Monday, January 28, 2013

Masochism as a way of life

As a writer, it's often very difficult to get honest feedback. In my opinion, there are two types of dishonesty when dealing with criticism of your work. The first is the most obvious and common -- people just don't want to:

a) be mean
b) get on your bad side
c) harm a friendship/relationship
d) all of the above

It's actually really selfish. I know that sounds weird, because, after all, this person took time out of their life and busy schedule to read something for you. However, being less than honest is the opposite of being helpful, it literally harms your ability to properly edit and shape your work. Why do they do this? So that they aren't uncomfortable. That's selfish. It's better to say, "I don't feel comfortable critiquing your work."

The second type of dishonesty comes through disinterest. An uninterested party will often give your work just a cursory review, leading to poor feedback that can be just as dangerous. The critique masquerades as a powerful, impartial examination, but in reality it's just a sloppy glance that leads you astray.

You really have to be on your guard for both these types of input.

You also have a responsibility to both properly and specifically inform your reader what sort of feedback you desire, and you must accept the critique with grace and courtesy.

When you hand something to someone to read, be honest as to what you're looking for in return. Unless they're from an MFA in English program somewhere, they've never really been trained how to give feedback.

My first reaction on getting feedback is to always argue the reader's conclusions. I desperately want to defend my work and it's validity. I think it's just natural - the way parents often defend their kids before knowing the whole story. Put the feedback aside after you read it. Calm down. Read it again. Never respond immediately. Technology seems to drive us towards our baser responses, and it would be so easy to fling off an e-mail into the wired. Don't do it.

The reality is -- I'd rather someone say my piece just doesn't work, than to get some false praise that keeps me engaged in a fruitless pursuit. Value honesty.

So, to me, writers must have a certain masochistic streak. The only way our works get better is if they're torn down. It's a very organic thing, though -- like growing muscle. If you want to write, you're going to get hurt. But, to paraphrase Pink (wow, NEVER thought I'd ever type that ... I should take a screenshot), just because you're hurt, it doesn't mean you'll die. Keep at it.

And, find someone good to give you feedback!

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