My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Finding Feedback Readers (Mailbox)

Where should I go for feedback? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name, first initial only, or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  I'm still underwater from teaching summer school even though the pressure is off a bit, so I'm just going to do a pretty quick one today.]    

Alexa asks:

Are you still doing the mailbox thing? I wasn't sure, most of the mailboxes I've read are re-posts dated 2014.

If you are: I was wondering if you had any advice for finding good feedback readers. How do you find people who have the time, willingness, and skill-set to get the feedback you need on later drafts? 

So far I've had a mixed experience with workshops, irl and online. My friends are lovely and do read my work but are often reading outside of their preferred genres and lean towards being 100% supportive.


I've been really happy to find your facebook page and through that your blog. 

[Note: I added the link above to the question.]

My reply:

I'm absolutely still doing the mailbox thing. We're just on the back end of a (roughly) 18-month period of non-stop burnination where my life was playing the part of the thatched roof cottages. The reason there are are so many from 2014 was those were the halcyon days, before it all went wrong, when I was particularly good at getting a mailbox up once a week like clockwork. These last couple of years, I've been struggling to do one every other week or so. But they're still one of the most popular bits I do here at Writing About Writing, and if anything I'm going to step up the mailbox game a bit just as soon as I finish summer school.

But let me try to kick around your question. At least let's get to a quick and dirty answer of your question that will be woefully unsatisfying. I've had this series of posts about blogging that I've been pecking away at, and after that the next series I want to do is about how to find, give, and receive feedback because it's really this huge skill set unto itself, including a lot of potential pitfalls if done haphazardly. But the silk sheets and candles are at least a couple of months out, so I'll try to do a "drop your pants, the lasagna will be microwaved in five" version in the meantime.

Unfortunately one of the main answers to this is that there are no good or easy answers to this. Finding good beta readers is a long shitty process of sifting through all the dross. People who are just there to get feedback and give it like it's a horrible chore (rather than perhaps the single best way to improve as a writer). People who don't like your style, genre, vocabulary. People who are pretentious as all fuck and really want to make sure everyone hears them say that your piece reminds them of late Dadaism with its "profound and paradoxical" chiasmi. And of course the legions of "I liked it" feedback that make you want to rip your hair out in tufts. And when you can get this motley crew to give you feedback you can use at all, sometimes it's basically contradictory to the point of being mutually exclusive. And that's if you can find feedback without huge disparities in writing skill that often mean one person is being mentored and the other is getting nothing out of the exchange.

There's a reason that peer reviewers who work well together often form lifelong friendships with each other. I still have a couple of people in my "rolodex" from my time getting a creative writing degree going on six years ago now, but what is perhaps more impressive is that my MOM still has people SHE can call from her Iowa writing program days in the early eighties. If you find someone you trust to give you useful feedback in a way that isn't too gentle or too brutal, who knows what you are doing with your writing and respects your artistic choices, and who you enjoy interacting with, hold onto them like you are going over a cliff in a mountain climbing movie (tears and "please don't let go" pleas included), for they are precious.

There's some good news: you only need a couple of these really solid readers that you trust–not some wellspring source you can rely on to provide an endless fountain of awesome peer review. Early in one's writing process, it might be useful to get lots of criticism from lots of places like trying on many prom dresses, but eventually you narrow it down to the few you like and really bring out your broad shoulders. Pretty soon a writer is going to realize that a lot of criticism tries to make the writer do what the reader wants rather than help the writer's OWN vision be the best it can be. The latter is professional level feedback. (As in, you will have to pay money for it, and if you ARE getting it for free, and you're not already banging them, you should always help them move. Like fucking always.)

Professional editing is what you're going to want when you start getting ready to write professional level work. So enjoy the "taste spoons" of all kinds of other feedback, but know that they're basically playing a long game of Survivor in your heart. And when you realize that their feedback isn't really helping you, extinguish their tiki torch with extreme prejudice. 

Further, you will always want feedback, but you will find that the time in which peer review is useful to you begins to narrow like the opening the heroes want to fly out of in any movie ever. Early on, a writer might have someone read their very first drafts and their very last drafts and all the drafts between trying to get a sense of what they're doing right (or not-so-right) at each step. And that's okay if that's where you are. (Christ, I remember handing rough drafts to anyone who would read them, including my bosses when I worked in hospitality, and getting these weak-ass smiles. "It was.....great. Listen, I'm going to make you side dish tonight, and we will never speak of this again. Ever. Now go scoop a thousand garlic butters.") 

But the more a writer starts to trust their own vision and their own revision process, the smaller that window of feedback's usefulness becomes. Though the particulars of when they want that feedback are often different for each writer, they start to identify exactly when they most need and appreciate a little guidance from some fresh eyes.  For example, many writers know they don't want anybody to see what they're cooking until the third or fourth draft when it's got some definition and their vision is starting to be teased out, but after the fifth or sixth draft, they need to be confident about many of the choices they've made and get different kinds of feedback (the professional stuff that I mentioned earlier that really helps them to bring out their own vision rather than change it so late in the game). 

This is why you'll probably end up with only a small handful of very trusted readers...and of course your editor (also a relationship that will probably involve kissing a few frogs before you find one you work well with). Finding good feedback can be as tricky as finding a good therapist––sometimes you just don't click.

The same goes when you're giving criticism. If you are giving thoughtful and generous criticism about the impressions you're getting from their work and what is jumping out at you as a reader, and they keep arguing with you and telling you that you just don't understand, it won't do any good (for either of you) if you water down your thoughts until you're just telling them what they want to hear.

Beta readers are a bit different. They are reading a mostly finished work. With them, a writer is looking for particular impressions and is at the point of fine-tuning their work. The writer may only have one thing they want to find out if it is working or not. A beta reader suggesting big fixes needs to be someone a writer can cheerfully ignore, not have an existential crisis and go back to square one about. (Unless of course they're all saying the same thing, but that's a whole different kettle of cliches.) Also, beta readers usually enjoy their job though, as the work is mostly finished and their feedback is much less demanding, so it is easier to rope larger numbers of them in. You can set up closed FB groups or email lists for beta reader feedback, and really just find anyone who is willing to read and give you feedback.

Peer review tends to be quite a lot of work–usually unpaid–which is why it's really obnoxious not to give peer review back.

As for where you can look to find those one or two people you really like, that's harder. It's one of the benefits of writing programs, though I'm not quite sure a lead on a good peer review is worth the $25,000 price tag. There are some online services a lot of folks swear by, like Scriblophile that have a really good system of getting and giving criticism, but you're still going to have to filter through the dross.  I put up a post on my page every few weeks but even with half a million followers, it usually doesn't get much response. ("I'm not bitter about that, considering ten thousand people said they really wanted it. NOT BITTER AT ALL!" he yelled, knocking over a tray of shrimp puffs as he stormed out.) Of course there are all kinds of dedicated subreddits or FB groups for finding readers. And several blogs are set up specifically for peer reviewers to meet and greet.

I would generally encourage you to stick to online unless you can get into some structured workshops (like in a college setting or hosted by a third party who really knows what they're doing). The limitations of geography in all but the hugest cities and self-selection of a typical writing group mean almost all of them have limited returns on effort that is....how to say this nicely....sub-optimal. If your writing group consists of six people, three of whom hate your genre, one of whom is trolling for their next ex and two who've been writing for a fraction of the time you have, you're already in trouble.

I hate to be so flip as to say keep doing what you're doing, but....keep doing what you're doing. There's no magic formula. Just a lot of trial and error. And hold onto those folks who give you good feedback and never let go.

Oh and before I put this article in the can, let me give you one more piece of advice I can't underscore enough: trust your bad vibes about criticism. Not everyone who is giving you bad advice or is doing it in a way that seems like it might be crueler than is necessary is doing either of those things because they don't know any better. The dream of being a writer is so strong that some people would rather see no one make it. Give yourself a break and don't try to worry about someone's internal motives in their heart of hearts or whether they're a good person. You just worry about you and your writing. If you feel like their criticism isn't helping you be a better writer, find other readers and don't look back. Because yes, maybe you just didn't mesh well. Maybe they were just too blunt or too soft. Maybe they were just not seeing your vision. Maybe they were genuinely good people.  All true. But maybe–and I wish I could say this wasn't ever true, but it actually horrifyingly ubiquitous–maybe they saw something in you as a threat and tried to pull you down. 

Far too common in our little world.

Good luck, Alexa!

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