Critiquette II

Feedback, Not Just the PC Term for Criticism 

Critique: 1. An instance of serious practical criticism. The term is also habitually used of the evaluation of fine arts students' work, but the intellectual level of these critiques varies widely from instructor to instructor and institution to institution.

Feedback: 1. The partial reversion of the effects of a process to its source. 2. The act or practice of returning reactions to or information about a process or product, in order to evaluate or modify that process or product. The reactions or information thus returned.

The distinction between critiquing and giving feedback1 can be illustrated by comparing the following examples:

The Critiquer: “Character X is too boring to carry the story as protagonist. You need to make him more lively.”

The Reader: “I’m on page 32 and I’ve gotta tell you I’m getting antsy. I’m bored by Character X, who has met four people and said the exact same thing to each one.”

The first example is subtly undermined by the grammatical finality attached to the use of the present simple tense, which puts the statement in the same arena as “The sky is blue” and “Pizza is delicious.” Yes, the context implies opinion, but grammar implies state of being. More important however, the critiquer is generalizing; there is no link to the text, to something the writer actually did that she can address. No writer sets out to create a boring character (or weak plot or confusing scene, etc), it just happens. Wonderful ideas get writers started and give them fixed points in the distance to aim for, but the vast majority of a writer’s time is spent in the trenches, fighting with words and paragraphing and imagery and sentence structure and endless little niggling organizational problems. Telling a writer her character is boring is like telling a sailor on a stormy sea that you’ve spotted a hole in the yacht without mentioning where it is.

By contrast, the second example puts what is being said into the proper, wholly subjective2, perspective; it establishes the reader’s personal relationship with the story and implies nothing whatsoever about any state of being (i.e., what people in general will think). More important, the reader’s feedback is first and last connected with the text. She gives key information to the writer: what page she is on when she is moved to comment, and the specific text (in this case, the reference to repeated dialogue) that has disrupted her reading. Narrowing down the source of the problem is the greatest asset that text-based feedback affords the writer in the trenches. Note that the reader’s use of the popular I-statement is not an attempt to soften the blow; it is an essential element of feedback, establishing context (the reader’s own personality and prejudices), which allows the writer to know where the reader is coming from3.

Giving Feedback
Writers are by definition glued to their work, and thus are plagued by their own lack of perspective when it comes to judging the result. Hence the need for test readers to provide that perspective. Perspective is what you bring to the table as a test reader; it is madness to give that away by pretending to be someone your are not, or by worrying what other people might think.

Thus it is your job as a test reader to share your reactions to a specific work with the writer. You should also try to explain those reactions--as long as you do so without leaving the text and entering into the realm of what you think other, better, writers would have done. You will find your emotions aroused by what you are reading; don’t try to quell them--that’s what the writer is trying to do, arouse your emotions; if those emotions are negative, you owe it to the writer to say so.

In general, whenever you are bumped out of the story, it’s your job to comment. Now, bumps skip by really quickly when you’re reading for pleasure, and you don’t usually stop to attach words or analysis to what’s happening. When you’re test reading, you have to be aware of that disturbed, something’s off feeling so that you can stop and try to describe what bumped you (which as a writer yourself you should be able to do). As soon as you note the place in the text, you’ve half way home; you don’t need to go on to make a scintillating comment. You’ll find yourself writing things like “I don’t get this,” “This is going too fast for me, I’m getting lost,” “I think you said earlier that character X lived in Japan, so I don’t get why she’s so biased against her foreign neighbor,” “It’s implausible to me that character Z wouldn’t call the police after the murder attempt,” and “I keep confusing Robert with Ronald.” Even “Something’s off here, but I don't know what” is better than nothing.

Most of what you say will be negative--that’s the nature of the beast and what the writer wants to hear. Don’t rant, or bring attention to yourself, but make it clear how you’re feeling. Variations on “Action X makes me dislike character Y” is terrific feedback. Likewise “I don't like this bit” is invaluable (especially if you can articulate why). Good feedback can get extremely negative, but as long as you keep it text based and impersonal, you’re safe. “This scene/character/plot arc/relationship doesn’t work for me” is as negative as it gets, if you think about it, but it contains no sharp barbs. For the record, it is also essential that you tell the writer what you like best; what you thought was best about her story. This will allow the writer to put your feedback into context She will be able to compare what is working with what is not, and analyze her process.

Sometimes you’ll find yourself thinking (because it’s practically impossible to switch off the acquisitions editor within) something like “Cripes, who’s gonna publish or read this mackerel bait?” Chances are you’re not going to say that, but it’s surprisingly important not to dwell on it, either. It is the single most useless thought to have when you’ve taken on the role of test reader. Push it aside, clear the mind, and let the book work on you--one way or another. It’s counterproductive to take a position on the ultimate worth of a book at any point during your read-through. You’d be surprised. So you must sometimes avoid being influenced even by yourself!

Likewise, don’t worry about whether or not your comments are smart or stupid, or whether or not the writer will pay any attention to you. Above all, when you’re done, detach. Your feedback is a gift, and like all good gifts its value is in the giving. The writer will make her own choices as to what to do with it, and there’s no point in being offended if she thinks it’s the wrong size or color or model and she returns it.

Getting Feedback
For most writers, it is a salutary experience to receive comprehensive and well-articulated feedback from a reader. Good feedback lets you see how close or how far your book is from your original intention and also, by letting you observe over time the pattern of what works and what doesn’t, gives you information on how to narrow the gap. The honing of a specific work is not the only benefit; good feedback provides you with the opportunity to sharpen your skills and broaden your perspective as a writer. So how does that work?

As a writer, you are in the happy position of knowing exactly what you mean by every word you write. Indeed, clarity of meaning probably came first, and the act of writing (endless writing in the trenches) is your attempt at capturing and developing that meaning4. But your readers are unaware of your intended meaning; for them, meaning comes second and is only discoverable through your words, which they will interpret in the context of their own personality and experience--not yours. It’s hard to anticipate what readers will take away from your words, and harder still to realize that your words, no matter how carefully chosen, may have wholly unintentional effects. Likewise, it never occurs to many readers that you might have intended any other meaning than what they assign. Thus, although a lot of the feedback you get will be immediately accessible, much will confuse you, or annoy you, or attempt to point you in a direction that you have no desire to take.

There’s a trick to interpreting this type of difficult (and extremely common) feedback. First of all, don’t reject it out of hand. Tell yourself this: something bumped my kind reader out of the story and she duly noted it, explaining it as best she could. Your job is to look past that explanation and refocus your attention on the text that caused the bump (the place where the reader was moved to comment). The knowledge that something may be amiss should be enough to give you the perspective you need to identify the problem for yourself. It is in fact common for readers to misinterpret the reason they’ve been bumped out of the story (so very hard to refrain from assigning pat explanations based on preconceptions). Thus the most valuable gift of the test reader is the red flag she sends up--any explanations that may come with it are wonderful if they make sense to you, but potentially misleading if they do not.

It is important for you the writer to realize that you are the arbiter when it comes to how you use the feedback you receive. This may sound obvious, but I can point to numerous writers I have worked with who blindly make the changes that have been suggested, as if they find the whole process so distasteful that they just want to get it over with. But it’s your job to play king and emperor, to decide when to revise and when not to revise. It is your job to use the feedback to get to re-examine the text or issue in question; your job to conclude that it is off base or simply mistaken. You will be much happier if you take the approach that the reader is sharing her highly subjective and real-time thoughts5, rather than telling you what you have to do to fix your book. I once conducted an informal survey of clients and writer friends, and found some consensus that a good professional substantive edit was one in which 70 to 80 percent of the feedback was useful in some way. With informal readers, the percentage of useful feedback is likely to be less.

A final note: you can ask your readers for clarification or ask them specific questions, but that’s it. If your readers didn’t understand something, don’t waste your time (and theirs) trying to explain it to them; look at your text from their point of view and check to see if what you wrote could be in any way unclear. Revise or don’t, but then move on. Above all, don’t argue with your readers’ interpretations; they’ve given you the gift of their honest thoughts and feelings--if you want to change them, the way to do it is through revision of the text.

The Sum of Its Parts
An amazing thing happens when, as a reader asked to read another writer’s WIP, you give up trying to be knowledgeable; when you give up trying to be anything but who you are and just note what goes on in your head when you read. You realize it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong--which is half way along the road to realizing that good writing is rarely a question of right and wrong. Released from any sense that you should focus on trying to help, or correct, or be tough, or flag well known style issues, your focus stays on the text, where it belongs.

It is equally revealing when, as a writer, relieved of the necessity of having to fight through jargon and conflicting intentions, you are brought face to face with what you want: a view of your own work through a real live reader’s eyes. Ideally, presented with feedback that focuses on the writing, you will experience a cool sense of distance and objectivity6 from your own writing. Yes, in the abstract you will still be crushed by the realization that someone else finds flaws in your work, but that feeling should fade when you read the comments themselves, in context, and realize that someone has read and understood your book.

The best possible working atmosphere for giving and getting feedback is one in which both writer and reader have abandoned the idea that the writer’s ego or sense of literary self-worth is either on the line or permanently hovering in the wings; an atmosphere in which both view the story as an independent entity.

1 You might reasonably conclude that what I’m calling “feedback” is better known as “constructive criticism.” It is, if by “constructive criticism” you mean “text-based feedback.” But I don’t use the term, because 1) it contains the word “criticism,” which is bound to lead to trouble more often than not, and 2) in my experience, people have grossly differing ideas about what is meant by “constructive.” Note that the ideas I write about here are neither new nor mine, and that the writing universe is happily full of wise practitioners.

2 Somewhere along the line we are taught that subjective opinion is bad and objective opinion is good. Very true, in the proper context, but not when you’re giving/getting feedback on your novel. Subjectivity is what you want: a blow-by-blow account of the direct and personal connection between book and reader.

3 Knowing where your reader is coming from (her native likes, dislikes, and happy prejudices) allows the writer to better analyze the feedback and choose what she wants to keep or discard.

4 This is a topic in its own right, but for now please note that it is fatal to think that because your words come directly from your vision they will intrinsically carry your vision intact, and it is the reader’s problem if they don’t get it. This is not what writing is about. Within reason, it is your job as the writer to make sure that your readers do not wander off the trail.

5 A test reader is not writing a book report; she is not responsible for being consistent or for checking her facts. For example: Your reader notes on page 302 “Wow, Phyllis has a kid? I didn't know that and was surprised.” You, well aware that you mentioned said kid on page 12, may 1) become annoyed that your reader wasn’t attentive enough, and 2) chuck that bit of feedback into the “mistake” box and ignore it. Fair enough--though much better if you think “Whoa…I didn’t mention the kid from page 12 to page 302? That’s just inviting my readers to forget that Phyllis had a kid, and I need them to remember. Better put in a few more references.”

6 In this context--that of a writer trying to revise her own work--objectivity is a great thing.

Coming Next: Part III – The Measure of Praise: “I loved it. It was better than Cats. I’m going to read it again and again.”
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