At any level of authorial skill, but particularly when you’re just learning how to write and respond to other writers, there are three critical things you can do to help yourself and your readers. (I’ll come back to this in a moment, but if there’s anything you want to do during the feedback process, it’s take care of your readers. Why? Because you’re the one tapping the cane on the sidewalk, and they’re your dog.)
- Focus on Learning
Just between us, you and I both know you’re an undiscovered literary genius. But even literary geniuses need to know if they hit or missed their visionary target. If you give yourself over to listening and learning during the feedback process, rather than enduring and defending, you’ll not only learn whether you hit your target, you’ll speed your ability to understand the craft of storytelling. On the other hand, the more defensive or competitive you are, the longer it will take you to grow as a writer.
- Acknowledge Your Own Control
Consider this, from an earlier post about workshops:
It can be hard for an author to listen without objecting or interjecting comments, but a workshop is not a debate. The members giving feedback know their suggestions and observation can always be dismissed by the author, so no debate is necessary.
Even if everyone in a workshop thinks you should strengthen Sally’s motivation for murder, you still have total control and everyone knows it. It’s your story and you do not have to do anything you do not want to do. More to the point, most of the people who read your work couldn’t care less whether you listen to them or not. (And anyone who does probably has more invested in a personal relationship with you than they do in the quality of your work.)
Again: you do not have to change something if you do not want to change it. Acknowledging that you have complete control over your own work will make you less defensive. (As an aside, there are nefarious situations where workshop leaders may try to impose control over your work. I’ll deal with this more in a subsequent post, but for now remember that you have the absolute right to control your work, up to and including making a blithering idiot out of yourself. No one who knows anything about how the craft of storytelling is taught or learned would tell you otherwise.)
- Listen for Specifics
If you don’t know much (or any) craft it’s admittedly hard to focus on craft while having a story workshopped. A more helpful approach for beginning writers is to practice listening to comments on a case-by-case basis, rather than waiting for a consensus to emerge about the entire work.
Why is this important? Because the things that will help make your story better are almost always specific. Generalities such as, “I liked it,” or, “Your main character could be more sympathetic,” are not very useful. What you want are specific examples of things that did and did not work, because those things are evidence of faulty craft. If you ignore specifics in the hope that you’ll get a thumbs-up from 51% of the group you’re only hurting your authorial education.
Too, listening on a case-by-case basis is important because not all feedback is good feedback. Some comments are going to be misplaced, and some are going to be loony. Your job is to sort through everything that’s said in order to find a few useful nuggets, and you can’t do that if you’re not paying attention to what’s said by everyone.
Finally, focusing on specifics calms personality issues. If you’re getting feedback from a workshop, chances are there’s a least one person you don’t like. They may be objectively offensive, or they may grate only on your nerves, but they may also be right in what they’re saying to you. If their every word drips with insincerity or condescension it can be hell to listen, but you need to learn how to listen anyway.
Any feedback on your work, whether given privately or in a workshop, is potentially risky. Trying to understand what people are saying about your work when you yourself may not fully understand what you wrote or how you wrote it, is a trial by fire. The only way to get through it is to get through it. Following the above advice will make the process easier.
— Mark Barrett