteen-year-old self would have reacted the same way, though. Just like my first-attempt writer self didn’t.
When I finished the draft of my first novel, I gave it out to a few people for critique. Did I want to? No. I wasn’t at all sure about the book and didn’t really want people to read it. Especially people I knew. But you’re supposed to get feedback so I did. In hindsight, I know the novel was terrible. Plotless, mundane, overwritten.
None of them really told me that. They gave me vague, encouraging opinions, mostly pointing out things they liked, occasionally noting scenes that could be tightened. Let’s call it Mild Feedback.
It wasn’t that helpful.
But it also didn’t hurt that much. One reader was a little more honest than others and those tidbits of criticism – probably much softer than they could have been – were tough to read.
I wasted a lot of time on that novel - revising it the best I could, submitting it to over a hundred agents. The truth is, there’s probably nothing I could have done to make it saleable, short of re-writing the entire thing. Would it have been better for someone to tell me that up-front?
I honestly don’t know. Sure, I spent almost a year on something that would never sell, but in the process learned how to write something that would. If someone had given me the Medium Feedback or the Hot (this sucks!) on that first try, would I have been in a place to use it? Or would it have been too discouraging? I’d like to think I could have handled something in-between, the kind of feedback my editor gives now: direct and specific, with examples and suggestions. But back when I was just tenatively showing my work for the first time, true constructive criticism might have felt like this sucks! anyway because what I really wanted was for someone to tell me it was good – great, even – which of course it wasn’t.
I think it boils down to experience. Which builds confidence. I’ve dressed myself for a lot more years than my fifteen-year-old self had. I’ve written a few more books than my starting-out self had. Doesn’t mean I do a great job of either of those things the first time around every time, but I know I can do it. Which puts me in a way better spot to take my Feedback Medium or Hot. And now that’s the only way I like it when it comes to my writing.
But, did I do Jane a disservice giving her Medium-Hot Feedback? I don’t know. Jane’s book was a lot better than my first one. The story was interesting, the pacing was good. I don’t have much experience in the genre, but think it could be revised into something saleable. Jane doesn’t read my blog so she won’t see all this, but hopefully I said so in what I wrote to her. I just don’t know if she’ll be able to latch onto that part because sometimes the it makes you look fat part latches on harder.
I’m going to think hard about this before I crit someone’s work again. I always try to be balanced – positive/constructive - but maybe that’s not the best approach with everyone. And maybe giving specifics feels too direct or personal to someone showing their work for the first time. Not sure.
And for me? I’m fine with the Medium-Hot for my writing and clothes…but I’ll take the Mild on dancing and public speaking, ’kay?