READING THE FEEDBACK
When you're finally ready to
carefully consider the criticism of your work, you must first ask
yourself: What parts of this critique contribute to the ultimate goal
of fulfilling my vision for this work? What parts indicate that the
reader either doesn't understand my intent, or understands my intent
but wants me to move in a different direction?
Before you can
answer these questions, of course, you have to have a fairly strong
sense of your vision for the work. This is why it is important to avoid
exposing your writing to criticism until you have a solid grasp of what
you're trying to achieve. I don't show anyone what I'm working on until
I know I can't make it any better by myself, and I usually don't reach
this point until I've finished seven or eight drafts. You might ask
someone to read your piece early in the writing process for her
support, but if you do this, make clear to the reader what you need
from her at this stage—it usually isn't criticism. Even the most novice
writer must wait until he at least thinks he understands his
vision for the piece before he makes it vulnerable to outside
criticism. Later, when you feel you have a handle on your work's intent
and are ready to seek criticism, remain open to the possibility that
you still may not fully understand the piece and that another reader
might actually "get" it before you do.
Once you're conscious
of your intent, you're ready to evaluate the specific content of the
feedback. If more than one reader identifies the same problem, your
decision is relatively easy. Take that consistent reaction to heart.
Unfortunately, though, you can often find yourself getting conflicting
advice about a specific issue—one reader loved it, another hated it or
found it confusing. For example, an editor found the way I slowly
revealed information in the first hundred pages of my novel a
weakness—she felt that if I didn't more immediately make clear what the
novel "was about," readers wouldn't continue reading. Three of my other
critics, however, actually loved what one called the "hide-and-reveal"
nature of the book because of the suspense it built.
you hear conflicting advice about a single issue, consider the source
of the criticism and listen to your gut. Two readers taking notice of
the same element of your story in different ways may mean that you're
actually doing something right there—something unusual or unexpected.
It may also mean that you're simply not making yourself clear, and
you're being misread all the way around. Pay special attention to
criticism that echoes comments about earlier pieces you've received
from different readers. I've always been called on my vague pronoun
references, for example, so if that comes up (again) in feedback, I
know it's something I need to address.
As a rule of thumb,
take seriously the fact that a problem has been identified. Take a
little less seriously the ideas your reader offers as solutions.
Occasionally such solutions do work, but more often than not someone
else's idea for your own piece just isn't quite right. If you can tweak
the suggestion in your own way, however, it may very well do the trick.
For these reasons, a vague solution can actually be more helpful than a
But while open-ended solutions might be
useful, be wary of ambiguous identifications of potential problems,
like "I just couldn't get into the essay" or "I couldn't really
sympathize with the main character." These comments often indicate that
the reader isn't reading or thinking very carefully, or is thinking
about the wrong things. You can sometimes salvage this kind of critique
by kindly asking for specifics. A close cousin to the vague response is
the canned response—those old chestnuts you hear over and over again in
workshops, which usually mean that the reader didn't read closely or
that she doesn't have enough workshop experience to know how to really
critique a piece. Whenever I hear "I would like to see more of this
character" or "of this scene," for example, two of the most common
canned workshop responses, I bristle. If the reader is explaining
exactly how a character needs to be developed or is describing
precisely how the scene needs to be expanded, "I'd like to see more
of…" is helpful. Usually, however, it's just downright lazy feedback.
in more advanced workshops, you'll get something that is the opposite
of canned feedback but is no more useful: A reader will make a
suggestion that sounds very original and interesting, but, on close
inspection, has little to do with your piece, at least as you have
written it. (This usually comes from the kind of critic for whom it's
more important to look intelligent to others in the workshop than it is
to help you improve your writing.)
Be wary of suggestions
that make the work "easier" to read. If your critic is addressing
something in your story that is obviously unclear, fine, but such
suggestions can also be triggered by a passage in your piece where you
made an unexpected move, strayed from conventions, or took a risk.
While the critic's natural instinct might be to "smooth out" these
irregularities, you could end up compromising the originality of your
art by following such directives. Another more obvious thing to
remember is that if a reader has unequivocally misread one part of your
piece, you should probably take less seriously his similar remarks
Keep in mind that a reader who commented on an
earlier draft may have a hard time giving an objective, reliable read
of a revised version. Unfortunately, that first read usually muddies
the second one. As a teacher who must comment on my students' revisions
and read commentaries on their peers' revisions, I've noticed this
problem time and again. When critics reread, they tend to over-praise
changes (especially ones they suggested), grow bored more quickly, and
occasionally bemoan the omission of passages or lines they grew
attached to in an early draft but that really did need to go.