The Dangers of Feedback

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:

  1. Is this person an idiot?
  2. Is this person the right reader for my book?
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. It’s fine to disregard one person’s advice and find a different first reader.
  3. 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!

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4 thoughts on “The Dangers of Feedback”

  1. As a soon-to-be freelance developmental editor, I was initially dismayed (but I also laughed) when you said don’t hire a dev editor. But, I totally agree with all your advice. If a writer has good beta readers or critique partners, then they’re likely getting the feedback they need already.

    I can’t emphasize enough the part about being the right fit— don’t work with just any editor. The risk of demoralization is unfortunately so real. Yes, disregard feedback that feels wrong (easier said than done); ideally an editor should be in conversation with the writer, not being prescriptive. Also the cheering section is super important!

  2. Mona, I would be VERY interested to know if there is any way that freelance editors let prospective clients know what kinds of books they most want to work with — or what kinds they really do not want to work with. Because I can see how useful it might be to hire an experienced editor, but only if you can have a pretty good idea that they’re a good fit for your specific type of novel. Maybe editors say on their websites, way up front:


    Whatever, it just would be better if authors and editors had maybe some kind of clearinghouse or something where editors could say up front what kind of novels they prefer and what kind they hate, and readers could skim through a list of a lot of editors and pick maybe half a dozen who look like they might be a good fit.

    You’re right that it’s easier said than done to disregard advice that’s wrong for you or for your novel. The editor says [thing that is wrong], with plenty of emphasis and confidence. This is definitely wrong, says the editor. This doesn’t work at all. That certainty and definite tone can absolutely be hard to set aside.

    The situation in which I would suggest hiring an editor is if you have something specific that’s a problem. Pacing, for me. I sent a draft to my agent once — no, twice — and said I knew there was a problem and what should I do? Once she said the front third of the story was too repetitive and could I combine two scenes or take one out (I don’t remember which). The second time she said, “I think you can get from point B all the way to point G without hitting C, D, E, or F. You’d have to take out this plot element and these two characters, but I think that might work better.”

    She was right both times, and this is the kind of advice that a beta reader may not be able to offer because a reader’s eye is not exactly like an editor’s eye.

  3. Well, an editor can totally let people know, in exactly the way you describe, what they read— and some do so on their websites or in their listings. It’s really a question of marketing, and when it comes to marketing, a lot of people fail to do it well. I think the fear is that if they’re too specific, it limits the business they receive. I haven’t looked very far into marketing yet, but what I hear is that actually being very specific about the work / client you want is key.

    Also if an editor gives an author such specific, emphatic feedback, I would kindly suggest the editor reconsiders how they’re giving feedback. What’s that quote… they’re right about something being wrong but not about what exactly or how to fix it? The editor’s attitude and approach are important too. Ultimately it’s the writer’s work and vision, and the editor should be mindful of that.

  4. There are SO MANY hopeful authors that I think narrowing down the ones who ask for editing services ought to be helpful all the way around. Limiting the business you get ought to be useful, honestly, after the first little bit where you get established. This is the generic “you,” but this seems like it should apply broadly. If I were hanging up my shingle, I would NOT want to get anything remotely in the same zip code as grimdark.

    Yes, saying, “Needs more action right here — could she run into a monster?” really should be “Might benefit from more action right here — can you think about doing something something to provide that?”

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