Feedback: What to do if it’s unkind

 In Essays, Writing practice

My most recent Art of Practice blog post, about some bat-sh^t crazy hate that got flung my way, sparked conversation both public (on FB) and private (in-person and PM); more than twenty people of different ages and life stages gave me positive feedback of one sort or another. And one person sent an anonymous comment and told me the problem is that I’m bat-sh^t crazy, too. Well, duh. Aren’t we all? But that wasn’t what I was addressing in the post.

But the words were there, glowing up at me from the screen and I had a moment of OMG what have I done? And then, the slow-forming light-bulb in the bubble above my cartoon head: one mean anonymous comment; twenty loving affirmative (non-anonymous) comments.

Who ya gonna believe in this situation? One person who won’t associate themselves with their words (aka troll), or twenty-plus people saying, yes, me too?

This same question may arise when we share our stories for feedback. We may get twenty folks saying yes! This captures it exactly, please write more!, and one person who scribbles, your spelling is terrible and btw you are just wrong about your character’s motivation.

Two years ago I would have obsessed over that one bit of negative feedback, certain it represented an insight that remarkably, twenty other readers had totally missed. But stop and think about it: twenty to ONE positive-to-negative feedback? Chances are good that piece of feedback doesn’t apply.

So why does that one comment get us down, as writers?

Sometimes our spelling is terrible! And we know this when we step back and look at our piece with objective eyes (plus, y’know, spell-check. Use it.). Sometimes that one person does have an insight about our character that no one else has. And we’re uncomfortable because deep in our writer’s heart we know it. We, too, feel a niggling sense of not quite right.

And so we need to fix those things.

But how to discern whether the mean words are insightful or not?

First, sleep on it. For at least a week. Don’t go mucking about with your piece. Just let it simmer on the back burner. Read some poets you love, take a long walk, play with a writing exercise.

Then, without re-reading your piece or any of the feedback, describe to yourself, for yourself, what you intend for your piece to be about. What is its fast-beating heart and its soft tender belly? Describe it in three sentences, NO MORE (and no, you cannot have a complex compound sentence. Simple sentences!)

Compare your intention with the negative feedback. Does that feedback resonate? Is it talking to the piece you want to write, or is it someone spewing unkindness in your general direction?

If it’s someone spewing, you’re done. I have dealt with unkind words in several different ways: burning, shredding, recycling. I don’t think it matters how you get rid of the unkind words, but I do think it is super important to get them out of your writing space. If they were in electronic form, trash ‘em. (Unless you think you might want to use them as a prompt for character dialogue when you’re writing about an unkind character. Then make a folder and put them aside.)

But if the unkind words address the piece you intend to write and share with the world, then read your story out loud to yourself. How does it match, or not, with your three sentences?

At this point, depending on your experience with revision, you can either launch into your tried-n-true best practice, or play with the following:

Every sentence that reflects your intention gets a green highlight.

Every sentence that sort-of reflects your intentions gets a yellow highlight.

And yep, every sentence that doesn’t touch your intention gets a red highlight.

Pull out all the reds.

Print out the remainder.

Read it aloud again.

How has it changed? Is it just a formless blob now, or has it tightened up? What else, if anything do you need? Segues? More factual information? To extend a metaphor?

Revision, aka re-vision, for many writers, is the heart of writing. To say what we mean to say, we have to write and re-write, often multiple times. Excellent resources for revision IMO: Sol Stein’s On Writing. Chapter 24 in Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor. Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway. Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren’s Deepening Fiction.

Notably, what each of these resources has in common is an author who is both rigorous and kind. They, too, want you to write your stories as beautifully, as effectively as you can—and they give you ways forward with generosity of spirit and an abiding faith that you are capable of the work required (not saying it’s easy, but it’s doable).

So what did I do with the mean words I received? I considered them and realized they missed the point of my post entirely; I cranked up Taylor Swift’s “haters gonna hate” song, danced around for twenty minutes, deleted the words and got back to writing.

I’m here for the beauty and empathy that writing our stories can create–even when we have different experiences of beauty and empathy. There’s lots of other people who are, too. Let’s keep finding each other.

Big-sky beauty puts unkind feedback in perspective: outside Taos, NM, 2017. Image by Lesley Howard

Big-sky beauty puts unkind feedback in perspective: outside Taos, fall, 2017.


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