How do we avoid less than constructive criticism?
It’s something all writers need to move toward a finished product. Feedback. How does an outside eye interpret what we’ve written? Is our intention clear? Are we headed in the right direction? Feedback acts as a mini-window into how an eventual audience will respond.
This is easier said than done. It’s hard to find individuals who excel at constructive criticism. And bad feedback can end work on a project. How do we receive consistent, constructive feedback?
Set the Context
When you hand off your book, your play, your story for feedback the worst thing you can say is “Give me your opinion. I want to know what you think.” First of all, this puts a lot of pressure on your responder. It’s a huge task to read and give a blanket opinion. Also, asking for an opinion doesn’t provide any information for your responder. How long have you been working on this piece? Where are you in its development? What are you looking for?
Set the context for your responder. Establish what you’re doing and where you are: “This is the second draft of my first play. It looks at body image in teens, I want to market it to schools.”
And even more specifically, give your responder a job. Opinions are subjective and hard to pin down. Your responder may not like your work. That doesn’t mean they’re right, or that your work has no value. Instead of asking for an opinion, set a specific task: “Do you connect to the main character all the way through, or is there a point you lose empathy?”
A task gives your responder a single focus. That focus will give you tangible feedback you’ll be able to apply to your writing. And that will get you closer to the finish line.
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You have a draft. You have worked on it, laboured over it. You are ready to take your work
to the next level, you’re ready to take the next step, you’re ready to move forward. That
means rewrites and that means getting feedback.
And yet you don’t take action. You’re afraid of getting feedback. You’re afraid to let go of
your work and hear what people think. What if they hate your writing? No one wants to hear that the piece they’ve worked on, laboured over, is no good.
But you must. It’s necessary. Your work will not move forward without rewrites and part of
the rewrite process is getting feedback. Feedback acts as a small window into how your
writing will impact an eventual audience. This is valuable information.
One way to defuse your fear is to take it to the extreme. What is the worst thing that could
happen? Imagine it. Visualize it. Verbalize it. Get every fear out of your head and on to the
page. Write them down, make a video, draw a picture, create a collage. Write a scene
between you and the person tearing your work apart. Create your fears as the absolute
worst experience you can imagine. By doing so, you will guarantee that the worst will never
happen. It can’t.
And now you know the worst, and you know that it can’t possibly happen, get your work out there. Let go of your fear. The worst is off the table and that means the only feedback you’ll receive is information that will make your work the best it can be.
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You’ve received some feedback on your manuscript. More than you could ever ask for: notes, questions, graphs, venn diagrams. Everything congeals together into a sucking mud puddle as you sift through comments you agree with, comments you’re not sure about, and comment’s your dead set against. Where do you start? What do you do?
First off, do nothing. Close your notebook and walk away. For now.
The worst action is dive into a draft the same day you receive feedback.
Your head is swimming with what has been said, perhaps you hate every last note and question. Perhaps the feedback makes you hate your draft. It’s a vulnerable time.
Create some distance. Set a three day rule.
All feedback no matter how big or small goes away for three days. Lock it in a drawer. Distance allows you to approach the notes and the draft with fresh eyes. Feedback makes all writers defensive. We want our work to be unconditionally loved.
So instead of making a snap judgement, take a breath. Take three days worth. Then go back to the script.
A note or a question that feels wrong in the moment, now has value.
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“Comparison is a killjoy: it will steal every ounce of
contentment in your heart. It will rob you of
perspective and leave you feeling empty.” Kristen
Artists are really good at looking over the fence. Comparing what they have to what some else has. Suffering from the ‘grass is always greener’ mentality. I must admit, I am not immune to feeling this way:
Oh I wish I had written that. Oh I don’t write like that, I’m no good. Oh they got that award, that teaching gig, that production. Why them and not me? What are they doing I’m not? Why is their lawn so beautiful lush and green, while I’m crunching through crab grass? I’m no good, I’m no good…..
On and on it goes.
“If you compare yourself with others, you may
become vain and bitter, for always there will be
greater and lesser persons than yourself.” Max
It becomes a plague in your artistic life to always look elsewhere and compare
yourself to others. The blight grows and grows until we are nothing but a shell. We have no
opinion of our own work, just that it’s not as good as everyone else’s. We have no faith in
our skills. We have nothing. We are nothing.
How is that a way to live? How is that a way to move forward with your art? It’s tiring, and
it’s less than productive. You’re not creating anything new when you compare. It’s a never
“I will not reason and compare: my business is to
create.” William Blake
The only way to fight this need to look sideways, to peer over the fence, to beat everyone to the punch and beat ourselves down, is to do your work. Work makes me so happy, I’m thrilled when I’m writing well, when I can see words marching across the page.
Whenever I get into that mode, when a big ‘woe is me’ threatens the edges, I make a promise to myself: write for five minutes. That’s it. No grand work session. No vaulting mountains. Five minutes of writing and then if I still want to partake in the pity party, I can.
More often than not, I just keep writing.
Besides, it is impossible to be like others and get what they do. Until the scientists figure out how to have the masses thrive with one brain, we all use our own. We think uniquely. We approach life in our own special way. So even if we were given the opportunities of said lush green grass owner, who knows if we’d get the same results.
When we think someone has it better, has more opportunities, is being a better artist than – how do you know they don’t look sideways at you? Maybe they look over their fence and long for your crab grass.
“When you stop comparing what is right here and
now with what you wish were, you can begin to
enjoy what is.” Cheri Huber
So instead of focusing on others and what they do, focus on what you do. Do your work.
Write your play. Dance your dance. Act in the way that you know how to do. Others will
get jobs that you want. Others will succeed. If you look ahead instead of to the left or right, you will move forward.
- Clarify character action: Why does Jimmy burn the letter?
- Clarify story development: Why does the car accident happen before the story begins?
- Clarify your intentions: Why am I writing this play?
You have an idea. You start writing. Things are going great. You’re filling up page after page and then something happens. You get stuck. A problem that you can’t solve. A character who comes across as flat and you don’t know how to fix them. A plot hole appears out of nowhere and you can’t fill it. The writing slows. The initial will is fading. One day nothing comes. The well is dry. You’re struggling in quicksand and you don’t know how to get out. Soon it becomes easier not to write at all. Before you know it, two weeks have gone by. And then two more. And then it’s been a month and your draft is unfinished in a drawer.
You may have expected the first draft to be a magical experience. You expected that momentum would carry you through from the first word to the last. Sometimes that does happen, but more often than not momentum is short lived. You’re going to have to work to finish that draft.
I call the first draft The DO Draft. That means, you just have to do it. You leave plot holes where they lie, you let characters be one dimensional, you write in point point when you have to. You do anything to get to the end. Getting to the end is important.
Because the first draft, is just that. The first. There are many more to come. It doesn’t matter if the writing is ugly or messy or imperfect. Love that messy imperfect writing. Because it’s better than no writing at all. Once the words are on the page you have something to work with. Once you have a finished draft, you can move forward. The writing process must move forward in order to succeed.
So get it done. Do it.
We all write every day. It’s impossible to avoid: there are emails, tests, project proposals, letters, reports. Pen to paper, keyboard to computer – every individual knows how to write.
To that end it makes sense to assume that there is a writer inside every person. Some folks just don’t know where to look to find their inner writer, and some get confused by the term ‘writer.’
But what most people imagine when they think of being a ‘writer’ is the creative aspect. Creativity is what causes the average individual to freeze up because they feel creativity is inherent as opposed to a learned skill.
How do you access your creativity? How do you become a ‘writer?’
There’s no need to attempt a project the size of ‘War and Peace’ as your first foray into writing. You’ll only get discouraged. Start small. Write a poem. Keep a journal. Write a paragraph. Start a blog and post regularly. Write out daily observations, write letters. Start connecting and communicating. That is what is at the heart of all writing: the desire to connect and communicate. As you write, focus on writing full sentences with capitals at the beginning and punctuation at the end (that goes out especially to you texters!).
Define Your Genre
The term ‘writer’ covers a wide variety of genres. Decide and define what specific type of writing you’d like to explore: poetry, screenwriting, plays, novels, short stories. Not sure which is your genre of choice? What type of writing do you enjoy most as an audience member? Do you love the one to one experience of a novel? The cyclical experience of the theatre? The imagery of poetry?Once you’ve defined your genre, immerse yourself. Read, read and read some more.Become familiar with the different styles associated with your genre. Eliminate styles that don’t speak to you and make a list of those that do.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Writers write a lot and so should you. Get in the habit of regular writing. Again this is not the time to write the next massive novel. Write one letter a day. Write a personal email. Write one blog post. Write 300 words. Write one page. Give yourself a daily time limit. Maybe it’s an hour, maybe it’s five minutes. The more you practice, the more comfortable the act of writing will become.
The bookstores are filled with ‘How to Write’ books. The web is filled with writing
exercises. So go do them! Writing exercises will help you overcome the fear of not being
creative. Of thinking that you don’t have what it takes to be a ‘writer.’ Instead of worrying
about your creativity or lack thereof in a specific project, use exercises to practice the craft.
Keep it small and manageable. For example, practice writing using the five senses.
Keep this writing routine up for six months before starting work on a specific project. This
length of time will let you know if writing is something you want to pursue. If you keep
bursting with ideas during the six month trial that’s fine; write them down in a notebook and leave them be. They’re not going anywhere and when you’re ready to start a project you’ll have a number of ideas to choose from.
Start small. Define the genre. Practice the craft.
Everyone can find the writer within.
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