The Feedback Rollercoaster
I’ve ruined a friendship or two with my harsh feedback of their writing.
One time, a friend asked me to read his first-ever screenplay and give him feedback. I told him it wasn’t a good idea. I told him I would tear it to shreds and be brutally honest but he assured me he wanted that. So I finally accepted.
The screenplay was horrible. I tried to be very positive when I emailed my feedback. It began:
“Congratulations on writing your first screenplay! Everyone’s first screenplay is crap and yours is no exception. But you’ve never actually been taught how to write a screenplay, so that’s even more impressive that you were able to write a full feature with a beginning, middle, and end and have it make sense, so that is AMAZING!”
I swear I went on to say LOTS of positive and encouraging things and gave him pages of detailed notes, but it didn’t matter. I don’t think he read any of them. The damage had been done when I initially told him that his screenplay was crap.
Giving and receiving feedback is essential to great writing. When giving feedback, you are able to see what works, what doesn’t work, and think about how to fix problems in someone else’s writing.
When you can receive feedback well, it allows you to grow and learn and become a better writer. For example, in my first draft of this essay, I opened with:
“Giving and receiving feedback is essential to great writing. It’s a balancing act.”
A fellow writer gave me the following feedback: “Your writing is very good because you're transparent, smart, and controversial in how you say certain things.”
In case you’re confused, he was giving me a backhanded compliment. He was telling me that my writing is USUALLY very good because of those things, but in this case, I shit the bed. I could do better.
So I began with an anecdotal story instead. What do you think?
There are no shortcuts to great writing. Too many writers seek validation in the present moment as opposed to thinking about the greater outcome down the road.
It’s like American gymnast Peter Vidmar said:
"Don't sacrifice what you want most for what you want now."
If you want to become a great writer, you have to play the long game. Mastering both sides of feedback requires patience and modesty, so if you can get over yourself, this skill will catapult your writing career.
When you send your writing to someone, think hard about what you want. If all you can think is, “They’re going to love this,” or “God, I hope they like it,” then send it to your mom.
The whole point of feedback is to make your piece better and to make you a better writer. All writing needs improvement. Nothing is ever perfect, even when you’ve written something wonderful.
That’s not to say that your feedback will always be well-received.
My friend Lyle asked me to read a novel he had written. It was one of the worst things I’d ever read. I spent two weeks trying to get through it and was only halfway done at the 77-page mark. (It was around this page that I realized I didn’t care if every single character died.) Another friend assured me that telling Lyle I couldn’t get through it was feedback. I felt guilty, but finally gave up and sent Lyle my three pages of notes and explained why I didn’t finish it.
All he had to say back was,
“Thanks for all the great notes. I really appreciate the time you took to take them. However, I really would have liked it, and it would have helped me more, if you would have finished it...
I had conflicting feelings of guilt for not finishing and sheer anger that Lyle was so unappreciative of all my feedback (mostly the anger overrode my guilt).
No matter how your feedback is received, it’s important to remember that you’re not giving feedback so that you can hear how great and appreciated you are. Sure that’s nice, but regardless, you are becoming a better writer just by providing the feedback. (Also, if someone sends you back an email like the one I received, you just never give him feedback again.)
Understand Your Audience
When giving feedback to a new writer, it’s always best to start with positivity. Encouragement is more important than critique, at this point. The fact that this person wrote something and is asking for feedback is positive in itself.
Author and journalist Michael Lewis likens giving feedback to improv comedy’s “Yes, and” response:
“Their first step is never, ‘No, that’s stupid, I have a smart thing to say that puts this thing you just said in its place.’ Their first step is to try to take what I’ve said and build on it. Or find what’s good in it.”
It’s important to give your opinion, eventually, but you must first recognize the insightful or relatable or surprising thing that has been presented.
For the seasoned writer, perhaps you can skip right to the critique. Screenwriter Brian Koppelman has no time to sugar coat. The feedback that he gives has very little positive in it. When he asks his friend to read a script, he doesn’t want to waste his time.
“I don’t need him to also spend half a page telling me what I’ve done well. What I need him to do is tell me where the thing has fallen short. So I will say that to somebody. Are you prepared for that? If you are, I will give you those notes, but you have to be willing to do something with them.”
In the middle of this group are writers who are too used to praise for their work. They’ve been treated too politely. They feel like critical feedback is an attack and they can’t even hear a withering critique of their work.
Research psychologist Marc Brackett talks about how kids these days can’t deal with the feedback they get unless it’s positive.
“So many of our children don’t reach their fullest potential because they can’t deal with the disappointment, the frustration, the anxiety around the content. It’s not their inability to be creative, it’s that when they get harsh feedback, they can’t deal with the feelings around it and they give up not because of their ability, but because of their inability to deal with their feelings.”
How do you handle negative feedback and criticism? If you’re always defensive of your work or reject the feedback, ask yourself if you really want to become a better writer.
I recently took David Perell’s online course Write of Passage. He taught us to use the acronym CRIBS for feedback. Not only do you comment when something is Confusing, Repeated, Insightful, Boring, or Surprising, you then say why and/or how to fix it. It’s not enough to say that you don’t like it or it doesn’t work. Make a suggestion.
But remember that not all feedback needs to be implemented. See what resonates. See what other people think. If you feel strongly about it, keep it the same, but think about the why and make sure it works. Use it as an opportunity to re-visit the meaning, phrasing, etc., but ultimately still go with your gut.
Don’t be afraid to “kill your darlings.” This is when you cut something out that you really, really love, but it just doesn’t work with that particular piece. It doesn’t fit. Think of it not as cutting it out, but as saving it for something else. Copy and paste it into a separate document. You might be able to use it for something else, eventually.
Remember to be clear about what you need when asking for feedback. What do you need to move forward with your piece? If you’re planning on publishing it in a few hours, then why are you asking for feedback? Are you actually willing to make changes and edits?
Once you start giving more feedback, you’ll appreciate how much time and effort goes into it, so when you’re on the receiving end, keep in mind that someone is doing you a favor. Treat it as such.
Find Your Tribe
Eventually, you find people you can trust. The more you can provide feedback for them and they can provide feedback for you, the more you can open up, be honest with each other, and get right to the point.
Recently, I was providing verbal feedback to someone in my new Write of Passage tribe.
Zach had written about an interesting book he read. I felt very strongly that it’s not necessary to tell the reader you think a book is interesting, because that’s not interesting to the reader. Instead, tell the reader why that book is interesting to you.
I told him, “No one cares that you read an interesting book. That’s boring. Tell us why.”
As soon as it came out of my mouth, I felt like a jerk. I can certainly work on my delivery. Sometimes when I feel strongly about something I just say it, thinking the other person will interpret my bluntness for passion - not for being an asshole (I run into the same problem when coaching high school field hockey players).
Thankfully, Zach did appreciate my honesty and was not offended (I think). That’s because we know each other now, we’ve given each other lots of feedback, and we both know we have each other’s best interests in mind. There's mutual respect and camaraderie.
Everyone’s tribe looks different. Maybe a little extra encouragement is what you need to plow ahead. Maybe positivity feels like a complete waste of time. Maybe your tribe consists of people in your field; maybe it’s a mix. Whatever your tribe, make sure you are surrounding yourself with people who push you and challenge you.
Don’t abuse these relationships. I don’t want to read every draft of your piece. (I certainly don’t want to read every draft of your 130-page screenplay.) Be respectful of other people’s time and energy. If you have a specific follow-up question, by all means ask, but don’t resend the entire thing. (Unless it’s your husband. In which case, approach that boundary as much as he will allow.)
Finding your tribe allows both parties to be more direct and honest, and at the same time, value and respect each other’s time.
The Secret Sauce
The best way to start receiving invaluable feedback on your writing is to start offering your services to others. It’s also a great tool to jumpstart your own writing if you feel stuck. Read other people’s work and give them thoughtful feedback. Be brutally honest and at the same time, uplifting.
But it’s not just the giving and receiving of feedback. It’s how you ask for feedback and how you respond to the feedback that’s given.
“It’s an incredible shortcut to growth because if you take the feedback the right way you don’t only improve the thing you’re working on then, you improve the next five things you’re working on because that feedback has led you to understand how to iterate the next thing.”
When my fellow writer told me, essentially, that my opening sentences were boring, I had to let that sit for a day. It took me a day to get over myself. Then I sat back down and tried my best to tackle the problem and write a strong opening.
Writers who don’t focus on giving and receiving feedback limit their growth, while writers who do focus on this important piece will immensely improve. Because feedback is the secret sauce to great writing.