Asking for Feedback
by Jenn Scott
Recently I was talking to some writer friends and the discussion turned to asking for feedback about one’s work. When should a writer ask for feedback and whom should they ask? What is the impact of getting feedback at different points in the writing process? Of course everyone loves positive feedback but how do writers handle less than positive feedback, perhaps even criticism?
Writers have different reactions to constructive suggestions about their writing. Some may find that it inspires them to improve at any stage in their draft. But for others, perhaps even for most, asking for input too soon has the potential to derail one’s story and writing process. I am thinking particularly of a writer who asks for input on a section of their story, for example the first couple of chapters. If the reader responds positively it can inspire the writer to keep going. This is the best case scenario because the writer needs to keep going. She’s just started exploring her plot and characters and even with a strong outline, doesn’t really know exactly where the creative process of writing will take her. If the feedback is more critical, the writer may spend time dwelling on those initial chapters in an attempt to make them perfect.
Asking for feedback on a small subsection of the work often provokes criticism because for the reader it is out-of-context. If the writer doesn’t know exactly where she is going how will the reader know where the story is going? Readers want to be helpful. When asked for feedback, they feel that they must make suggestions for the writer’s benefit. The problem is that at this point in the process the writer does not need to make sections of the story perfect. She just needs to write the next chapter and the chapter after that. She needs to get the first draft of her story down in all its imperfect messiness. The time for writing is now; the time for editing comes later. This is the danger of criticism too early in the writing process. It moves the process backward when it needs to go forward.
Getting critical feedback on just a piece of the overall story is akin to tasting part of a recipe before it has been cooked. My husband makes fabulous tofu tacos; everyone who has ever had them loves them. Two of the early stage preparations involve putting ten spices together in a bowl and squeezing the water out of the tofu. If a guest were to come into the kitchen and taste either the uncooked watery tofu or dip his finger into the bowl of spices he would likely have a very different sense of the recipe than he would after the spices and tofu were mixed together and fried in oil. He might have all kinds of questions about what the recipe would taste like when it was finished and all kinds of suggestions for improvement which may or may not make sense given his experience of it was out of context. For instance, upon tasting the bowl of spices, he might say, “This recipe is too salty.” The cook’s response might be “That’s because you stuck your finger in a bowl of salt.” But hearing and responding to that critique does not add value for the chef who knows his recipe is not yet complete. If after the tofu is mixed with spices and cooked, the same diner states that it is too salty the comment is more valuable to the cook who knows that the feedback was provided on the finished product. The cook might say to himself, “Hmmm…too salty. I’ll remember to put a little less in next time.”
Likewise the chapters of a manuscript, particularly in a first draft, often do not individually contain the magic of the combined work. Seeking feedback can cause frustration for the writer. I had this experience myself. A number of years ago I belonged to a wonderful small writers group. The members were able to take a long-term view of incremental progress. Each meeting felt so satisfying, so validating – so helpful. It inspired us all to continue working to figure out the stories we needed to tell. However as the mix of members changed over time, the group became more analytical, dissecting chapters and pages almost as if they were stand-alone works. I saw writers dramatically change their characters and story arcs in an attempt to incorporate the feedback they had received at the prior meeting. Writers became frustrated and progress slowed. At one point I received feedback that my story needed a “love triangle”. As I struggled to fit this new plot twist, I saw my comedy about network marketing become a drama with a scheming villain and overwrought scenes between my heroine and the men who loved her. Eventually I put it aside like a salty pan of tofu.
It is important to hear from readers along your writing journey, for example a supportive friend or spouse who will provide high level mostly positive comments that inspire you to keep going. I think that this is the most helpful type of feedback early in the writing process. Many people belong to writers groups where more in depth feedback is provided. This can be great as long as the writer is able to hold strong to his or her story and stay true to the process of discovery in the face of criticism.
As a developmental editor my job is to provide analytical and detailed feedback to help writers improve their story structure and characters. I believe that my comments should be based upon reading the complete or nearly complete work because it is at this point that they will hold the most value for the writer, moving the story forward rather than backward.
Jenn Scott is a developmental editor with a passion for partnering with authors to help them tell their stories in the most impactful ways possible. Her strengths as an editor stem from a deep understanding of story structure, character development and analytical thinking. She holds a certificate in screenwriting from the University of Washington as well as a BA from Dartmouth College and a Masters degree from the University of Washington. When not working, Jenn enjoys reading, yoga, and spending time with her husband and ten-year old son. One of her favorite annual activities is writing, producing and acting in a children’s play with her family at the Oregon Country Fair. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.