Thursday, September 21, 2017

Writers: constructive feedback isn't going to kill you.

Writing is such a personal thing. We’re told to ‘bleed’ on to the page, in a popular writing meme. We’re told to write what we know, and put our hearts into it. We inhabit our words and search our souls for meaning.

And then we ask for feedback.

And we’re supposed to just sit there and take it.

I’ve been on both sides of this experience. I’ve left my writers’ critique group in tears more than once. “They don’t understand what I’m trying to do,” I’ve raged. “It is good. The character is loveable. Sure, she’s mean, and says stupid things, but that’s just her age.”

It can really hurt when not everybody loves and adores and raves about that piece you’ve poured your whole self into. It feels like you’re getting kicked to the ground, shamed, beaten and humiliated.

As an editor, and the one giving the feedback to lots of different writers, I have an entirely different perspective. I don’t see the writer. I only see the story, the phrasing and the words, the characters. I rarely, if ever, think about the person behind it who has lived and breathed their manuscript for months on end, unless I hear their voice instead of the character’s voice, or see their hand in an awkward plot twist, rather than following the natural course of events.

For me as the editor, the writing I’m working on is completely separate from the person who wrote it. And my aim is not to help the writer feel better about the piece of work they’ve sweated over and loved. I’m aiming to challenge them to improve even more. My task is to help them get that writing and that story as good and as perfect and as rounded and whole as it can possibly be. The best writers I’ve worked with are the ones who have listened, heard and come back with work that’s ten times better than what they started with.

(As an aside: I don’t think I’m a mean editor, but I’ve been told I should probably be a little kinder, or at least, perhaps drop in a compliment or two where something is really good. I’ve started writing ‘great’ or ‘awesome’ where something is really stand-out, but I don’t do it a lot. My time costs that writer money, and, frankly, compliments take time. I’d rather give full value to the writer and use their money to help them polish as much of their piece as they can.)

Over the last three years I’ve been learning the cello, as an adult beginner. I imagine it’s been for me much like writing is for many people. I love it. It feels personal to me, and I work hard at it. I want to eventually play in a community orchestra, and not embarrass myself. So I spend my week of practice trying to get a piece sounding just right, and then Tuesday morning comes around, and my teacher turns up.

He’s given me just two compliments in three years. Two! But in that time he’s gotten me through to working on fifth and sixth grade pieces, reading tenor clef, and working on my vibrato, all the while challenging everything I knew about music. He just laughs at me when I whinge at him (which is a little too frequent, I admit) and try to make things easier for myself by skipping practice steps.

“The thing about music is it’s a meritocracy,” he told me once. “If you do the work and take the feedback and use it, you’ll improve. You want to play with the big kids? You’ve got to work as hard as the big kids.”

A few times I have let his challenges get to me and felt depressed for a couple of days after the lesson. “I can’t play. I’m hopeless. He’s mean.” And then I’ve realised I’ve been silly. I want to play the cello: he’s teaching me how to do it (and he’s not mean, by the way – just honest) and it’s working. I’m improving. Yes, I could have taught myself by watching YouTube clips and sawing away, but I’d still be back in first position with lousy technique and a bad ear.

Writers, just like adult beginner cello players, need to carefully consider the feedback we get, and be able to separate our own sweet, sensitive selves away from our work – if not for our own sakes (hello, mental health, I’m talking to you!) then at least for the sake of our work. It won’t improve and we won’t grow as writers if we can’t be challenged by constructive feedback and take on an attitude of learning.



Cecily Paterson writes Middle Grade novels for girls, publishes Christian colouring books, and is working on an online 'Write Your Memoir' course to be launched in early 2018.

15 comments:

  1. Love your work Cecily - you are honest and funny and real! Thank you.

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  2. Great post Cecily. Thanks so much. Love hearing your editor's perspective where you focus on the piece of writing and not the person. That makes sense doesn't it? And am really impressed that you are learning the cello. Love the sound it makes. I am a violinist (who hasn't touched hers for the past 31 years!) - I loved playing in the orchestra. I know you will too. Good on you Cecily. Happy playing.

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  3. Excellent article. I highly recommend Cecily as an editor. She won't edit your work until it is ready (that was devastating when I had hoped to publish in 3 months and ending up having to delay 14 months - but oh so worth it). You just need to develop a code for the compliments - so it takes little time but you can comment on the best best of the manuscript with a little :)
    or something !

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    1. ha. didn't know you had a code. And thanks for the compliments yourself.

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  4. All so true, Cecily--thank you. And keep going with that cello!

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    1. yes, hmmm. need to go practice, actually.

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  5. Great post, Cecily. Hard to separate ourselves from our work. Also, to know when to take an editor's advice and when to keep true to the story we are telling. I often wonder if I'm being too tough when I'm editing, and yes, I think an occasional complement encourages the writer not to give up completely, but without honest and informed feedback, we can't improve. Taking criticism and letting it teach us is definitely a vital part of a writer's toolbox. Thanks for your post.

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  6. Thoroughly enjoyed this post - and your honesty. It's good to see critique from both sides. I think if we really trust our editor/teacher it makes all the difference. We can put aside our own personal feelings and rely on their wisdom. And I appreciate that as an editor you don't want to waste the author's money. As writers we really need to know what to fix. Like you, my editor is also an author and I think its an added bonus as they truly understand both sides.

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    1. Yes, I think you need to find an editor you trust. (:

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  7. Chuckled over your post. Ooh what a meanie...but honest. My husband's a violinist and he had a teacher like yours and is so glad of it as he's still playing publicly all these years later.
    Do you mainly edit middle grade stories?

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    1. I seem to end up editing a lot of memoir, but also general fiction. I probably would steer away from romance.

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  8. I understand your comment about being mean. Like you, I often forget to add in the smiley faces or compliments, but that's because I'm focusing on what is getting better. It's about the writing. It's all about the writing.

    If it's any consolation for my clients, my standards are even higher for my own writing (as I believe yours are, Cecily).

    And I understand the musical analogy. Several years ago, I was playing the tenor horn in our city band when a 13-year-old girl joined the band with her mother. She started on second horn, but soon progressed to first, then solo. She takes lessons, and puts in hours of practice, and that meant she leapfrogged past me, a social player who hasn't taken a lesson since 1988.

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