January 22nd, 2017

Me 2012

Feedback and the Intersection with Stages of Writing

I was talking to @AlphaRaposa and @LynThornAlder on Twitter about the kinds of feedback writers receive and the kinds they want, and thought this might be a fun thing to expound upon at greater length.


The conversation was touched off by a post from an author who really, really hated comments of the "PLEASE WRITE MORE" variety.


I am not completely unsympathetic to that position. There were ten or so years when I was writing erratically and sharing my work as it was written. At that time, I found it guilt-inducing to have people ask after the next update. But at this stage of my life, I like it when people leave any kind of positive comment, including "WANT MOAR". Alpha and Lyn were much the same way. Encouragement is good!


On the broader topic of feedback in general, I find different kinds of feedback are helpful at different stages of my process.

So here are some broad categories of feedback:

  • Cheerleading: The best kind of cheerleading is not just "Yay, you wrote more, I love this story!" but responds specifically to the content of the installment. "I love the way this character snarks about that one thing!" Cheerleading is always beloved; I don't know anyone who objects to it at any stage. Some people may think "but it's not necessary -- it's not like you're going to change something after finding out it's good", but it actually is important to the revision process. If one person dislikes something and three people love it, but I only hear from the first person, I will probably change it. Similarly, a scene or a line might be cut for space or pacing, but if it's a favorite with readers, I would look for something less popular to ditch.
  • Spurring: I'll put "WRITE MORE" and "NOOOO I don't want to wait for the next installment" and "will you update soon?" kinds of comments into this category. These are specific, direct requests to the writer to produce more of this particular story.
  • Neutral commentary: This is general chatter about the story: "Hey, John Doe made it to the castle! I wonder what's inside?" or "Jane and JD met! I was wondering if they were going to". Neutral commentary lets the author know the reader is still following along and what things caught their attention.
  • Structural critique (major/minor): Criticism of the plot/characters/setting on the whole. This would be stuff like "I don't understand how the characters got to this ending" or "this character's motivations don't make sense" or "there's a huge plot hole here". Major structural criticism means "this is a thing that affects a lot of the events of the book and would require significant revision", like "I hate your protagonist, she is too passive and has no effect on the story" or "the plot feels really random and doesn't make sense" or "there is no depth to this setting". Minor might represent a serious weakness, like "you did not foreshadow the technology that your characters use to solve the crisis", but one that can be easily fixed. What I personally like in structural critiques is solutions. So not just "this is a problem" but "and here's one or more ways to fix it". I don't know if all authors appreciate this, but I certainly do.
  • Word choice: Noting sentences that are awkward or words that don't fit for the setting. These aren't strictly errors, just things that could be phrased better.
  • Typos, spelling & grammar errors: Simple, straightforward mistakes.


And here are my stages of writing:


  • Outlining: This is when I figure out the broad details of plot, character, and setting. This is a great time for structural critique, especially major ones, because it's much easier to revise an outline than a novel. Pointing out word choice issues or typos in an outline is pointless.
    • My desired feedback: Cheerleading, spurring, structural
  • Drafting: From 2002 to 2014 or so, I shared my drafts of novels and stories as I wrote them, with a small group of friends. The only kind of feedback I wanted at this stage was cheerleading or neutral commentary. Negative feedback of any kind did bad things for my likelihood of completing the draft. This is one of the reasons I stopped showing my drafts to people while I was still writing them. Other reasons: I don't want to "use up" my beta-reading audience on a stage where all they can do is cheerlead; I'd rather they read the finished draft and could give me detailed feedback. Also, I now write at a pace that's more likely to lose people who are used to reading in bite-sized serial chunks. Most importantly: in the past, I needed cheerleading to motivate me to finish a novel. I don't any more. I think this is mostly that I am now confident that several people besides myself will read what I have to write, and so I don't need them to prove on an ongoing basis that they will. Note: this is all deeply personal and no reflection on the reasons or motives that other people have. Anyway, I don't get feedback at this stage of my writing any more and for now I'm very happy with that.
    • My desired feedback: None. I don't share at this stage. Back when I did: cheerleading.
  • Revision: At this stage, I have finished the draft and done whatever revisions I personally thought were necessary. (My first draft usually ends up with some inconsistencies that I documented along the way and will fix on my own, and other such things, so I make those changes before I ask for readers.) Here, I can take pretty much any form of feedback: I don't need to worry that it will cripple my motivation to work on the project because, hey, it's basically done any way. I may be sad to learn the whole thing needs a major overhaul and makes no sense, but the worst that happens is "I don't revise it that way" rather than "I give up halfway through the draft and never look at it again".
    • My desired feedback: Any, but especially "how to fix structural issues".
  • Polishing: This is after I've let various people read it and made whatever changes I plan to based on their feedback. I am probably not going to make any structural changes at this point, but I don't really mind hearing it. Mostly I just want to hear about errors or awkward wording. In a more-perfect world, I would only get structural feedback at the first "revision" stage and not worry about wording then, and I would only get line-level and error feedback at the "polishing" stage. This is not that world, so I don't worry that much about getting both kinds at both stages. 
    • My desired feedback: Any, but especially word choice and typos.
  • Post-publication: Once It's out in the wild, I am not going to make any major revisions. I am not even going to make minor revisions. I once had someone write me a few months after I published A Rational Arrangement to tell me what major changes they thought would improve the book. Which, okay, that's fine, I can consider this in future books, I guess? But I'm not going to change a book that's already sold a thousand copies. I am in the middle of writing the next book. I am so done with the last one. SO DONE. However! I do continue to fix typos and other minor errors in my published books, so I am still happy to have people point out errors.
    • My desired feedback: Cheerleading, spurring, typos

This is my process right now, and everyone's process is different. Even my own process used to be different. What works for me may not work for other people, which is the most important thing to remember. We get taught things like "this is how to give a critique" and "this is how to receive one" as if everyone was stamped out of a cookie cutter. As if it were unreasonable to specify "these are the types of feedback that are useful to me" or "this is the type of feedback I am capable of giving". I have to love and adore a person AND their writing before I am willing to do anything other than point out typos and cheerlead or give neutral commentary. I hate giving structural criticism and I hate trying to articulate what I like/dislike about a writing style to the writer. Doing so requires tremendous effort on my part, and I have a hard time even reading novels for pleasure these days. So. I am deeply grateful to people who are willing to put in that work for me, and also for the fact that most people are less neurotic about giving feedback than I am.

I have some closing advice, which I will also put in bullet point form. BULLET ALL THE THINGS.

  • If you are an author and you want specific kinds of feedback, or dislike specific kinds of comments, make sure your readers know what you want. Asking for feedback does not bar you from expressing your preferences. It's okay to say "I just want someone to say nice things about this" or "I only want to know if these two characters sound distinct now" or whatever. If you offer some general guidance, you are probably more likely rather than less to hear from people, Just like writers often have an easier time starting with a prompt than staring at the blank page, so do readers find it easier to answer your questions than to start from scratch.
  • Seriously, if you're really want comments, putting specific questions-to-the-reader at the bottom of your post is a great way to get them. Even "what do you think of this?" often gets some bites, but detailed things like "what do you think will happen if [X] does [Y]?" or "I think John and Jack sound too much alike, can anyone suggest a good speech quirk for one of them?" or whatever.
  • If you are an author posting online and you don't want any kind of feedback, disable the comment box.
  • If you've read something online that you enjoyed, and you want to encourage the author, cheerlead. Whether a generic "I love this!" or a more specific "Your dialogue is delightful!", any author with a comment form will be happy to hear this.
  • It's generally safe to point out typos. Check to make sure they're typos first, and not variant spellings or a meaning of a word you're not familiar with or somesuch. Some authors do hate having their typos pointed out, though, so if there's an author's note or an info page you can check, never a bad idea to do so.
  • If you want to offer an author suggestions, check to make sure they are wanted. Some authors welcome ideas! Some authors hate them! If you can't tell which kind you are responding to, I recommend not doing it.

At this point, I should take my own advice and make sure this is linked somewhere that people can find it if they look for it. Oops.

I feel like I'm leaving some significant stages of writing out, or some kind of feedback that ought to be picked out distinctively, but that since the difference isn't important to me I'm overlooking it. Anyone else have different categories they use in their process? What kinds of feedback do you appreciate most?*

* Yes, I realize I am demonstrating the "use questions to get comments" technique, but I am super-curious what other people think about this topic, so yes, I am gonna encourage y'all to weigh in. :)