Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Listen to constructive criticism

I recently had a very interesting (not in a particularly good way) conversation with a writer who had benefited from the Romantic Novelists' Association New Writers' Scheme. This is a fabulous, fabulous scheme; writers are selected on the basis of the quality of their writing and they receive a free critique on their novel from an expert, worth several hundreds of pounds if they were paying a consultancy. Everything I've heard about the RNA scheme is excellent and places are highly valued. I also know from my work for Pen2Publication just how hard giving such feedback is and how difficult it is to give hard-headed, honest advice on a topic which is inevitably somewhat subjective.

So, what's my problem?

Well, I heard this writer say to another one on the scheme, "Do listen to the positive feedback but take the negative with a pinch of salt." She might have said "ignore", but the meaning was clear.

My hackles rose. She continued by explaining that the person giving her feedback had said lots of positive things but had suggested that x and y should be changed, but that she'd actually got a publishing deal and x and y were retained. Therefore, the person giving the feedback was wrong.

Oh goshy goshy gosh. And feckity gosh all over again.

Where do I begin?

Imperfect books get published, yes? Not that I'm saying this writer's work was imperfect - I've no idea and I have no time or desire to find out. But, the fact that a knowledgeable person gave an enormous amount of time to offer an honest opinion and highlighted a wart or two, and that a publisher decided to offer a deal even with the wart, and even admired the wart, does not mean that the opinion was wrong or that it should have been ignored rather than properly considered. You wrote some something with warts and it got published? How is this news? Warty stuff often sells.

I do agree, and always say to my clients, that you should only effect changes when you agree with them. Certainly, if after careful thought you really believe that a suggested change wouldn't work or be right, you shouldn't make it. But my point is only this: that the fact that an expert made a suggestion and that another expert disagreed, does not make the first expert wrong. After all, most writers have had a book rejected that then went on to become published. It does not make the rejecting publishers wrong. It just means they didn't like it or didn't know how to sell it.

Any writer who dismisses the negative but laps up the positive had better be ready for the negative reviews of her book which will come.

I have had books published. Some of them have won awards. Some of the ones that have won awards have had yuckity reviews. Some of those reviews I (try to) ignore because I don't value the opinion of the giver, BUT if someone says something positive and negative, how on earth could I justify believing the good but not the bad?? If I value someone's opinion I cannot only value it when it suits me. That doesn't mean I have to kow-tow to it but it does mean I should not dismiss it out of hand as this writer seemed to, and to dismiss it so disrespectfully. For a start, the critique opinion seeks to give you the best chance of publication, about which there are no certainties.

It is incredibly important to decide WHOM you believe, perhaps more than WHAT you believe. True, you can't believe everything, but you cannot only believe what suits you.

This was the mark of a new writer, who was rightly excited to be published, and for that I forgive her. I wish her well in her journey, and I hope she learns how to listen to negative and positive and to understand the value of professional feedback, especially when it honestly suggests improvement, not just dismiss it as wrong.

There is no right or wrong, only best guessing.


Iola said...

"Any writer who dismisses the negative but laps up the positive had better be ready for the negative reviews of her book which will come."

Yes, yes, and yes again.

I spend rather too much time in the Amazon discussion forums, and we see authors like this melt down all the time. They chime in and say 'thank you!!' for every five star review, but get remarkably defensive at anything less.

Negative reviews will come. Some of the greats of modern English (and American) writing have one star reviews on Amazon. I can think of one NY Times bestselling author whose latest book has as many one star as five star reviews. I bet she doesn't like it, but you don't see her responding on Amazon.

Vee said...

Constructive criticism can be hard to find, so it's interesting when someone gets an objective critique and then only chooses to listen to the bits they want to hear, rather than standing back and taking a long hard look at their work again.
In my view this is the kind of attitude that would have kept us thinking the world was flat, as in: if I believe something and someone disagrees then I shall choose to ignore their opinion rather than questionning. Now there's a scary thought!

catdownunder said...

Agree. It is hard to take the negative but, if it comes in a constructive way, then it is only sensible to consider it. I don't think that necessarily means doing precisely what is suggested (unless you feel it is right) but using the suggestions to improve what you have already done. Yes?

JO said...

There's no logic in agreeing with positive criticism and ignoring the negative. You might just as well say that all criticism is a waste of time. Rather it is a basis for discussion, a prompt to go away and think, absorb a different idea and look at your work anew.

And someone is only commenting on your writing, for goodness sake. We all write drivel from time to time - and sometimes it takes someone else to point that out. We are still wonderful people.

Ness Harbour said...

I couldn't agree more Nicola! It is something we work hard on with our students so that they don't just 'lap up the positive'. But I also think it is quite sad that having been given such a fantastic opportunity the writer doesn't make the most of it by taking note of all feedback - both good and bad. Feedback, for me, is a vital part of my writing process. I know from experience that others can sometimes see things that are glaringly wrong but you, as the writer, just can't see them because you are too close.
I will be pointing my students in the direction of this post just as a reminder. Thank you

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, all. Trouble with this blog is that all its readers are so sensible - I need to reach the others!

Cat - erm, yes, as I said :)

Rebecca Alexander said...

I absolutely agree. When we write, we try to create a certain effect, a certain imaginary world in the mind of the reader. If a knowledgeable person has found something that jarred as a reader, then I would take that seriously. Informed criticism is worth its weight in diamonds, and hard to come by.

Heidi Rice said...

Hi Nicola... Thanks for this post, as someone who was published as a direct result of the feedback I got on the RNA NWS and who has since worked as a reader for the scheme this post really struck a chord with me.... Something I always tried to convey in my reports for the scheme was that every writer needs to embrace constructive criticism because it's an invaluable part of growing and improving as a writer and will be part of the process after you get published as well as before.

How many revision letters have I had from my editor where I immediately thought, oh no, she's got that wrong, I can't do that, etc, etc? And then realised (after I'd taken a few deep breaths and maybe a glass of wine!) that she had a point, and I needed to find a way to incorporate what she was saying while at the same time staying true to my characters, their conflict, etc.

It's really really hard not to take criticism personally (especially for us sensitive artistic sorts!) and even harder to learn to factor it into your process as a writer... If you fail at the first hurdle (by simply saying I'll just ignore anything I don't want to hear) you're going to hobble yourself as a writer if not with that first book, then further down the line.

April Hardy said...

As a first-time member of the New Writers' Scheme, I was delighted with my feedback, both positive and negative. The positive helped reinforce my faith in certain aspects of my writing and the negative pointed out ways in which I could improve it -ways I might have missed myself through inexperience or just being too close to the ms for so long.
It was as if I'd been stumbling along in the gloaming, hoping I was going the right way and suddenly somebody had given me a lovely new torch!

Cameron said...

Negative criticism IS tough but then someone said that writers need hides thicker than rhinos. There is an old Buddhist saying that we learn more from our enemies than our friends, not meaning that professional critique-writers are our enemies, only that our friends will only tell us "good things."

Quote "Trouble with this blog is that all its readers are so sensible - I need to reach the others!"

Is it here that I apply for the post of "not-sensible" reader?

Squidge said...

If you ask for a critique, surely you have to be prepared for the negative as well as the positive? Granted, you have to bear in mind that you are getting someone's (professional) opinion, and it may well be that you don't like it! But with experience, as Nicola says, you get to be more realistic and less precious about your own work and CHOOSE whether or not the changes suggested as a result of the opinion will improve what you've written.

Unknown said...

I think the negative responses to your work are the only ones worth having if you want to improve, ven if they do make you flinch. Your Mum / Best Friend can always give you positive feedback if you need salving...

Anonymous said...

I'm a graduate of the NWS scheme and have only praise for it - even though my first published novel, Scuba Dancing, got a slightly damning first crit from the NWS. 'You will never find a publisher who will take a novel featuring sex between OAPs, especially as they use Viagra!' (Ha, did though - step forward the late lamented Transita!)

I now crit for the scheme in an effort to put something back and it's not easy offering negative comments, but the writers have paid actual money to hear the TRUTH, so although I dress it up with kind words and carrots, the TRUTH is what they get. And I hope they take it in and act on it (once they've kicked the cat and screamed a lot!)

Nicola Morgan said...

Cameron - don't call me: I'll call you!

Thanks for comments, everyone. Sorry I haven't replied. Am in writer frenzy.

Catherine Hughes said...

I have been fortunate enough to have had feedback from several published authors; a couple of agents and the editor of a small publishing house; and my beta readers. I did not have to pay - each of these generous and encouraging people helped me out of the goodness of their hearts (and because I was cheeky enough to - politely! - ask!).

Even though I didn't pay for the advice, I took every last bit of it on board. Some things I did not agree with initially, but then I realised, after deliberation, that the advice was probably correct, as much as it sucked to contemplate implementing it. Other advice I felt comfortable rejecting, but only after much thought.

I think it's a knee jerk reaction to feel that you really don't want to have to do a lot of work on your manuscript in order to put right what someone else has assessed as wrong. For me, it's not so much that I can't accept that I've made a mistake, it's that I can't face having to rewrite huge passages (in one case an entire book)of my work in order to redress the error.

But I do it. I rewrote that book and am so very proud of how it stands now. I plan on rewriting another one upon which I've had advice... eventually! It's a lot of work; it has been
a lot of work - and I'm still not published.

But I believe the only way I eventually will be is if I'm prepared to listen to the negative criticism and give it due consideration. If I reject it after proper thought, that's OK. Rejecting constructive criticism out-of-hand, however, is never going to get me where I want to be.