Friday, September 5, 2014

Asking for Feedback

Writing is a solitary and usually isolated venture. But if you keep your writing to yourself, you’ll never know how readers will react to it. Soliciting feedback can be a slippery slope, even for a professional.

It’s one thing to solicit feedback for your writing, and quite another interpreting it. Who gives you feedback is as important as the opinions they offer—and that’s the key word, opinions. If you take everything everyone says about your writing at face value, then you’re sure to fail.

Many writers got into writing because friends of theirs told them they had a knack for it. Have you heard statements like this: “You communicate so well.” “I can’t put down anything you write until I finish it.” “You’ve got a real gift.” All are words of encouragement, but they’re not constructive criticisms, and that’s what you want and need to improve your writing.

The first step to receiving usable feedback is to determine just who you want to give it. Ordinary readers just won’t do. What you need are expert readers—people who will read your work critically and offer suggestions for improvement. They can be other writers or editors or people who are knowledgeable in your subject area. The worst ones are probably academics—English teachers, researchers, etc. Academic has it own set of rules, and, for the most part, they’re very different than those of general writers—those who write articles, non-fiction books, short stories, and novels. You’re not looking to just have someone catch mechanical mistakes like spelling and punctuation, but instead you need to have these readers give you feedback on the content, plot, and general organization of your work.

To make the most of feedback, you need to follow the Writing Cycle. This is a eight-step method that each piece you write must follow. First, you need to think about what you’re going to write. Second, you need to focus your idea. Third, you need to organize it in a logical manner. Fourth, you need to write a first draft—get everything out on the paper. Fifth, you need to seek feedback. Sixth, you need to adjust your work and add details if necessary. Seventh, you need to revise and polish your work based on that feedback. Eighth, you need to proofread your work.

Getting feedback for most writers means letting someone else read what you’ve written. But in the feedback stage above, it’s not about reading your rough draft. Instead, it’s about telling the other person about your idea, then having them ask questions based on what you’ve told them about what you’ve written. If you do want someone else to read your work, you’re going to have to proofread your rough draft before they see it.

At this stage, you need to go back and make the adjustments that the person or persons has suggested. Then put your work away for a awhile. Let it sit for a couple of days, a week, even a month. Then take it out and read it as if you are the reader. Mistakes and misplaced content will stand out. Make it right based on your own opinion of your work.

Now it’s time to expose it to a select audience—to test market your work. If you were writing a children’s book, the logical test group would be children of the age to understand your book. You’ll know immediately after they’ve read it if you’re on the right track. For mysteries, other mystery writers and mystery readers are your target group, and so on.

Many people are on Facebook and other social networking sites these days. But these are not the people you want to read your work and offer feedback. First, people on Facebook, for example, usually skim through posts and don’t read anything at length. Second, these are not people with astute opinions.

You might consider joining a writing group. However, members of these groups have a tendency to stroke each others egos and probably won’t offer any useful feedback.

So selecting the right readers for your work is crucial. These should be people you trust will give you their honest opinion and offer constructive criticism—criticism that will help improve your work. Never ask if they like your work. Instead, ask specific questions about characters, plots, and general content and organization.

In receiving criticism, it’s essential that you remain clear about retaining ownership over your material and letting go of what may not ultimately work. Only then can you successfully sort through responses and weigh the validity of comments that might improve your work versus those that may be clouded by a particular reader’s personal taste, bias or overall reaction to content. Everyone, even experts like editors have opinions. After writing regularly for a publication for seven years, a new editor told a writer he couldn’t write. Now how can that be? That’s the power of personal opinions.

You can’t listen to everything everyone says about your work. The more general the reader, the less useful feedback they’ll offer. The most helpful feedback comes from readers who want you to succeed. Rather then change your work, they want to help make it better.

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