Feedback is an important part of the writing process. When we write, whether it be a script or prose, we get far too close to our work to form objective opinions. Having a new set of eyes helps us see flaws we would likely miss.
It can take two forms: constructive and destructive. Constructive means, “promoting further development or advancement” while Destructive means “overthrow, disprove, or discredit.”
Constructive Criticism is often a term found in the writing world. In fact, as writers we crave it. Done right, it can help us improve our stories, and our craft. It might not always be positive--and won’t, if it’s good criticism. In order for your work to reach its full potential, and for you to reach yours as a writer, you need someone who will tell you what’s wrong and give advice for how to fix it.
I’ve had my editor tell me several times that I need to cut a scene or completely rewrite it because it doesn't work. There have been times when I’ve gotten two pages of notes and none of them were pleasant. While negative comments may sting immediately, they’re what you need to grow as a writer.
1) Constructive Feedback from Someone Outside the Industry
Not all constructive criticism can be used.
While there are writers who won’t let their close friends and family see their work before they’re ready to release it (I am in that camp), others let parents, spouses, or someone close take a look and see their opinion.
Your mom can give you constructive criticism but it’s not the kind you need. If she doesn’t like a scene, she might not know why, and her advice on how to change it might not work. This can easily turn into destructive criticism, as your family and friends could do nothing but praise you. Earned praise is wonderful. But if it’s all you get, you’ll never grow and your story won’t improve.
That’s not to say that they can’t help you with grammar, or a general opinion. Those are always helpful.
2) Constructive Feedback from an Industry Professional
About a year after I decided to treat writing as my profession, I discovered a local writing group. At the time, it was run by a literary agent. She critiqued from that standpoint, and coached the group on the industry.
That’s the kind of thing, especially at the early stages of writing, that you need desperately.
People who have worked longer than you can offer insight. By hearing from an agent, I learned a lot about how to approach one, how to properly write a query letter, and about the mechanics of writing.
Here at Stage 32 you have an invaluable resource in the Happy Writers Program. There are industry professionals who are willing to accept your pitches or take a look at a section of your script and give feedback. I’ve done it twice now and learned so much. I’m looking forward to doing it again.
The idea for this post actually came from a discussion I saw in the Screenwriters’ Lounge. Someone spoke about how someone else on Facebook gave them harsh “criticism.” This was definitely destructive feedback. Unfortunately, every writer will find themselves facing this.
1) “Industry Professionals” Who Believe They Know It All
Many of us have had the misfortune of working with, or seeking feedback from, someone who believes they know it all. Whether they’ve been doing this for years, have taken classes, or inset-excuse-here, they believe that because of that they do not need to continue to hone their craft.
That’s a major red flag.
Sometimes their “advice” is motivated by something else.
One of my first ventures into film was working on a webseries. A friend referred me, and I began as a secondary actor. As time went on, I wore many hats in that production. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was the creator of the show.
It started when the friend who referred me won an award at a film festival. After that, the creator would belittle my friend in conversation, and criticisms of his work and writing were personal. I wasn’t okay with that and would frequently ask him to stop.
Later, I released my first book, then won an award. He went from being a very supportive co-writer to intensely critical about my work. This included everything from the quality of my writing itself, to failures to include specific characters he had never told me about, to being unhappy with the plot of a story based on his own outline. Every time I’d fight back, he’d remind me that he’d been doing this longer, he’d created the show, and that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. He knew the industry, after all.
The problem is, people will often attempt to belittle you in order to boost their egos. When someone tells you that you don’t have what it takes and you’ll never make it in the industry, consider the source. Have they had success or are they about on the same level as you? If they have had success, are they critiquing your work with what’s best for it in mind?
In this instance, it’s very important that you are cautious who you take advice from. Industry Professionals can give the best, or worst, feedback.
The sign of a good writer is that they continue to grow and admit to being wrong. They don’t belittle others to make themselves look like the only competent writer in a room.
What do you do when you run into one of these people?
You take the criticism gracefully, but do so with a grain of salt.
2) Arbitrary Feedback (Nit-Picking)
An editor was assigned to one of my books. There was nothing unusual about this until the editor sent me his revisions (just days before the deadline).
When I opened the document, the sheer amount of red overwhelmed me. Then, when I began digging into the edits I noticed something. He changed the structure of over half the sentences in my book. These were not mistakes. He tried to rewrite my book in his style.
While that’s an extreme example, this is the kind of bad advice you need to guard against. Is their advice trying to help you, or are they trying to make you more like him or herself? A surprising amount of advice can fall in this camp.
See if the advice actually helps your work, or matches industry standards. There are times you’ll need to rewrite virtually every sentence, especially if you’re just starting out. You’ll need to learn to write clearly, and concretely, with diction that’s easy to follow. Or get “show, don’t tell” down pat.
Learn the expectations of the industry you’re writing for (and they’re different between screenplays, prose, audio scripts, and anything else), then you’ll know if you got good advice or bad.
There’s a sea of feedback out there, from groups and websites to offers right here on Stage 32. How do you wade through all of it and find a place where you’ll receive the feedback you need?
Here’s some questions to ask when looking at a feedback group.
1) Does the Group Look at Writing as a Profession or as a Hobby?
Remember the group I spoke of that was run by a literary agent? Now, the group is all but dead. The agent left when her agency succeeded. Someone else took over and they ran the group for a bit but it slowly sunk from here’s how to shape your work to get published and here’s what the industry wants to I like writing, you like writing, let’s write together.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, but when you’re trying to push yourself to break into this very difficult industry, having that mindset is not beneficial. There’s a difference in the drive of a person who wants to do this professionally and one who enjoys writing in their spare time. When it comes to feedback quality, that gap is wide.
2) Who’s in the Group?
Who’s in the group? I’ve met some of my best friends in writing groups. We still push each other to be the best we can be. Do the people in this group push you or do they hand you rounds of “That was nice!”?
As great as that sounds, it’s actually one of the worst things that a fellow creative can do. Yes, you work may be good, but don’t settle. Don’t let a group convince you to either.
Find a group that will constantly push you. As much as they may annoy you when deadlines approach, you’ll thank them later. (In fact, I dedicated my last book to two of them because without them, it might not have gotten it done.)
3) Is Staying in this Group Beneficial for Me as a Writer and as a Person?
It’s hard to leave. I got an easy out of that writing group because the schedule changed. I went a couple of times after when my schedule allowed. I felt the difference. At that point, that group didn’t have anything to offer me. There was no one there to push me to be better, no one there that had the same drive.
So, for one last time, I walked away.
You can’t stay in a group that is no longer helpful to you. As hard as it may be to leave, you need to.
Taking feedback as a writer is hard. We get attached to our writing and to have someone tear it to shreds can be utterly heartbreaking. As writers, we can’t take it personally. Getting that feedback, that push to improve your work, is one of the best things you can do. If you’re not willing to get the feedback, to put yourself out there and let someone critique your work, will you be able to release it?
Or will you find yourself telling people you’re writing something, but knowing it’ll never come out?
Sound extreme? It’s not. I’ve met writers who can’t take feedback and don’t see the value in it. And those writers are ones whose work continues to sit on their computers. We are not perfect, we all make mistakes, and that extra set of eyes can help prevent you from making an embarrassing one -- and encourage you to see it in print.
You got notes. What do you do with them?
Read them over. I will read them from start to finish and try to see how they affect the big picture. From there, I break feedback into sections and go bit by bit.
Do I use every single suggestion that’s given to me?
No. Chances are, people will disagree. You can sit there with a group of ten and they’ll all have different opinions. If they all notice the same problem area, it might be a good idea to revisit it. However, find someone reliable enough that almost every suggestion they give is good. It’s important to remember that even the best feedback is slightly subjective, and you need to see how it suits your work before you can incorporate it.
Feedback is one of the best things a writer can get but is the hardest for us, too. When allowing your work to go up on the chopping block, you leave yourself vulnerable to the opinions of others. My first time, I shook with nerves. I still do, but I’ve gotten better about it. Take a look at what they’re giving you and remember: if you’ve gone to the right people, they truly want your work to succeed.
Mary Helen Norris is an actress, writer, and editor. Mary is the winner of the 2016 Best Novella in the Pulp New Ark Pulp Awards and a Top 10 Best Mystery Finalist in the 2017 Preditors and Editors Reader's Poll. She is also the Television Coordinator and Editor for The Time Travel Nexus, as well as the producer and Co-Host of the Raconteur Rountable.
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