Last week, Salon posted a good Q&A with comedian Michael Showalter about his new memoir, "Mr. Funnypants." One quote of his, in particular, jumped out at me...
"I didn't perform any of it (his book's comedy material) in front of an audience, which is one of the more interesting and terrifying things about writing a book. You really have no idea whether or not what you're writing is funny. In stand-up and sketch comedy, you know right away and you can make your changes accordingly."
I smiled the first time I read that, because I can relate -- especially now that I've made the conscious decision to write more humor. It's a frustrating thing writing the funny for print. You have no way of knowing for certain if what you're writing is getting the laugh until it's read or published. I often crave that immediate feedback. When you can tell a joke or perform a sketch, if the intended gag is met with audience silence, that will usually tell you everything you need to know.
Every writer -- regardless of their experience, or what they're writing -- carries a tiny bit of anxiety, questioning, "Is what I'm writing going to get the reaction I want?"
- Will my memo convince the boss to start production on my product?
- Will my legal brief sway the judge?
- Will readers get turned on by my steamy romance story?
- Will my headline generate page views on the website?
- Will the studio buy my screenplay?
That's why it's so important to seek out -- and listen to -- feedback on your work. The "seeking out" is relatively easy: go to writing classes and workshops, open mike (mic?) nights, track the web hits counter, track your book sales, watch your Facebook friends hit the "Like" button, ask a colleague, seek out the advice of a mentor.
Experienced writers can get in their own way, tuning out help because they think they know what they’re doing – even when they don’t. New writers, because they lack confidence, tend to "over-listen." Regardless of where the feedback is coming from, they make every change suggested, and question their own instincts. They don’t stop to ask, "What is this person's motivation?" Sometimes, you have to consider that the person giving feedback has his or her own agenda.
This happened to me early in my career. For a (thankfully) short time, I wrote for a newspaper where one of the editors actually had the balls to circulate a memo that showed examples of how to not write stories. Every single ‘don’t write like this’ example quoted from stories with my byline.
Still relatively new and unsure of myself (despite a couple of years and awards already under my belt), I felt humiliated and took it to heart, because this guy was an editor with more experience. It wasn’t until later that it occurred to me:
- The stories were all good enough to publish in the first place.
- None of my other editors had complained before (or since).
- I never asked for his opinion. No one did.
- His memo did not offer constructive criticism -- helpful suggestions that would be instructive to everyone who saw it for how to make our writing better.
- He may have been purposely sabotaging me, trying to push me out of the job.
While at the time, I was floored (and – surprise, surprise – quit very soon after) I eventually came to realize that this guy, even though he was an editor and had more experience than me, was your basic, run-of-the-mill d-bag asshole. He had his own agenda for telling me and everyone in the office I didn’t know what I was doing. Helpful instruction was not part of that agenda. This was feedback that could be rejected.
Now, this is the exception, I believe, not the rule. Most often, if you ask for, or are offered, feedback -- especially from other writers – people genuinely want to do right by you. But sometimes the feedback is misguided. Occasionally, it can be damaging. It takes experience to learn how to sort through it all. This is by no means complete, but here is a list of questions to ask yourself to help tell the difference.
Advice from a Do-Write, or a D-Bag?
- Why is this person giving the advice? Did I ask, or was it offered?
- Does this person have expertise in your area of writing?
- Is this person giving you their honest, fair assessment?
- Does the feedback talk to you in terms of what works and what doesn't in your writing? (As opposed to what is "good" or "bad" about your writing. "Good" and "bad" are subjective. What "works" is something that can be quantified and/or explained.)
- Is the person asking questions about what you were trying to accomplish?
- What's in it for this person if he/she is offering to help me?
- Is this person only focused on what they didn't like, or what was "wrong" with the writing? Can he/she point to what you wrote that was right.
Referenced link: Salon: Michael Showalter interview