Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Criticism and giving feedback

I've recently been asked about my experiences of writers' responses to criticism or feedback. I rattled off a few lines then thought it might be useful as a blog entry. I'm a bit nervous, though, about opening this particular can of worms!

Over the fifteen years I've been editing magazines, first QWF, then Cadenza and now The Yellow Room, I've read thousands of submissions and competition entries. I don't consider myself to be any sort of expert, but I read a lot. I tend to know what works and what doesn’t. I know what my readers enjoy and I’m not going to publish anything that doesn’t ‘work for me’. Another editor out there might think it’s the best piece of writing they’ve seen. Fine. They can publish it. It’s a good job we all have different tastes, otherwise there’d be even fewer markets than there are now.

I send out between five and ten rejection letters a week, depending on how many submissions I've had time to read. I like to let writers down gently, as I know, being a writer myself, how hard rejections are to deal with, particularly in the beginning. However, I feel that good writers learn from the comments they receive when a piece of work is rejected. It’s that old adage – we learn more from our mistakes. No matter how brilliant the writer or how often he/she has been published, that writer can still learn and benefit from constructive criticism. I think the more we write, the more we improve. Practice makes perfect, and all that! It’s up to a writer to choose whether they take any criticism on board. They can choose to ignore constructive comments if they wish. However, they may find different editors saying the same thing each time they try a different market or publisher. If this is the case, then the writer should listen and take note.

I guess the sort of bland comments you might receive about your work at a writers group or from some publishers/editors such as ‘it didn’t work for me’ are pretty useless, unless that statement is elaborated upon. Why didn't it work? As the writer, it's up to you to ask the question! Equally as useless are comments like ‘it was good’. Better perhaps, ‘I liked the bit where….’ Or ‘I think you’ve structured the story really well’ or ‘I can really empathise with that character’. I try to include something positive and specific when I’m giving feedback on writers’ work. Sometimes, particularly in the case of beginner writers, it can sometimes be very difficult to find anything positive and it’s tempting to be rather vague and say something like, ‘that’s a really original idea’. I do think it’s important to say something positive at the beginning of a rejection letter, rather than just shoot a writer down in flames. I quite often say to beginner writers, ‘you need to work on your technique’. Writing technique is something that only comes with practice, and differs greatly depending on whether you're writing an article, screenplay, novel or short story.

There have been a few cases when writers have written or emailed to take issue with a rejection I’ve sent. Thankfully, it doesn't happen often. I don't mind if the writer is objecting to my 'nit-picking' issues or if they tell me I've entirely missed the point (however, sometimes it does make you question the clarity of their writing, if they can't get the point over), but there are some writers who make very basic mistakes. It's when these writers obviously can’t see the flaws in their work, even when they have been pointed out, that makes me cross. They have no respect for your judgement, so you’re fighting a losing battle. These are the kinds of writers who don’t improve, so confident are they in their ability. And yes, I view their next submission with a whole different mindset. I’m too busy thinking about the person behind the writing, and the fact that they’re not willing to take on board any criticism and it does colour my judgement, I’m afraid. I have no time for really stroppy writers. They are the sort of people I’d rather not deal with. Beginners often make the mistake of writing back saying, 'Yes, but that's exactly what happened in real life'. In other words, far be it from them to change it. Real life isn't fiction. You have to reflect real life, sure, but that funny incident in the doctor's surgery doesn't always translate into a good short story.

I don’t like writing judge’s reports for short story competitions. I haven’t included one in issue 2 of The Yellow Room, despite publishing the winning story in the 2008 competition. I can see that they are helpful to most people who have entered, but I tend to get more flak from what I say in those reports than from anything else. Life is too short. My attitude now is ‘these are the stories I’ve chosen. Like it or lump it.’ However, if I were asked to judge a short story competition and to write a report, then I would. However, I would try to avoid negative comments as much as possible.

All in all, I think writers are a sensitive bunch and as an editor, you have to tread carefully. I want writers to feel supported and encouraged. I can think of several writers who submitted work of a dubious quality in the early days of QWF, who have gone on to have several novels published by mainstream publishers. In their early writing career they were grateful for any feedback, acted upon it and produced better work each time. I went on to publish several of their stories, as a consequence of their persistence and hard work. This then gave them some of the necessary kudos when they were submitting their first novels to literary agents and publishers.

So... over to you. Do you feel annoyed by an editor's criticism of your work? Do you appreciate feedback if your manuscript is rejected? Do you act upon it? Are there any circumstances in which you'd blatantly ignore an editor's comments or criticism? Do you think there is a certain arrogance about editors? I'd be very interested to hear of your experiences.


Sue said...

Very interesting to hear your experiences and thoughts Jo. Honesty must surely be the best policy and lucky Yellow Room writers to have such a sensitive editor as you! Hope you are enjoying the more springlike days :-)

Suzanne said...

I view personal feedback from an editor as gold dust and always do my best to follow it.

Luckily, I've never received anything too brutal, but if I did, I hope I'd accept it in the spirit it was offered.

Joanna said...

I feel pleased and relieved to have feedback of any sort, because then then I know how to improve. The criticism is never intended to be vindictive, so it would be foolish to ignore it or respond negatively to it.If a reader can't be honest about their opinion of your work, there's not much point in sending it out.

Anonymous said...

Jo, I think it's great that you take the time to give constructive feedback to your submitters. There are a great many out there that don't give any; just effectively "no thanks". Some don't even acknowledge receipt of the submission, which I consider to be unprofessional (when I'm feeling polite).

I also believe that writers who try to fight the feedback are deluded and possibly even stupid. As Suzanne says, such help is gold dust and we would be wise to make good use of it. To get good at chess, you need to lose lots of games and learn why. Arguing against the loss is pointless.

You probably know this already, but Jane Smith has quite a bit to say on the subject of rejection.

I would personally love any kind of feedback from all kinds of readers. I like to think I can filter out the wheat from the chaff, should that be necessary. Information is power.

Talking of practise and feedback, are you going to continue with Jo's Weekly Workout?

Jo said...

Hi Captain Black! Thank you for your detailed response. Very useful knowing how writers receive criticism! Yes, I am still doing the Weekly Workout. There is a new exercise up there now.

Lorna F said...

I agree with everything you've said here, Jo. As a teacher of creative writing I've met with writers (thankfully the majority) who take criticism in the spirit in which it was intended and use it to improve their skills - but I've also met strident types who are not prepared to listen or adapt. Like you, I don't criticise as a way of chopping them off at the knee: I accentuate the positive and try to give as much practical encouragement as I can. Keep up the good work!

Jean said...

Yes, I do appreciate feedback if a ms is rejected. It's good of an editor to take the time and trouble to give it. Do I act on it? Not always. I'm sure I often do need to act on it, but sometimes other editors see it completely differently, so no point changing things every time. We can't please everyone.

I suppose it calls for being able to stand back and look at our work with honesty (not easy). When a piece of criticism niggles me I try to remind myself that, whether I like it or not, the person commenting is likely to be able to see my work far more objectively than I can as the writer. Honest, constructive criticism is much more useful in helping us improve our writing than someone just stroking our ego.

I enjoyed this post, Jo. It's an interesting subject. Been thinking it through a bit on my blog.

Penny said...

I reckon if someone's taken time and trouble to offer constructive criticism, I'd be foolish not to take notice...act on it... and perhaps fail a bit better next time.
If I'm honest, it can lead to the odd strop.. but once that's over, then it's back to work if only to show 'em :-)