Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Feedback Loop

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.
I'd love to hear about how others get feedback, and when you can tell if that feedback is good. Post in the comments.

Referenced link: Salon: Michael Showalter interview


  1. Anonymous3/03/2011

    awesome post! :) (#unsolicited feedback haha) at the moment i defer to the editor of the site i freelance for in terms of feedback (as well as the public "comments," when i receive them), but asking for feedback on my "personal" writing (which i hope to turn into a largely autobiographical novel, or novels) seems scary, especially knowing the readers are already familiar with story elements (or may even be specifically referenced in the writing) - really good points about not taking every piece of feedback to heart, and motivation seems to be key. (jz)

  2. wow this hits home. At a writer's conference, my article was shown to the entire class as the "how not to write" article. He ( the "professional" newspaper reporter) even said, I don't expect the owner of this to come forward." I was demoralized and humiliated. Then I realized that it was a PUBLISHED article, so someone thought it was OK. Later, the class found out that he actually didn't read everyone else's articles (part of the deal for the conference was a critique of an article) at all, only mine because it was short. There was shouting and complaining and eventual refunds. But that was later. After my humiliation and demoralization. So, your questions at the end of your post are right on. This experience toughened me up, which was a good thing when someone in a writing group, upon reading my ghost story, told me, "this is really good, except for the ghost stuff."

  3. Anonymous3/03/2011

    Wow, Noreen, that conference sounds like it was a sham. So crappy that a professional writer like that guy who embarassed you didn't see fit to do the job he had been paid to do. Shame on him! Goes to show you: consider the source, as Julie indicated.Excellent advice about considering motivation and hidden agenda. Best work with a mentor if you can, someone who wants to see you improve and from whom you can learn.

    Perhaps what it all boils down to is whether you can sell what you write. That means whoever paid you for the work thought it was good enough so perhaps you should, too.

    Not to be crass, but, oh heck! Opinions are like certain body parts; everyone has one. If you plan to be a writer, plan to live with the angst, insecurity and sometimes loneliness. It goes with the turf. Each day I was atthe newspaper, I'd wonder about why I couldn''t come up with the PERFFECT lead or somehow have made the story better, even after the stories had been published, often upfront or on the break page . In the long run, it didn't matter. And I took my writing skills and used them in another line of work. Keep those blogs coming, all of you!Great to join in on your conversation. I do not have a URL so I had to choose Anonymous but it's Annemarie here.