Why receiving online feedback is fantastic. And why it can suck.

Oooh, controversial!

I recently posted the first few paragraphs of MS#1 online, on a website whose lovely writer host features regular contests that not only get agent attention, but allow readers to add their own feedback.

I know that I, more than anyone, need feedback to progress and grow as a writer. I’ve no shame in admitting this because it’s absolutely true! I need all the help I can get! High school English was a long time ago. I’m no grammar wiz. Often I make foolish mistakes and although I *know* better, my brain rushes through it without considering. I think a lot of writers do this. (Maybe? Or is it just me). Especially when we’ve written some parts so long ago that we don’t even properly see them anymore. Can I get an amen?

In this day and age we writers have more opportunity than ever before for exchanging feedback. There are thousands of websites for writers out there, with forums and mailing lists and match-ups for betas and CPs. Twitter and Facebook and other social networking sites help us find people who will tell us what we need to hear, in the way that helps us the most. I’m SO grateful to the people I’ve met so far, whose writing inspires me, and whose feedback pushes me! (You know who you are :))

But I’ve decided one arena in which a writer can trade feedback is not for me. The “contest.”

No one likes to receive flippant criticism. When someone tells me they think something needs to change, I’m delighted to understand where they’re coming from and make the change because it improves my story. I’ve had another person point to the same paragraph (possibly for the same reason, but I’ll never know) and basically say, “This sucks, I don’t understand it. I couldn’t get past it.” That doesn’t help me make it better.

So in this most recent contest, several of the comments I received were complimentary and encouraging, pointing out things they might change to improve, offering advice but also saying what they liked–all so very much appreciated. “This is where I tripped up, but maybe try this.” In leaving my own feedback for others, I chose genres and styles that I like to read, so that I could more easily suggest ways to improve. I don’t read much crime, so I skipped those.

What I don’t like is that contests like these are reciprocal. If your entry gets in, you are kindly asked to comment/critique on so many other entries as well. While this is requested in a spirit of fairness, it can backfire. It can cause pointless feedback because some people out there are just there to get feedback on their work and couldn’t give a flying patootie what other people do (and while I think the writing community is mainly generous and kind, those sorts of people exist everywhere). So they do it in a half-hearted, snippy, flippant way. And not only have I seen these responses confuse and frustrate other writers, you guessed it, it confuses and frustrates me. It’s easy to let emotions get in the way of clearly seeing work that is our heart’s expression. If someone says “this sucks”, then it must suck, right? Who am I to argue with Random Person X? And when you go down that trail, you’re liable to cut entire chapters out for no reason other than frustrated shame and self-doubt. But if that person is sitting across a coffeeshop table from you, typing an email, or responding in a forum, it’s much more comfortable to say, “Well, can you tell me why, and how you would change it?”

I went back and re-read a lot of the comments left on others’ work, and saw a bunch of similar feedback. It makes me want to go around to each and every one, clarifying what that person might’ve meant but didn’t say. Because nothing is more frustrating than thinking something’s wrong, but having no idea what or how to fix it. I can relate to this!

While I love getting my head down and charging full speed ahead, I need others along the path to see what I can’t see. Preferably others who *like* to help.

As a friend pointed out, often times these public critiques nurture bandwagon-mentality. “Yeah, I agree with Jane Doe up there. That paragraph is so out of place!” Well, did you think so when you first read it, or did you think so because Jane Doe said so? And I ask that in all seriousness. I need to know. I want to grow as a writer, but I find that situations like this cause more doubt than they do assurance that change is needed (or not).

And because these comments are sometimes made out of obligation, to tick off the numbers, they’re often things like, “Well, I don’t like this genre,” or “I can’t read books written in this tense.” Well…I don’t expect everyone to like the genre or tense I’ve chosen, and this is a contest for a variety of genres. It doesn’t help me to know that Joe Blogs doesn’t like present tense. I’m not going to change *that*. Sorry!

While I’ve gratefully received some beautiful gems in the feedback in this and past contests, I think the wrong mentality can easily be applied. In a forum, people aren’t given restrictions (usually) on how much to comment and critique. I tend to believe their feedback is genuine, and because their name is linked in the forum to their own posts, I can easily click to see what they’ve submitted. I think it’s safe to say everyone appreciates honest, helpful, friendly feedback. Sometimes it’s hard to swallow it, if it means making major changes. Tough; that’s life. And we want to grow, right? But it’s so much easier to anonymously post feedback on something because you have to, knowing that your identity isn’t linked to your OWN writing (in most cases).

I hope I don’t sound bitter! I’m actually happy because this means it’s one less avenue for me to explore, and makes it easier to focus on the blogs and avenues that I know do help me: one-on-one critiquing and specific forums. I feel much more at ease giving feedback in an email or chat or forum without feeling like 400 people just read a flippant remark and nodded, “Yeah. She sucks. NEXT!” I don’t need the world to see my writing before it’s published. Just the people who can help me make the changes I need to make to get there 😉

I will still love reading these kinds of posts and commenting on other brave souls’ shared work, because I know how good it feels to have someone put a finger on the things you’ve been unable to name, or for someone just to give you a pat on the back and say, “I like this; maybe try this here; clarify this; and keep at it!”

What feedback experiences have been the most helpful to you? Have contests worked for you? Specific online forums? Face-to-face groups? Emails between betas/CPs? I’d love to hear how other people seek out their feedback, and seek to give it. I LOVE reading others’ work and feeling like even one thing I suggest can help someone improve their story. It’s not always easy to receive, especially when you’ve poured years into something, but I don’t think it can be a truly solitary venture. Even if you work alone and never see your CPs face-to-face, it’s a fact that we get so close to our own work that we have to have others show us what it looks like, by lifting that mirror and telling us the things we’re not able to see with our own eyes. But I also think it works differently for everyone. So, sayonara, contests. Thanks for showing me how I work best.

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