A little over ten years ago, I had almost a decade of English teaching experience, a couple years paid freelance writing work, several creative writing university courses under my belt, and a few small publications in poetry and nonfiction. A friend’s mom, Mae,* had written a query letter for her second novel. She asked me to read it and give her some writing feedback. What could go wrong?
When Mae asked, I had not attempted to write an entire novel or a query letter. I had read thousands of novels and a few letters, but I had not studied the structure and requirements of each. I assumed writing was writing. Surely with a degree in English and a little experience, I was qualified to give good feedback?
Nope. Not even close.
When I Realized I Was Wrong
I didn’t know it until a few years later when I wrote two terrible novels and began researching how to write an effective query letter. I learned that both novel writing and query letters require a specific type of writing skill. One I had not mastered yet. I’m so sorry, Mae.
Yes, my grammar and sentence skills would serve me well, but great grammar does not inherently result in a great story. It enhances a story. It clarifies a query letter, but alone? It’s just grammar.
I read her letter, corrected a few grammar issues and then made several suggestions I hope she didn’t take. *hanging my head in shame*
Mae was so kind. She didn’t tell me I was a raving idiot who didn’t know what I was talking about. She had every right to, but she could probably tell I was full of myself instead of knowing what the form required.
What can we learn from my feedback gaffe? (Please tell me there is much to learn so my shame is not in vain.) Two lessons come to mind.
All Writing Is Not the Same
This is a terrible thing to realize. I can write a hundred-page-long literary analysis paper without blinking an eye, but I feel like a blithering idiot when I am trying to straighten out a plotline in fiction. It means I have to admit that I need to become the student again and again as I master different forms. I have to subject myself to the frustration of failure while I practice.
I have friends who are technical writers by day, pounding out thousands of words, but lament their lack of progress on the novel at night. “I’m a full-time writer!” they say. “This shouldn’t be so hard!”
Humility is the best place to begin. There is an old proverb that says, “You cannot learn if your mind (or ego) is already full.” When I thought I knew it all, I was actually limiting myself. When I finally admitted I didn’t have a clue how to write a novel or query, it led me to research. Research, practice, and feedback made me a stronger writer.
Four Things I Learned From Failing Mae
Be wise like Mae (not like me). Before you give or receive writing feedback, keep these four things in mind:
1. Know your genre and audience.
2. Know your purpose.
If you know why you are writing, it makes the critiques easier to accept, and it can help you sift through the feedback for the most helpful bits.
3. Be specific about what you need.
If you are asking someone to read your work for the purpose of giving constructive feedback, ask for what you need. If Mae had asked me to check for comma usage, I might have been her hero (or not—I probably would have given the unhelpful feedback anyway—alas).
4. Smile and receive all feedback, but evaluate it against industry standards.
Every time I teach dialogue, I leave time for the inevitable argument over “said.” Students want to use all the words: muttered, squealed, yelled, exclaimed, replied, and so on (just like me when I began).
I get to tell them another embarrassing story. One time an editor marked my manuscript with “default to said—too many tags—looks amateur.” Ouch!
Instead of arguing with her, I looked it up. One search online confirmed the industry standards for my genre, and I began choosing my tags more carefully.
Give and Take Some Feedback This Week
Hopefully these tips will help you as you give and receive feedback. If you’ve been hiding your work in files and journals to avoid people like me, I understand (I hid my work once too).
But I also hope you’ll risk a little this week. Share your writing with someone who will cheer you on. If you are really brave, ask for some constructive feedback.
*Mae's name has been changed despite her innocence.
Do you have any tips for how to give good writing feedback? Let us know in the comments.
Today, you have two options.
- Take fifteen minutes to write a short scene using the phrase, “But that’s not how you do it!” (Do I need to add my teacherly warning to the freshmen boys? Keep it clean enough to read to the principal and your mother. HA!)
- Or, choose an excerpt from a work in progress.
Now, share your writing in the comments and ask for some specific writing feedback. Not sure what to ask? Here are some ideas:
“What tone is this scene setting?”
“How vivid is my character?”
“Am I using commas correctly here?”
“Where did you have to reread for clarity?”
Leave feedback for your fellow writers so we can all practice giving and receiving feedback. And one more thing: if you give someone writing feedback in the comments, be gentle and highlight the positives, too.
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.