The Real (Messy) World of Feedback

“Everyone should always be trying to improve themselves, until they die”, a choice line from my now-husband and I’s first date. It seemed like a bloody depressing sentiment to a drunk 21 year-old.

Irritatingly, as with most things, I have learned that he was right. Bang on the money.

So following on from my blog last month – Trust the (Critical) Process – I took my own advice and asked our very own Alexander Hogan for his thoughts. The act of asking itself was more bracing than I had anticipated, especially after enthusiastically singing the praises of seeking feedback from a critical friend.

It was totally worth it. Not only was Alexander reassuring about my past offerings but also helpful in recommending reading so that I can learn and keep developing my writing through this format.

Our exchange, also paved the way nicely onto this month’s blog, with Alexander’s suggestion: “These are important things to think about and discuss, but I want to see them in the real world getting messy”.

Firstly, how to determine if a person is trustworthy or appropriate?

If you are anything like me, sharing your newly forged work is a much more appealing prospect once you’ve had a few wines. Of course, this has drawbacks – your ‘reviewer’ may have slightly skewed judgement and you will probably be less able to articulate your reasoning and choices (if questioned).

Cue my parents deconstructing my work for inaccuracies…”You’ve said sister, but you don’t have a sister. Why would you not say brother? Are you ashamed of your brother?”

It’s fiction! Yes, when I tell a story by it’s very nature there will be significant proportions derived in some way from real life experience but this is used as fodder for works of…fiction.

Another favourite trap to fall into is opting for a trustworthy friend – one who does not like the same writers or style as you or yours. This is why I’ll never again show a close friend one of my poems. There are only so many times you can hear: “It’s not bad, but it doesn’t rhyme. Can’t you write a rhyming poem for once?”

My most valuable reviewing experiences have actually come from more formal arrangements – a Writer in Residence at University; Editors through projects with the Writers Group 26 and Playwright Studio Scotland’s script reading service.

During my first session with the then Writer in Residence at University of Glasgow I took along my first published short story, feeling fairly confident that it would receive positive feedback, set a good foundation for our relationship going forward and give me some ideas on how to improve my writing.

It achieved one of those aims. After the shock of being told: “This would never be published.” We unpicked this reaction as mainly stemming from a visual reference instead of a physical reference (based on an arm going round a shoulder). It so happens that I am a very visual person and that’s how I best absorb and describe the world (I’m one of those irritating people who can’t remember album names but describes their covers vividly). Nonetheless, I did take on board that touch is a very important sense and it could have been more prominent throughout the story.

This experience was rather bruising at the time, but it did reinforce the importance of utilising the range of senses within my writing. The blow was softened a little by the fact that I personally wasn’t a huge fan of their work either – expect for one very sad visually descriptive poem about a caravan, rain, a discarded mug and a dead husband. I do like morbid poems, especially when they feature pathetic fallacy and death.

Across several 26 projects, I’ve worked with a range of editors who have had different degrees of experience. However all of them have been engaged and helpful providing a good mixture of constructive criticism and praise. It’s through one of these projects that I have managed to hone my best and most polished short story to date.

Although it did involve more back and forth than I would have anticipated, and at one stage I was ready to ‘give up’ and accept all the suggested changes just to end the process. However, an early night and fresh eyes gave me the tenacity to challenge the more overzealous suggestions, sharing my reasoning and referring back to how these phrases and analogies tied in with the earlier story (in hindsight I think the editor was probably feeling a bit tired too, and had started to skim read and miss the tie ins). A perfect balance was struck, and a high quality work was hammered out. It just took that extra effort.

Human nature dictates that we focus on the negative. So for ‘critical friends’ it can be easier to point out the negatives or what they interpret as negatives. We, as writers, are also more likely to focus on negative feedback and remember it (note how none of the above stories are entirely positive – I do have some, honest, but they’re less interesting).

Here are a few tips for those paper-in-hand, email-sending moments:

Life is like a box of chocolates – nobody likes everything

We all like different things and this is all the more evident when you are sharing your work with a group. Some people will automatically be put off by profanity/religion/politics/dialect/a dog/who knows what. This seems closed minded to me personally but there’s no getting away from it. Someone loathed a new scene in my play basically because it ‘used the C-word’, but that line had the desired effect – it was the catalyst for the scene and the crisis in the story arch.

 You wouldn’t invite someone who loves horror films to see a rom-com

Choose someone whose writing you like and respect, or someone who likes the same writers/styles as you. They are more likely to understand your work and give you quality feedback.

Strong reactions are good

If someone loves or loathes your work this shows your work has real presence and impact. Better to be loathed than ‘nice’ aka mediocre.

Learn what you can

My experience with the Writer-in-Residence was not particularly pleasant or useful, but I did take something out of it. Sometimes it takes longer than others to hunt for that kernel, but usually you can take an element of learning out of any experience if you try.

It’s not maths  

Writing is not maths or science, there’s no definitive right or wrong answer or view. It’s all down to everyone’s individual interpretation.

Your work, your choice

You are inviting others to share their views on your work. However ultimately, it’s your work and your choice. Take what you can, learn what you can and improve what you can. It’s also important to disregard feedback when you need to (e.g. ‘swearing is lazy language’ – do you think Irvine Welsh ever heard that?).