I recently had to write about feedback for some writing students. It is something that we seem afraid of, but I have never met a poet or writer who does it for a living without an opinion. I have seen adults come to violence over Byron. Once I saw two female poets literally wrestling over Plath. One writer I know has an opinion of every writer they know – many of those opinions skirt around four letter words but it is an opinion. We seem to have an opinion on most day to day things but for some unknown reason we are afraid of the written word, it is like fucking Moses came down from the mountain with every book ever written or to be written carved in stone. THOU SHALT NOT CRITICISE. I am sure when Moses did come down with the commandments that someone like me was at the back questioning each one, especially coveting. The modern world would be screwed without coveting, capitalism is literally fear coupled with coveting. Words are words, even the four letter ones, they are merely sounds, sounds are a virus, language is a virus, therefore we are only adding to those sounds, the music of life. Without feedback, without conversation or debate, we fall into a stupor, we fall into fanaticism, fascism, nationalism and stupidity, we seek no longer to question, to feedback our views, we accept dogma and our souls merely tune out and drop off the edge of the world. So, here’s my ten points that I gave to my students:
1) Don’t just share that first draft. Share any redrafts after feedback. This helps your peers to see whether you have taken their advice. It also means you develop good practice, seeking feedback from others during the writing process. I have been a professional writer for eighteen years and continue to garner feedback from fellow writers, poets, editors and readers. Writers and poets who work together during the draft process learn a lot, they see where they have gone wrong in their own work, or where they can go right. There is a real satisfaction in helping a piece of work develop.
2) No one who writes for a living does so in isolation. That is simply nonsense, and any writer and poet who says so, is a liar or the work is frankly, crap (it has to be said). Writing together helps you to keep it together. Sometimes you cannot see the wood for the trees; it is then, more than ever, that you need fresh eyes.
3) Giving feedback is a valuable skill and a transferable skill. It really is, the more you give feedback the easier it will be for you to see where even professional writers go wrong.
4) Do not be afraid to have an opinion, just back it up. Real opinions count, we may not always agree but we will have to recognise a valid opinion.
5) That is why you must never share your writing with the following people or groups:
(a) Your family – don’t do it, don’t go there, they simply won’t understand or worse still will tell you that they don’t understand. Worse still they will tell you that they like it but in reality they simply didn’t get it. They don’t want to hurt your feelings.
(b) Your friends – there’s a clue here in the title. There your friends, friends do not want to join your book club, where all they read is you. Again, do you want your friend to say something that offends you? They don’t want to hurt your feelings.
(c) Work colleagues – we’re all pushed for time and when that colleague of yours showed an interest in you writing they were only being polite. They will continue to be polite when you hand them a wad of your poetry, and they will be politely telling you that they haven’t read it yet due to work commitments twelve months later.
I know this is a generalisation (see, the old feedback part of my mind is firing on all cylinders, I am questioning my own feedback), and that every family, friend and workplace is different but there is one universal rule, if they’re not on your course, they won’t get it. If they’re not a writer or poet, they won’t get it. I have never seen a heart surgeon turn to a greengrocer and ask them their opinion during surgery.
6) Remember, writing is work, feedback is work and work is hard but gives you a real sense of achievement when done well. You may find yourself giving feedback and never receiving it back, don’t give up, don’t jack it in. It is you that is benefiting from giving feedback; it is you that is learning by doing.
7) Get to know your peers, when you post up work, email them and ask them to look at it. You will then start to create a discussion around your work. Likewise, if you’re having real problems, select an extract, post it up and email them and your tutor, voice your concerns about your work. You often know, sometimes vaguely, that something is wrong with your writing, do not be afraid to say what it is. Sometimes you may find that those reading it simply don’t see what you are seeing, and it may be a case of you being too close to the work. Many a fine writer has become a great writer because they have been pulled back from the precipice of over writing by their peers. The more you work with certain people, the more likely they will be happy to look at your work, if you continue to look at theirs.
8) Quantity not quality. You may find that only a few people read your work and feedback. It is better to ask them to expand on their thoughts or where confusion lies to ask them, and ask them again until you understand than to get forty vague responses. Odd numbers in feedback groups work well; there will always be a consensus.
9) You are reading someone’s work and they remind you of something you have read, listened of watched. Tell them! Suggest they read that book, listen to that radio play, watch that film. Tell them why.
10) Remember, you are not the next JK Rowling, George RR Martin or Stephen King. You are better than that. You are the first you. The only you. You must reach for the stars and you must damn well write, and part of that is feedback, do it and continue to do it and it will become second nature, you will become a good writer who understands not what they write but how and why they write.
There is much more I could add but you will learn as you progress that feedback is a wide playing field, infinite and with many tangents and paths. All these paths will be personal to you and those you work with.
8th January, 2014