Writing Feedback: Why You Should Stop Asking If Your Story Is Good

by David Safford | 24 comments

We all know that feeling.

You've been slaving over a story. You're twitchy with caffeine. Your family hasn't heard from you for hours, or even days.

But then you finish!

Writing Feedback: Why You Should Stop Asking If Your Story Is Good

If you're like most writers, you're thrilled. You've just poured your heart and soul into this and you want some sweet affirmation after all your hard work.

So as you share your work, you ask a seemingly innocent question: “Is it good?”

This question may seem harmless enough. But this is a dangerous question, and if you want to become a better storyteller and write stories that actually ARE good, you need to stop asking if your work is “good” and pursue a much different route to get useful writing feedback.

What is “Good?”

When I teach Creative Writing, I always spend a day training them for workshop. One of the first lessons I teach is to never describe something as “good” or “bad.” That's not helpful writing feedback.

Rather, decide whether or not it “works.”

When writing stories, we tend to forget that we are creating complex narrative machines with many moving parts. When done, we hand those machines to human readers, all of whom approach stories with unique points of view.

And then we ask for an absolute judgment of quality, or whether or not it is “good.”

With that in mind, tell me: What does it mean when a reader says your story is “good?”

  • Does that mean it is publishable?
  • Does it mean that reader would buy it for $19.99 in hardcover or $2.99 on Kindle?
  • Does it mean that parts of it were great and parts of it were terrible, averaging out to “good?”
  • Does it mean the reader is a friend and doesn't want to hurt your feelings?

What is “good,” after all?

The truth is, “good” is just a value judgment from a biased person. It has nothing to do with how well your story functions. It doesn't say anything about whether or not your story will work — or be “good” — to thousands of readers.

“Good” is a meaningless word that can lull you into a false sense of satisfaction. Watch out for this word. It is the enemy of the storyteller who wants to grow in his or her craft. It is wine to the artistic drunkard's ears.

3 Questions to Ask Instead

The main problem with “good” is that this word tells us nothing useful. We can't do anything with that writing feedback.

We don't learn if our protagonist is relateable and/or likeable. We don't learn if each of his or her choices, and the choices of other characters, make sense to the reader. We don't know if our setting is well-drawn and integrated into the action. We don't know if the story flows well.

And we certainly don't know what emotional connection, or disconnection, the reader experienced throughout our story.

“Good” is the answer you get when you don't ask for effective, specific writing feedback. It is usually the word non-writers use because they aren't keen on the moving parts to the complex machine we've created.

That is why we should use this question instead: “Does it work?”

And we should use it in varying forms, catered to the reader's experience with each particular element of the story.

While there are tons of questions you could ask about how your story works, here are three that will help you convert any flimsy first draft into a powerful story right away.

1. “Did you understand what the Protagonist wanted and why?”

Here, you're basically asking: “Does my Protagonist-Goal-Motivation structure work?”

The fundamental building block of any story is the Protagonist's goal. His/her motivation for pursuing the goal is also essential, as the reader has to be sufficiently motivated to care about what happens.

Here are some examples from famous novels:

  • “Did you understand what, or whom, Jay Gatsby wanted, and why?” (The Great Gatsby)
  • “Did you have any questions about Janie's goal to find her voice, and her motivation for it?” (Their Eyes Were Watching God)
  • “What were your thoughts about Macbeth's goal of being king, and why he wanted it?” (Macbeth)

These questions will point your reader directly at the core of your story: its central desire. Nothing drives the plot as much as this foundational element, and you have to get it right — so ask the right question when you seek feedback.

2. “Did the Protagonist's choices make sense?”

With this question, you are asking if your plot works.

It's important that you never define your plot as “what happens.”

Your plot is “what characters choose, followed by consequences, followed by more choices.” Trey Parker and Matt Stone employ this rule in their writing for South Park, which is one of the reasons the show has been running for more than two decades.

For your story to work, its chain of events — or rather, chain of choices — must make sense to your reader:

  • “Did you understand why Huckleberry faked his death?” (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
  • “Did Harry's choices before, during, and after the scenes in the Ministry of Magic make sense?” (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)
  • “Did you have any questions about Okonkwo's relationship with his son, and why he disowned him?” (Things Fall Apart)

It is here that you'll probably encounter the most questions and therefore do the most revising.

That's because it is imperative that your reader understand why characters do what they do, and why the consequences are what they are. This guarantees that your story has strong internal logic and makes complete sense.

3. “Did you have emotional responses during the story? When?”

Finally, with this question, you are asking: “Do my story's stakes and consequences work?”

To understand emotional responses, one must understand catharsis: “The process of releasing strong or repressed emotions.”

Part of a storyteller's job is to build a reader's emotional investment in the characters and the characters' lives. The way to do that is through high stakes and authentic consequences.

As a two-time judge for The Write Practice's Writing Contests, I've read many stories that piled on the suffering, thinking this would pave the way to a win. This may sound crass, but putting death, kittens, cancer, or Sarah MacLachlan in your story do not make it emotional (though it may be manipulative).

So here's what to ask about the emotion in your story:

  • “How did you feel when Lennie told George about the farm with the rabbits?” (Of Mice and Men)
  • “What moments in Watership Down were thrilling for you? What scenes didn't interest you as much?” (Watership Down)
  • “How did you respond when Piggie was killed? Did you feel for him more or less than Simon?” (Lord of the Flies)

By specifically asking our readers about their emotional journey, we can diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of our stories' stakes.

If readers aren't responding the way you'd like, perhaps you need to up the ante and force the Protagonist to put more at risk. If a relationship isn't inspiring compassion, make those characters pursue a common goal together, increasing the stakes if something bad should happen to both of them.

And if the end of your story doesn't seem to satisfy, add some authentic consequences: make victory (or defeat) cost a little more.

Reader emotions can be deceptive, especially if you've set out to write an “emotional” story. Make sure you're getting the right emotion at the right moment, and don't make the mistake of thinking that all emotions need to be negative.

Get Better Writing Feedback, Write Better Stories

So should you still ask if your story is “good?” Maybe just even once?

Well, if you ask the better questions, questions that get specific and useful feedback about particular elements of your story, then you will be armed with some of the most valuable information a writer can have.

And if you use that information to craft numerous drafts, each one more effective than the last, you will create a story that works, and works for thousands of readers.

So — should you ask if it's “good?”

No! Don't do it!

Because if you take this advice and do your job right, you'll never have to.

Your adoring readers will gladly do it for you — over and over again!

What other questions do you ask to get great writing feedback? Let us know in the comments!

PRACTICE

Today's practice comes to you in two parts.

First, take fifteen minutes to write a story based on this prompt: “But why? That's so gross.” Or, find a piece you've already written that you'd like feedback on.

Then, share your writing in the comments and ask one of the three questions above. Once you've shared, read your fellow writers' pieces and answer the question they've asked.

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.

24 Comments

  1. Alyssa

    This is super helpful! I’m in the first draft of my novel, and I have a good portion of the manuscript shared with some of my friends (both writers and just readers) to find some issues early to know what needs work in the next draft. A lot of the problems, I’m finding myself, in part due to the time distance I’m keeping between what is shared and what I’m currently writing. What you say about a “good” story is true, though. A story might be good, but the grammar and word choices might be horrid. A story might be good, but have plot holes that don’t make sense. A story might be good, but the protagonist is a jerk that I don’t care about. It’s also very easy to see your own writing as good, or at least on its way to being good.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      It’s so important that we separate our self-worth from our work. I truly feel that “Is it good?” is a plea for affirmation, while “Does it work?” is a giant step forward toward improving our craft and becoming better writers. Ironically, by focusing on craft, rather than worth, our work will almost certainly become better and better, or “good!”

  2. Euan Aird

    After writing a four part serial, I decided to write a prequel to it as a lead magnet. This is the first chapter and my question would be, “Did you have emotional responses during the story? When?” The female advice columnist is fuming over so-called advice given by her male competitor.

    Chapter 1- Monday – Let the games begin

    In medieval England, with a bit of luck, her nemeses would have been boiled in oil. Roz found the thought somewhat comforting. As an advice columnist for a local newspaper, was it not one’s duty to dispense honest, practical, common sense advice… as opposed to making shit up? Nathan Knight made shit up. Not just any kind of shit, but crazy, mind-boggling shit. That’s what got under her skin the most. His sanity should have been called into question. Was it? Never.

    Roz took several deep breaths. She needed to calm down. It seemed pretty obvious that her competitor in the advice column stakes knew as much about women’s wants and needs as she did about the reproductive system of an oyster. She was at her cubicle in the Daily Voice newspaper offices half an hour before the necessary time. It had become a ritual. One she wished she could break, if only because of the reason behind it. Roz checked her immediate vicinity to make sure nobody was around, and then pulled her copy of the Daily Standard from her bag. One more quick glance to either side confirmed that nobody was in the immediate vicinity. She opened up the newspaper and sought out the Nathan Knows Best column. His opening comments pushed her buttons right away.

    Dear rabid fans,

    Dear rabid fans, indeed. Just who the hell did he think he was? It had both surprised and irked her to find out recently, that his rabid fans outnumbered hers. Men aren’t supposed to read advice columns. She read on.

    Paul from Chicago writes, ‘Is there a wrong time to tell your wife you love her?’

    A typical dumb question from a man. Let’s see what Mr. Nathan—I somehow managed to fix the ratings—Knight, has to say.

    Paul, you can be forgiven for thinking that wives believe all husbands are mind-readers, and yes, there are several times when the ‘I love you’ routine doesn’t work.

    Routine? What a jerk.

    In this particular case, Paul, your wife had asked you to change the blown light bulb in her bedroom closet (although, in your defense, she had only asked the once) and because of that she went to the mall with her new sweater on inside out. No big deal, right?

    No big deal? Does this idiot not know how many people, okay, women, must have noticed? God only knows what they must have thought when they saw that poor woman striding along with a huge manufacturer’s tag flapping from behind her neck. Roz reflected on the time she had committed a similar offense. Oh, the embarrassment.

    The fact that you managed to hold in your laugh when she went ballistic on you after she returned home, does you credit.

    Credit? Are you kidding me?

    As you should know by now, women do not share our sense of humor, wives even less so. Here’s a rule of thumb, Paul.

    How many idiotic ‘rules of thumb’ do English people have? I can hardly wait to hear this one.

    When you tell your wife ‘I love you’ and she follows it with the word, ‘whatever’ you can safely assume it was not the right time to use it.

    No shit, Sherlock! That’s like saying, when you hear a scream from the bathroom at four in the morning, it’s the wrong time to tell your wife you left the toilet seat up. Moron.

    The ‘I love you’ statement should be used only when you truly mean it, Paul. Anytime other than that, it can only come across as insincere, and women can smell it like a dead rat hiding somewhere in your couch.

    Just when I thought we had found some common ground, he throws in a dead rat? Un–flipping–believable.

    Here’s another no-no, Paul. If the barmaid kisses you on your way out of the bar after a night out with the boys, don’t tell your wife you love her six seconds after you get in the front door. Wives are like defense lawyers. They can hone in on feelings of guilt the way a shark races after an injured seal pup.

    Dead rat? Injured seal pup? It’s like an episode from National Geographic!
    Roz slammed the paper closed, then twisted it like a rope before throwing it into the trash receptacle at her feet. What kind of lunatic reads this garbage? She glanced left and right before fishing it back out of the bin. Untwisting the paper turned out to be more difficult than twisting it. Roz pulled out his page and threw the rest back into the bin. She had to trap the page between her knee and her hand to make the crumpled page readable.

    Okay, here’s a question from one of my many female fans.

    Many, my ass. Some redneck on crack cocaine put his sister up to it, I’ll bet.

    Nathan, you always seem to know how to turn a lady on. The advice you gave my boyfriend last week about a touch of hot sauce in my jar of organic female lubricant drove me insane. I just wish you had been more precise about your idea of how much ‘a touch’ was. I’ve never been so glad to have had ice cream in the freezer.

    “You’re here early this morning,” Maxine said, as she approached her boss.
    Roz almost fell off her chair. How her assistant had mastered the craft of walking quietly in high heels was beyond her. She crushed the page into a ball and tossed it back into the bin.
    “Nathan been upsetting you again?” Max asked.
    “Nathan? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
    “Of course you don’t. Mind if I fish it back out and take a look at what he has to say in his column this morning?”
    Roz fixed her with a stare.
    “It’ll save me having to buy my own copy.”
    Roz pouted. “Do what you like. See if I care.” She studied Maxine’s facial expression as her assistant’s eyes moved down the page. Roz’s jaw muscles clenched as a grin spread across Maxine’s face.
    “Hot sauce in the lubricant? You know I’ll have to try that one,” Maxine said. Her grin turned into a laugh. “He’s a genius.”
    “He’s an asshole is what he is,” her boss replied, snatching the page from her assistant.
    “Hey! I wasn’t finished. What’s a number seventy-one?”
    Roz rolled her eyes. “Let’s concentrate on our column for tomorrow, shall we?”
    “Is it a bus service? Take the seventy-one to Westlake then catch a twenty-eight. Something like that?”
    Roz treated her assistant to a cold stare.
    “Do you know?” Maxine asked.
    “Let it go, Max.”
    “Just say you don’t know if you don’t know,” Maxine insisted.
    “It’s a sixty-nine with two fingers… well, never mind where the two fingers end up,” Roz replied, in a deadpan voice.
    Maxine put a hand up to her mouth then doubled over, clutching her stomach. She sank onto all fours and started beating the ground with a hand, which she then used to muffle her laugh.
    “For goodness sake, get up off the floor, Maxine.”
    Max waved her off until she had the strength to regain her feet. In between stifling a fit of the giggles, she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
    “That Nathan Knight, he’s too much. He’s even funnier… almost as funny as you, Roz.”
    Roz caught a glimpse of Maxine’s eyes straying towards the waste paper basket.
    “There’s a name for his brand of humor. It’s called insanity. Let’s get to work, and leave that article where it belongs, in the trash.”
    “Do you think he reads your column?” Maxine asked.

    Reply
  3. Lois

    ‘But Why? That is so gross? Have you ever thought where your fingers have been since you last washed them?’ Emily scowled at her little brother as he grabbed at the thick piece of chocolate cake with his mud caked hands. ‘You could at least wait until I cut you a piece.’
    ‘I hafta meet Robby in two minutes at Maddy’s. Don’t haf-time to splain now,’ Toby choked as he stuffed cake in his mouth. ‘Weeze got wrots of things to diskus and finger out. The meet is next weeks.”
    Emily felt exhausted already.

    Reply
    • Billie L Wade

      Lois, I like your story. I can see the scene unfold, and I feel repulsed and exasperated right along with Emily. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Lois

      Thanks Billie. I wasn’t sure this is what they wanted. It was fun!
      Best wishes on your writing.
      I’m new here. Have you shared your writing before?

    • Billie L Wade

      You’re welcome, Lois. I think I’ve shared my writing a couple of times, and I plan to do so more often. This is a good web site to subscribe to. I’m glad you’re here. Happy writing to you. I wish you the best.

    • Siska

      Lois, I can just see this scene happening. I can see both Toby and Emily’s point of views. It makes me laugh at Toby and sympathise with Emily.

  4. Billie L Wade

    Thank you, David, for this helpful post. I sit in my chair and lament that my writing isn’t “good” enough. Asking the three questions you outlined seems more effective. If something doesn’t work, I can fix it. You’re right: I can’t fix “not good.” I’m also in a writing group and often hesitate to give feedback because I don’t know how. Asking the three questions, and offering feedback from those standpoints, give me guidance on what to look for.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      I’m so glad this seems to be helping you. I compare stories to machines because they’re very simliar – each has moving parts that contribute to the overall experience. If my tires are bad, I don’t say that the whole car – or the manufacturer – is “bad” (unless I’m a tired old jerk). Instead, I diagnose the problem: My tires suck! So I get the tires fixed, and suddenly the vehicle works like new. Or – it doesn’t! Something ELSE is revealed to be the true problem! So I keep diagnosing and correcting. By the end I may have a completely different looking vehicle, but it’s still a vehicle that can provide a smooth and enjoyable experience. Just like a story.

  5. I'm determined

    Good. She’d got the attention of that bossy, officious garage mechanic with his Little Girl put-downs. She’ll show him.
    He’d raised the hood, and now peered underneath at the engine. She ‘d purposely loosened the spark plug, and would be able to get it going easily enough.
    ‘There you are,’ he said, and laughed. ‘There’s your trouble.’
    ‘Is it good now?’ She’d made her voice light, syrupy. And pressed the muzzle of her derringer up under his bottom rib, into his stiffened body.
    Then she softly squeezed the trigger, as a girly girl would.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Didn’t see THAT coming! I love the secret spunk this girl has. I’d say your characterization is really effective here. Not sure exactly what she’s after, but the character description and actions definitely pull the reader in.

  6. TerriblyTerrific

    Good article. Thank you.

    Reply
  7. Siska

    Thank you, David for this article. I just asked my sisters feedback about my writing practice. “Is it good?” seems so vague now. On the other hand, I hope I can give better feedbacks too.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      I’m glad to hear it! When we critique each other with this approach, it won’t feel so personal, either. Saying something is or isn’t “good” hurts. Hearing that your protagonist’s goal isn’t relateable enough may be frustrating, but at least it’s something you can work on and improve – and it’s not personal!

  8. Priscilla King

    Hoot! I just finished the story with the “That’s So Gross” scene…I shared the opening scene where the candidate and intern drive up a back road to meet the candidate’s great-aunt. The story was written for a contest with the theme “Blue Sky,” so the gross-out scene matters…they meet the great-aunt cooking in an open pit where the main fuel for her cooking fire is dung. (No sewage problems. Also: open-air fires not a big pollution problem.)

    The story was titled “The Influencers”…I think, although the issues and characters are different, it’s sort of based on the first successful piece of political activism with which I was involved. The great-aunt tells the candidate she favors something some funders don’t like, so do other friends, and while he’s still mulling how he can endorse it, someone dies (and probably wouldn’t have died if it had become law last year).

    Thinking about it, I’m already thinking of ways it could have been better, but I think it’s emotional enough. Readers will know in a few months.

    Reply
  9. Takira Hodges

    “Like, where are you?” Asked Yumi. I just stared at her from where I sat ten feet away. My head began to worsen and I looked down I at my lap. The light grass underneath my folded legs scratched me, but I played it no mind. Yumi was being dumb again and, like always, I didn’t have time for it.
    “Will you quit it for this one time?” I asked her. “I’m trying to teach you something important.”
    Yumi just looked at me with her gold-brown eyes, uncaring.
    We were both sitting crosslegged outside of Dreamspace meditating. It was the quietest place to do so in the loud our we have to deal with when we are concious, but for some reason Yumi did not want to cooperate that day.
    As if hearing my thoughts, my sister made a screwed up face out of nowhere.
    “Did you fart,Lexa?” She accused. I shaped, taken aback by her rudeness. ” what?! This is the dream dimension. You can’t fart in here!
    “Of course you can,” she smiled slyly.
    I didn’t like the way she looked at me, so I made to disgust her.
    “You likely only saying that because you want to smell one.”
    Instead of Yumi squealing with horror like I thought she would, the girl surprised me with a simple, “sure.”
    I was flabbergasted. ” What!?” I exclaimed. “Why, that’s so gross!?”
    What was so compelling about the characters in the story?

    Reply
  10. Cathy Ryan

    David, thank you so much for this. I used it today for giving some critiques as well as asking for some. It helps me understand better why a story ‘doesn’t work.’

    One workshop taught us to ask if anything was boring, confusing, or unbelievable. While this may be helpful, it still doesn’t get to the core of story, does it?

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Great question, Cathy! All 3 of those can be useful. The only trouble with them is that they, like “good,” can impact our idea of self-worth when we ask for feedback. To hear that my story is “boring” hurts a bit. But more pointed questions, like “Were there any points in the story when you began to lose interest?” can help me pinpoint the ONE aspect of a story that causes boredom. Does that make sense?

    • Cathy Ryan

      You’re right. I think it was expressed more helpfully: Are there any parts where you wanted to skim? Are there any parts you had to re-read to understand? The wording does make a difference.

  11. George McNeese

    Great post. I find myself asking the “good enough” question too often. I’m really afraid of asking the tough questions because I feel it will reaffirm the belief that I am not a “good” writer. But it shouldn’t be about being “good”. It’s about improving yourself. It’s about being a storyteller.

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Writing Feedback: Why You Should Stop Asking If Your Story Is Good – Art of Conversation - […] “ Don’t ask whether your story is “good.” Instead, ask whether it works. Tweet this Tweet […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

Vestige Rise of the Pureblood
- Antonio Roberts
A Shadow Stained in Blood
- Ichabod Ebenezer
Surviving Death
- Sarah Gribble
2
Share to...