Welcoming Feedback

The writer's hand hovering over the send button on a computer keyboard

“I’m sorry. It’s really rough.” 

“I know it’s not very good, but . . .”

“What can I say? It’s a shitty first draft.”

I’ve said all of the above about my writing. 

And I am not alone. I’ve heard these things said by other writers.

A lot.

Stop the Presses

A while back, I found myself typing a “stop the presses”
email to a beta reader, an email in which I intended to ask her not to read the
manuscript I’d given to her less than 48 hours earlier because I had already
identified a sentence that absolutely needed to be removed from the second
chapter and I was suddenly acutely aware that the entire manuscript needed
another read-through, some serious edits, perhaps a sacrificial burning. I
intended to follow the please don’t read request with an apology and a promise
to fix as much as I could, reprint it, and bring her a clean copy, but that
this could take a while—months, perhaps years.

Luckily, my son came into my office to say hello while I was
typing. He asked what I was up to, and when I told him, he said, “Stop typing.
Don’t send that, Mom. Seriously, listen to me.” 

I lifted my fingers to hover over the keys. 

“Hands away from the keyboard.”

Welcome Advice

I turned and saw his expression, full of exasperation—and
empathy. My son is also a writer. He gently explained that he’d recently read
some advice about the editing process: How it was important not to tamper with
your manuscript once you’ve given it out to be read by others. How you should
never denigrate it when you ask someone to read it. How listing a bunch of
caveats predisposes the reader to find fault and search for the errors and
flaws they know must be there because you, the writer, told them errors and
flaws were there—plot holes, caricatures instead of characters, thin dialogue,
missing arcs, hokey endings. According to you and your “sorry, it’s rough, I
know it’s not very good, but what can I say, it’s a shitty first draft,” it’s
all there, and your readers feel obligated to find it.

Thinking of all the caveats I’d already given my reader when
I handed over the manuscript, I lifted my fingers completely and promised not
to send the email.

That wasn’t good enough for my son.

“Delete it, Mom.” 

Why Do We Sell Ourselves Short?

Hours later, it occurred to me that if I sat down in my
hairdresser’s chair and she said, “I’m about to give you a crappy haircut,” or
if my dentist said, “I’m not really that good at this whole teeth thing,” I’d
probably get up and leave—at least I’d like to think I would. And I began to
reconsider my defensive caveats. Why would someone want to read my manuscript
when I start with a list of reasons they shouldn’t? Why do I, as a writer, plant
seeds of doubt and inadequacy? Why do we, as writers, sell ourselves short? Why
do we constantly disparage our work? 

Drop the Defensive Caveats

So, I came up with a theory—perhaps it’s because we know
it’s highly possible (damn near certain) that someone out there won’t like what
we’ve written, and it’s easier to handle rejection or criticism if we’ve
already not liked it or criticized it ourselves. 

The thing is, even bestselling, prize-winning,
genius-labeled authors are not always appreciated. Someone out there can’t
abide Tolstoy. More than a few people can’t get through Joyce. There are
well-read individuals who do not understand Faulkner—at all. Someone doesn’t
like Hemingway, Kingsolver, Saunders, Barnes, Doerr, Tartt, Johnson, Egan. And,
though it may happen, I want to believe writers such as these did/do not turn
over manuscripts to friends, editors, or agents with the words, “This isn’t
very good.”

Writers benefit from constructive criticism at every stage
(I always value receiving it), but I am writing this blog to issue a challenge
to myself and all of you reading it: Stop introducing your work with negatives.
Drop the defensive caveats. Try “I hope you enjoy it” or “I welcome your
feedback” instead. 

I welcome your feedback. 

Anastasia

The author, Anastasia Zadeik, sitting on rocks near Half Dome in Yosemite National Park
Guest blogger, Anastasia Zadeik, near Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

About Anastasia Zadeik

Anastasia Zadeik has been telling stories ever since she was
a little girl sitting around the dinner table with her brothers and sisters,
using every single second of her three allotted minutes to “share the most interesting
thing that happened to you today,” learning early that flash non-fiction is
tough, particularly for someone fond of details and embellishments.

Now a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach, Anastasia enjoys helping other writers find their voice and refine their work. She also continues to love telling stories to a live audience; she regularly performs in So Say We All’s VAMP and has had three pieces selected for inclusion in the San Diego Memoir Showcase

She’s currently working on Capture the Light, a novel about
loss, self-determination, and the power and limits of love.

Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work

Runway models on a fashion show cat walkPart 1 – Project Runway

Warning: I’m going to break the rules.

Instead of preaching that screentime pollutes productivity, I’m going to recommend indulging in its trashiest form: reality TV.

But not just any reality TV. My distaste for the medium allows two exceptions: Shark Tank and Project Runway. Together, these shows comprise a writing process guide.

Project Runway Inspiration

Project Runway gets the creative juices flowing. I draw inspiration from fashion designers’ myriad approaches to conveying a unique “voice” while balancing risk with a traditional aesthetic. As contestants, designers face constraints I relate to: time, materials, genre, purpose, audience. Watching them problem-solve sparks ideas for troubleshooting my writing process free from the angst that accompanies studying writers I admire.

Designers grapple with broader concerns writers recognize, too: competition, insecurity, rejection, fatigue, and creative blocks. Every designer hits a wall at some point during 16-episode seasons; seeing how each pushes through and to what effect serves as a primer from which I pluck ideas.

Finding Your Muse at Mood

The show slingshots contestants past their limits, where they are forced to abandon tried and true creative processes—at least temporarily. Designers who are accustomed to sketching everything from hem to zipper and fabric texture to thread color before laying a finger on a material, suddenly find themselves scurrying through Mood Fabrics, hoping a print or color will anoint itself their Muse. Similarly, designers are accustomed to skipping through Mood empty-handed and -headed, confident a shape will emerge organically, trade free-spirited methods for digital drawing. They all fumble—many leaking tears and ego along the way—but most stumble into a breakthrough as they grasp for a purchase. I benefit from the reminders that experimentation is essential for evolution.

Taking Tim Gunn Advice

Designers’ desire to “wow” the judges drives them to overcomplicate garments. Their mentor, fashion guru Tim Gunn, advises them to “edit constantly and carefully.” As a writer who battles to squeeze everything she wants to say within allotted word limits, I find it helpful to channel Gunn when I revise: “Are you trying to do too much? Is there a simpler way to convey that idea? Do you really need this?”

I mimic Gunn when I teach, too, because of how artfully he delivers brutal truth without brutality. During critiques, he says,

  • “What I’m getting from this garment is X; is that what you intended?”
  • “The judges might see this and think . . .”
  • “What does your gut tell you about this?”
  • “Have you thought about …?”
  • “How would you respond to replacing X with Y?”
  • “My concern is . . .”
  • “Hmm.”

“Make it Work.”

Don’t discount that last phrase. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity. Designers fill ensuing silence by identifying and solving problems they hadn’t known existed. Something similar often happens when I utter the phrase to students.

But more than anything, I appreciate Gunn’s signature catchphrase: “Make it work.” The perfect antidote to self-pity, Gunn’s saying applies equally to fashion, fiction, and nonfiction:

  • Dyed your fabric the wrong shade of yellow? Make it work.
  • Your main character wants to live in Florida instead of Minnesota? Make it work.
  • Essay theme change again? Make it work.

After Gunn’s consultation, designers revise and submit their garments for evaluation. Judges’ deliberations help me understand that whether sending a model down the runway or a manuscript through the mail, we creators are assessed according to an elusive mix of objective criteria and subjective appeal. Judges sometimes reject a garment that fulfills criteria because it doesn’t fit their taste and vice versa. While that means I may never know why a publisher rejects my work, I take comfort from knowing that rejection doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of talent.

Project Runway Lessons on Criticism

Finally, the last gem I glean from Project Runway is a mantra for handling criticism: Avoid becoming defensive. Even the best designers elicit disgust if they smirk, whine, argue, or interrupt. They lose viewers’ sympathy, competitors’ respect, judges’ esteem, and potentially a round of competition. Their inability to accept feedback also stalls their growth. Designers who fail to curb defensiveness inevitably hear host Heidi Klum declare, “I’m sorry, that means you’re out.”

Successful designers, on the other hand, soar through critiques gracefully by:

  • Breathing slowly and deeply.
  • Maintaining a neutral expression and posture.
  • Listening without interrupting.
  • Nodding to acknowledge comments.
  • Answering questions honestly and completely.
  • Explaining without making excuses.
  • Asking questions.
  • Refusing to trash competitors.
  • Thanking judges for their feedback.

I try to emulate these designers. It helps to remind myself that listening to comments doesn’t commit me to acting on them. I stash feedback at the back of my brain (or notebook) for 48-72 hours before I examine it. During that time, my emotions settle; then I can effectively sort comments according to those I’ll apply now, those I’ll ignore, and those I’ll use later.

Critiques are rarely fun, and rejection always stings, but neither has to bite. Tune in next month for “Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work, Part II,” where I’ll share how watching Shark Tank helps me avoid becoming chum.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderFeisty Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Lisa Whalen, a.k.a. Irish Firecracker, is a former boy band devotee and current podcast devotee. Though punctual to a fault, she takes a better-late-than-never approach to adult rites of passage, having only recently discovered coffee and cell phones. Her most meaningful midlife discovery is that horses are her greatest teachers. She swears by horse trainer Buck Brannaman’s claim that “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Horses are so wise she wishes they could be her editors.

A transplant to Minnesota, Whalen teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College but abides by the adage “Omaha is my Home-aha.” She bleeds Nebraska red, cheering on the Cornhuskers, even (especially) against her adopted state’s Golden Gophers. She’s an animal lover and an introvert, which means she volunteers at a shelter and can be found chillin’ with the host’s pet at most social gatherings.

For more about Whalen’s teaching, writing, and riding, please find her on Twitter and Facebook @LisaIrishWhalen or check out her website: https://lisawhalen.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1746615/