A post at Writer Unboxed: The Dangers of Feedback
That’s certainly an eye-catching title. I actually think I know what the greatest danger of feedback has to be. Do we all immediately think of the same thing? Raise your hand if you instantly thought something along the lines of:
Trying to revise your novel to fit someone else’s vision, expectations, or preferences, when these are all wrong for the novel and incompatible with your own vision and tastes.
That’s surely the great danger of asking for feedback — that you may get feedback that is completely wrong for the novel or for you, and that you’ll destroy your novel by trying to take that advice. Nothing else can possibly come close. Can it?
Well, maybe this:
The feedback you receive will be so negative that it will destroy your motivation to write.
And of course this is awkward because we all know there are truly awful, unreadable self-published books on Amazon. What if someone set something like that before you and asked for your feedback? What are you supposed to with that?
I’ll tell you what I think might be somewhat kind and somewhat useful in that situation: you can say, accurately, that the book is not at all to your personal taste and you don’t feel you can offer useful feedback for it.
I will add that although I’ve said repeatedly that I would be happy to beta read for regular commenters here, I am assuming that (a) most of you probably have quite good command of the language at the sentence level, and even more important, that (b) none of you will ever send me some sort of horrible nihilistic story where the protagonist slowly destroys his life and ruins the lives of everyone around him and then commits suicide. If you do, I will skim through it and then I will tell you that your book is unfortunately not at all to my personal taste and I am completely unable to offer any useful feedback whatsoever. This will be totally true. I would be stunned if anything like that happened. Many of us probably have broad tastes in reading, but not that broad.
Anyway, the dangers of feedback. Those are the dangers that leap to mind when I hear that phrase: that it will be crushingly negative or that it will be completely wrong. Does the linked post agree? Here’s how that post begins:
How’s this for a guilty pleasure? One of my go-to pastimes for the last ten years has been going on Amazon, searching up my all-time favorite books, movies, and albums, and obsessively reading every single one-star review. I have no idea what this says about me, but it’s probably not 100% healthy.
Just ballparking the numbers here, one-star reviews of brilliant things tend to breakdown like this: 25% of them are complete nonsense, 25% miss the point entirely, and 25% have nothing whatsoever to do with artistry. The Great Gatsby has too much drinking in it. Did the White Album really need all those songs? My Pulp Fiction Blu-ray arrived a day late! You know, that kinda thing. Inevitably, though, that last 25% of one-star reviews will include well-reasoned, artfully written, totally not ridiculous arguments for why many of the things I love so much are actually huge pieces of crap. The lesson here is simple, and I’ll adjust it for the fact that this is a site about writing: No book is for everyone.
I’ve never once gone to Amazon to enjoy reading one-star reviews for anybody’s book, far less mine. This is true even though I actually do enjoy a reading a highly negative review of a book, as long as the review seems fair and is pointing to things that matter to me. Still, that never occurred to me. I do like fake Amazon reviews. I mean the funny kind, like the ones for the black-and-blue-or-gold-and-white dress, like this:
It was a dark and stormy night. What began as the perfect evening out in my new gold and white dress ended in a crushing downward spiral of death, deceit, and a strange case of hoodwinking as I awoke, alone and terrified, in an ensemble of blue and black. **Not recommended for small children or imaginary friends of any size**
Still, I guess I can sort of see the appeal of reading one-star reviews for books I know I hate, except I wouldn’t have the patience to wade through one-star reviews that say “The cover was torn when it arrived, one star, very disappointed” or “Totally boring, one star” or whatever.
Anyway, reviews aren’t what I thought of at all when I saw the word “feedback.” I thought of beta reader feedback, editorial feedback, feedback from your personal friends whose taste in books is completely unlike yours, things like that. Is the linked post solely about “feedback” from reviews?
No, whew. It’s actually about the kind of early feedback on drafts that I thought of.
If you’re an established writer—or if you’ve just been at it for a long time—you may already have a team of trusted early readers in place. For many of us, though, finding people to read our initial drafts can be a challenge. Often the impulse—believe me, I’ve been there—is to thrust your typo-ridden Microsoft Word doc into the inbox of the first literate, willing, seemingly able-brained person you find. My advice: take a pause, maybe run spellcheck, and ask yourself three simple questions:
- Is this person an idiot?
- Is this person the right reader for my book?
- Does this person even like the type of book that I’ve written?
I think you can dispense with (1). If the person is literate and willing, then you can assume they’re not an idiot. But (2) and (3) are certainly crucial. This is also why I would hesitate to hire a freelance developmental editor. They might be a good editor for, say, grimdark, but totally wrong for anything I would personally write. I’m not sure how to tell whether a freelance editor is actually a fan of the right kind of books AND ALSO good at nailing problems with plotting and pacing, and unless I was sure I was picking an editor who would really be helpful, I would not be willing to pay thousands of dollars for editing. Thus, the importance of beta readers.
The advice in this post is straightforward: don’t ask for feedback from someone who is certain to hate your book. That’s fine as far as it goes. I would add:
- If you make a mistake and give your book to the wrong person and they give you totally wrong advice for it, don’t take that advice.
- It’s fine to disregard one person’s advice and find a different first reader.
- There’s too much emphasis on not asking someone who likes your books too much because you need a critique rather than a cheering section.
You see that last bit everywhere, including in the linked post. I think it is largely wrong. I think what is most helpful is someone who is both offering a critique AND a cheering section, and I think that is not actually unusual. It’s nice (seriously, very nice!) to have little smiley faces dotted in the margin along with YAY! and OH NO! comments. This kind of happy feedback does not in any way stop an early reader from also saying, “I’m skimming through this chapter, I can’t get interested in this, I want to get back to the other plotline,” or “Wow, repetitious or what, you just said this three paragraphs ago” or “Gosh, you’re sure using the world “actually” a lot; maybe you should stop doing that?” This is what the author needs to know, but the little smiley faces are very definitely a bonus!