Generally speaking, I’m not big on podcasts (because I have a hard time focusing on and retaining audio-only information) but there is one that I make sure to tune into every week: Scriptnotes by screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin. John and Craig are funny, irreverent, and informative, and most of their insights apply to writing in general, not just writing for Hollywood.
A few episodes ago, they talked about “taking notes” – i.e., accepting feedback – and there were 2 points that really stuck out to me.
1. Deny, Defend, Debate
These are the normal human reactions to criticism. We reject what we don’t like; we justify what we do like; we argue about it all. These instincts are very human, yes – but they’re not all that helpful when it comes to improving our work (or ourselves).
For this reason, in many workshops, the author of a story being critiqued is not permitted to speak until after everyone else has shared their feedback. (Sometimes the author isn’t allowed to speak at all!) This forced silence keeps the deny-defend-debate monster waiting… and waiting… and waiting some more… so that by the time the writer finally gets a chance to open their mouth, that 3-D ogre may have given up and left altogether! At the very least, it should be lethargic or off-guard, allowing everyone’s feedback to slip by and reach the writer’s (hopefully open) mind.
Another technique I use to combat my own 3-D monster is to just say yes. No matter how much I hate a suggestion, or disagree with an edit, I force myself to accept it, to sit with it for a while, and then to reevaluate. After a few hours (or a few days), if it still doesn’t feel right, then I’m allowed to go back to what I had before. But more often than not, I find myself sticking with the changes my crit partners suggest.
All that being said, no matter how open-minded you try to be, sometimes feedback can be hard to swallow simply because of how it’s being delivered. Which leads me to…
2. “Goldilocks” Feedback
In other words, critiques are best (i.e., most helpful) when they’re not too broad, but not too specific either. And not too gentle, but not too harsh. Like Goldilocks, we writers need our feedback to be “just right” – somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, where it’s far more comfortable than either extreme.
- “I don’t like this ending” = too broad.
- “I think the senator should tearfully confess, go through a series of grueling court appearances, and then be sentenced to 3 years in prison” = too specific.
- “I don’t find the resolution fully satisfying because the senator faces no consequences for her actions” = just right.
- “OMG I LOVE THIS YOU ARE THE BEST EVAR!” = too gentle.
- “Your prose is the most detestable garbage I’ve ever read” = too harsh.
- “Your metaphors work really well because they’re framed by the protagonist’s profession, but I think you can take out some of her daily work routine, which starts to get monotonous.” = just right.
Note that the “just right” examples incorporate the rationale behind the feedback – which allows a writer to understand the problem, making them more likely to accept the suggestion, or come up with their own solution.
I have two rules of thumb when I’m given the responsibility – and the privilege – of critiquing someone else’s work. First, I try to remember what type of feedback I find most helpful. Odds are, other writers will appreciate the same kinds of comments. And second, I always create what one of my professors liked to call a feedback sandwich. That means I start and end with the positives, and keep all the tough stuff in the middle. You’d be surprised how much “meat and veggies” a person can eat when they’re served between two delicious slices of “fresh bread.”
So that’s my advice on giving and getting feedback as a writer – and my recommendation for a good podcast. Bon apetit!