For a writer, constructive feedback helps you get better. Not the flattery, nor the bland approval, but the decently phrased expression of confusion or disapproval. It’s the literary equivalent of a pulled tooth; painful and a bit upsetting but in the long run, it will make you better. Anyway this is the stuff I tell my creative writing students and it’s aimed at the ones who shriek: You’re not getting what I’m trying to do! when I point out the lack of story, or info dump when back story gets shovelled into the narrative like snow on a street instead of gently dribbled in like oil into mayonnaise. And as I offer this criticism as gently as possible I find myself thinking that it’s feeding into my writing and hopefully making it better. I tell them the story of a fellow editor at Random House who read a book proposal and made notes in the margin. Unfortunately she forgot to rub them out when rejecting the proposal. The actual rejection letter was the usual blanditudes of the book not fitting into the lists, liked it but didn’t love it etc. But the comments in the text were another story. They ranged from Shite to What the fuck is this? to the utterly crushing Can’t Write.
So when I’m overrun with work from my students I sourly reflect on the massive gap between my carefully phrased positive criticisms and what I really think. It’s not pretty. What if, instead of writing, Interesting idea to write an epic poem about an intellectual argument between Mars and Venus but not sure it’s sustainable, I was entirely honest with You show neither writing talent, nor the ability to listen to advice, and seem to think that utterly incomprehensible writing is a true mark of your maverick genius. If I have to mark your awful poem I swear I will kill myself.
Not funny enough said a dear, close friend whose work and word I trust utterly when looking at a very rough draft of a script I wrote. And yes, it’s a comedy. I sat wanting to cry and hit him while shouting: You’re not getting what I’m trying to do! Instead, far more maturely I sulked. Oh and I don’t get what’s happening in Scene Two he added, unaware that he’d just punched a hole in my heart. Or Scene Three.
I looked over the script again and realised he was right. It wasn’t funny enough. And it wasn’t clear enough either. I still hated him and wanted to hit him but he was right. So I am taking a large, stinky spoonful of my own medicine and rewriting.
Actually having someone who tells you the truth about your work is as important as writing itself, I think. It doesn’t mean that you should shrug off praise and plaudits, because writers get little enough of them. But being able to take a deep breath and rewrite to make it better is what sorts out the writers from the dabblers and the epic planet poeteers.
And here is a really good post on criticism from Jane Smith.