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  • Mark Smeltzer

Don’t Take Feedback as Gospel

“If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.” – Stephen King

King’s first published novel Carrie would have never seen a bookshelf if his wife hadn’t rescued the manuscript from the trash and convinced him, after 30 rejections, that there was something special there. J.K. Rowling also endured rejection after rejection before someone was interested in publishing a book about an orphan who discovers he’s a wizard.

Writers have some of the thickest skins I know, skins that not even a black arrow fired from a wind lance could pierce. Those scrawlers and scribblers who volunteer to be criticized for a living—or even worse, as a hobby! We sit calmly, silently, as our tender first drafts are pillaged for anything “worth” keeping. It hurts, yet the thrill of scorn and the excitement of new ideas keeps us coming back for a fix. Workshops are the BDSM of creative writing. The nerves. The vulnerability. The excitement. Whenever you put your fate in someone’s hands, trust is the name of the game.

There is already plenty of advice on how to accept criticism, but sometimes that can leave you feeling like you must take all suggestions to heart, lest you be accused of arrogance, stubbornness, and thin-skin-edness. Here are some things I like to keep in mind before I decide to drop that file in the Recycle Bin and start from scratch.

1. Honesty goes both ways.

The reader is not supposed to spare your feelings, sure. But on the flipside, you should never feel like you to need to make suggested changes to your work merely out of politeness. Be honest with yourself and your peers if you feel strongly or are struggling to understand what exactly they think you should do. Whether you heed all their advice, or none of it, or 10% of it, the common goal is to build a better draft for your audience and that’s all.

Note: “being honest” does not mean arguing with or interrupting peers during a workshop. Give them plenty of time to have their say and think hard about their feedback. You can then decide to quietly not implement their advice, or talk to them later about some kind of compromise.

2. Don’t Confuse Preferences with Proper Criticism.

One thing that comes up in workshops more than it should is personal style. Does the speaker have to say “fuck” so many times? Maybe she does! This goes back to writing what you want to write. Say I’m working on a poem about my sixth-grade history teacher whom everyone hated, and I call this poem “Ol’ Mrs. Gripple’s Famous Third Nipple.” I’ve immediately lost some people on the title alone. Oh well. The focus should be on whether what is on the page is really doing what you want it to, not about likes and dislikes.

3. On “Killing Your Darlings.”

This is probably the hardest one to figure out with any given draft. A darling is just anything you really wanted to keep but it just ain’t gonna happen. It can be a character, a structure, a theme, or even a word or phrase that you spent way too much time on. But sometimes—and only you know when—it needs to stay. Like knowing when to walk away from a relationship and when to make it work, there can only be strong suggestions. As in both, there are always obvious exceptions (don’t be weighed down by deadweight people or deadweight darlings, no matter how much they pull on you). A metaphor comparing the words of a lover to a noose may take me weeks to craft into an essay and still fall flat. If I can strip away all my emotional attachment to that metaphor and still see a way to keep it, there’s nothing to lose by trying again. I could try building stronger parallels to my life, or changing the noose to a knife, or simply scaling it back to not put so much pressure on this one thing. And maybe it still doesn’t work, which is fine!

4. You Can Challenge Authority and Consensus.

In a workshop you will be surrounded by people with different educational levels and backgrounds. Generally, more experienced writers and those with higher degrees will give you a mix of specific suggestions about theme, plot, character arc, as well as syntax, structure, sentences, etc. From critics not in the English department bubble (friends, family, coworkers, other students) you’ll get to hear what the average “real reader” might think. Either way, knowing your critics is important.

After another round of in-class workshops, I realized that about 98% of my first draft will have to be taken behind the shed and shot. But there was just one thing I really thought I could save. Unfortunately, the consensus among both the professor and my peers was that it probably wasn’t worth keeping, and in its current form I completely agree. Apparently, I can’t just switch between different meanings of the word voice at random to convey an identity crisis—who knew! Sure I knew what I meant, but I quickly learned that my thoughts did not translate well into a coherent story. However, I still felt strongly about the concept overall, so I met with my professor out of class and was honest:

“I really want to make this work.”

“Great, let’s make it work,” she replied.

And that’s it! In the end I trimmed almost all that element out of the second draft, even parts I thought I really wanted at first. But that’s fine too! In the process I realized what I was really trying to say, which was just a tiny kernel buried under a bunch of bullshit. I thought that X- and Y- were inseparable. So in defending X- I felt like I couldn’t get rid of Y-. On the other hand, if your story puts too much stock in that idea, some people will naturally tell you to get rid of both as well.

At the end of the day, it’s your name on the page. Your peers are there to help you and offer the kind of reflection that is impossible to do on your own. Just don’t be overwhelmed by opinions and suggestions. Some of it is bound to be irrelevant or contradictory to other feedback. I also know that much of my feedback will not be used in other writers’ drafts; they want quality feedback but also a large variety of opinions that can’t all be “right.”

So take in all that feedback, let it marinate for a few days or weeks, and come back ready to make a lot of changes. Obviously you can’t write off every suggestion you don’t like; just be honest with yourself, not just in terms of knowing when you’re wrong, but also when to stick up for your work. If you’re not sure about some feedback, communicate (at the appropriate time) or experiment with those suggestions in your next draft and see what happens.

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