This week, we’re concentrating upon building one of the most useful skills a career writer can have: the ability to take feedback well. Why is it so handy, you ask? Because from the industry’s point of view, an ability to respond to even gloves-off critique calmly and reasonably isn’t just a nice optional feature on an author — it’s part of the standard equipment.
With an eye to that reality, last time, I began going through a list of strategies for the critique situation where a writer is most likely to over-react, the face-to-face feedback session.
Are the shy among you sitting down? Good, because I have some potentially startling news to share: face-to-face critique moments positively abound in the writing world, in every form from the aforementioned writers’ group to a pitch session with an agent or editor to being approached by a less-than-enthusiastic fan at a book reading.
Unless you are lucky enough to land that one-in-a-million literary berth that enables you to hide out in a well-furnished cave in Outer Mongolia, typing away in solitude while the royalty checks roll in, then, you might want to prepare yourself for the experience.
The wise writer’s goal in these situations is simple: to hear critique of your work without taking it personally and respond appropriately, in a manner that both helps your book’s market and artistic prospects and maintains a positive relationship with the critiquer.
It may not sound like a lofty goal, but as those of you who have been on the receiving end of a honest-to-goodness professional critique already know, in the moment, it can be pretty difficult. Let’s recap yesterday’s suggestions:
1. Walk into the meeting with a couple of specific questions you would like your critiquers to answer.
2. Bear in mind that today is not necessarily a good day for response.
3. Take good notes.
Is everyone up to speed with those? Fabulous. Let’s move on, then.
4. Be an active listener.
If you watch the body language of someone unused to accepting critique gracefully, you’ll notice something interesting: most of the time, their bodies appear to be straining at an invisible leash, in constant preparation for jumping in to contradict the feedback-giver. It’s very confrontational; often, the listener even keeps his mouth slightly open while the critiquer is making her case, to prevent even the slightest delay in shooting out a response.
But contrary to popular opinion, feedback on a manuscript is NOT an invitation to an argument; it’s a series of points that a writer should take back to the manuscript to consider applying. And that is as it should be, because no matter how well a writer can defend a particular literary choice verbally, ultimately, what matters is what’s on the PAGE.
Seriously, ask any agent, editor, or contest judge in the English-speaking world — honestly, they’re not looking for a fight. They just want to help the writer improve the manuscript.
As I pointed out yesterday, it’s very, very hard for anybody to listen well when he’s trying to come up with a reply to each point being made. Believe it or not, though, the opposite response, to sit there stony-faced — or, as often happens in pitch meetings, with a forced smile plastered on the face — is even harder on the feedback-giver.
Why? Well, a mask is difficult to read, after all; can a critiquer really be blamed if she occasionally mistakes a blank face as a sign of boredom? Or concludes from the fact that the writer is responding to both high praise and deep damnation with exactly the same expression that the feedback is not particularly welcome?
Active listening is an ideal compromise between the two extremes. An active listener is engaged in the conversation, even when she is not speaking: she smiles at the jokes, nods at the good points, looks thoughtful when an interesting point is raised — and yes, even frowns when she disagrees with something.
What she does, in short, is pays the speaker the compliment of appearing to be interested in what he’s saying.
Heck, yeah, it takes a lot of energy to listen this way, but embracing this practice brings a very tangible reward: it forces the writer to LISTEN to the details of the feedback. Which, in turn, renders it infinitely more likely that she’s going to glean something useful from it.
Look: not every piece of advice you’re going to get is going to be stellar, or even apt, even if you’re hearing it from the world’s best-qualified first reader for your work or the agent of your dreams. A professional writer needs to learn to sift, to separate the wheat from the chaff, to pan for the gold amid the sand, and…well, any other sorting metaphor you might care to mention.
The point is, it’s the writer’s job to figure out which is which.
That can take some pretty close listening — and it’s almost impossible to listen closely when a writer is constantly on guard to respond to a perceived attack or concentrating on maintaining a jaunty facial expression no matter what is said, as if she were on trial for murder based upon ambiguous evidence and the jury might convict based upon a fleeting frown or two.
Yes, I’ve seen both in feedback situations.
Instead, engage. Trust me, it will make the person giving you feedback respect you more than if you pursue either of the alternatives.
5. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for a rain check. Or at least buy yourself some time.
All throughout #4, I sensed the timid out there wanting to ask a question. “But Anne,” they murmur unobtrusively, “what if I’m really blindsided by what the feedback-giver is saying? For instance, the last time I pitched at a conference, the agent cut me off before I’d said three sentences, telling me that she didn’t represent that kind of work. It took 100% of my energy not to burst into tears on the spot.”
I’m glad you brought this up, Modest Mice. Here’s a little tip that I wish every conference pitcher learned BEFORE that first face-to-face meeting: if the agent or editor says s/he is not interested in the book, the pitcher is under no obligation to stick around, doing violence to his emotions in a dreadful effort to remain polite until the time allotted for the meeting expires.
Yet in 99% of such meetings, the writer DOES just sit there, miserable and confused. There are some other ways to handle this, of course (discussed under the PITCH FOR AN AGENT OR EDITOR MEETING category at right, in case you’re interested).
But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, leave. Take a powder. Vamoose. Believe me, the agent or editor isn’t going to take umbrage if you slip away quietly; usually, she’s not any more comfortable in this situation than the writer is.
Of course, you’re going to want to maintain your dignity as you go; manners, as nice British mothers used to tell their children, cost nothing. Murmur a quiet thanks, if you can manage it.
The same logic applies to any critique situation — if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it is a far, far better thing to ask for, say, a five-minute break during your writing group than to bite your tongue until it bleeds. If you need to run into the nearest bathroom and scream into a scrunched-up pillow because you feel the critiquer has completely missed the point of your chapter, go ahead.
Or how about saying to the fellow writer with whom you have exchanged manuscripts, “Look, I’ve had a hard day. Do you mind if we postpone talking about this until I’m a little more coherent?
While it may seem like a cop-out, it’s infinitely preferable to a meltdown that results in burned feelings. Even walking into a meeting knowing that scuttling away is a viable option can render the situation less stressful.
If you don’t feel that you can call for a time-out, consider borrowing a trick from academia and forcing a lull in the discussion. Professors tend to be past masters at this, and for good reason: they have to answer a lot of questions on the fly, and — I’m exposing a trade secret here, so pay attention — they don’t always have the answers at on the tips of their tongues. Sometimes, they need to slip off to their offices and look something up.
Yet surprisingly few of them (or I suppose I should say us, as I used to be one of their number in the dim days of yore) are willing to say, “Actually, I don’t have an answer to that. Mind if I slither off to the library and consult a reference volume?” Instead, they often turn the discussion so they needn’t answer the question until they’ve had time to do precisely that.
To be fair, looking things up isn’t always an option — especially in the midst of the form of medieval torture known in academia as a job talk. In order to get a job as a professor at most major US universities, the top candidates have to give a lecture on their current research projects, with every professor in the department they hope will hire them sitting in the audience, eager to leap upon any logical holes in the argument.
Even for someone who wants to give lectures for a living, this can be a pretty daunting prospect. Especially when the job talk is scheduled, as it so often is, at the end of a couple of days’ worth of individual meetings with all of those professors, the department’s graduate students, and university administration. That’s a whole lot of sustained good behavior, particularly in the kind of well-regarded department that I used to occupy, where everyone one of those professors had a legitimate right to expect the hapless applicant to be intimately familiar with every article he had ever produced.
Speaking of something you might want to rush off to the library to look up.
Why the endurance test? Well, in the US, there are often a few hundred qualified applicants for every professorial position in a good department, so to be invited to give a job talk, your application has to have impressed a whole lot of people. But by the time they fly you in, the people you impressed will have been debating with for a month with the people who fell in love with Candidate B’s curriculum vitae, arguing with those who just adore Candidate C’s research agenda, and trading barbs with those who think Candidate D will vote with them at faculty meetings.
Question time at the job talk is typically when all of these intradepartmental squabbles come to the fore. The advocates for other applicants will leap to their feet as rapidly as their laurelled-but-aging bones will allow, to try to make Candidate A look worse by asking really, really difficult questions.
Many of which, I regret to report, tend to take the form of, “Why didn’t you approach this problem precisely the way I would have?” If not the even more dreaded, “Could you relate this to my last article?”
I mention this not to discourage any of you out there from pursuing the academic life, but because this last type of critique, the self-centered, is actually not confined to its hallowed halls. In a pitch meeting, an agent who specializes in mysteries might well take issue with the ways in which your thriller does not resemble a mystery; if you are the only memoirist in a critique group full of novelists, you’re probably going to keep hearing that you’re including too much backstory.
And so forth. Since the literary market is so diverse — and conferences can’t possibly import pros who deal with every conceivable book category — we writers often find ourselves receiving advice and feedback from folks who don’t specialize in our type of book.
But since the literary world is all about networking, it’s usually not a very good idea to point that out to a feedback-giver whose category preconceptions are, well, a bit off the mark.
As you may easily imagine, givers of job talks find themselves in this position all the time. So how do they handle it? By buying some time to think — or turning the discussion.
How does he go about it, you ask? First, the neophyte professor will pause after the questioner has finished speaking, as though considering it in all of its complexity. (Actually, this is a good strategy whenever an intellectually-insecure person asks you a question; it implies that it was a really good question that requires serious thought to answer.)
Then the wise job talker will extend an olive branch: “That’s an interesting question. I’ll have to think about that.” This is a very difficult conversational move for the questioner to counter, as it conveys a compliment while it defers further discussion.
Which is precisely why this tactic almost always works in a literary critique situation. Pretty much everyone is flattered by the notion that he has raised a point so incisive that the author wants to meditate upon it at length.
If all else fails, move on to tactic #6 — which is more than the poor job talker could get away with doing:
6. Say, “Thanks for your feedback– but I would like to re-read the critiqued pages before responding to what you’ve said.”
Aspiring writers often seem surprised when I suggest this, but in practice, there’s no better way to defuse a critique exchange that threatens to become personal or hyper-emotional. Expressing an interest in going back and reading the manuscript with an eye to the points the critiquer has raised is a perfectly reasonable request.
It’s also a pretty good idea in any feedback situation.
Think about it: when are you most likely to be able to give a revision suggestion a fighting chance to convince you to try it, immediately after you’ve first heard it and while you are still face-to-face with your critiquer, or a few days later, when you’re alone and face-to-face with nothing but the text?
Basically, this strategy will minimize the probability that you’ll dismiss a great idea in the heat of the moment — and maximize the potential for any follow-up discussion’s being productive for you and your book.
“Um, Anne?” I hear some of you calling. “I’ve been in a writers’ group/class/book collaboration with someone who does this, and the results aren’t, to put it as gently as possible, always positive, I can’t possibly be the only writer who has given feedback to someone who seemed to take it well at the time, only to stun me three days later with a 20-page e-mail explaining in exquisite detail, with textual illustrations, exactly what kind of an idiot I am to have suggested changing so much as a syllable of the chapter in question?”
Good point, anonymous commenters: the strategies of allowing time to pass and taking another gander at the text will not fuse into a magic wand that will automatically turn a behind-the-scenes seether (which, let’s face it, is not an uncommon writerly specialty) into an open-minded feedback-receiver who blesses those who help him.
In fact, as you so rightly point out, it can have the opposite effect.
So let me clarify why I am advising this: the point of going back to the text is NOT to come up with concrete evidence to support a future argument with a critiquer; it’s to try to figure out if the critiquer might have a legitimate point. This is high unlikely to happen within the first few seconds after the critique has departed the feed-back-giver’s mouth.
Speed of revision is sometimes valuable after a writer has begun working with an agent or editor, because publication deadlines wait for no man, but trust me on this one: no one familiar with the trials and tribulations of revising a manuscript actually expects the author to come up with the necessary changes within a minute or two of the suggestion to make them. You have every right to take some time to think about it.
In fact, I would argue that to be the best guardian of your book’s interest, you have an OBLIGATION not to react on the spur of the moment. Because — chant it with me now, everyone — the goal of getting feedback is to improve what’s on the PAGE, not to silence the objections raised by someone kind enough to read the manuscript and give substantive feedback.
This isn’t to say that a writer shouldn’t ask follow-up questions about feedback — if they’re warranted, she definitely should. But even then, the manuscript itself is usually the best place to start pulling together requests for clarification.
Besides, you wouldn’t respond to a change request from the agent of your dreams or the perfect editor for your book without first going to the part of the text they’ve flagged as needing revision, would you?
Um, you wouldn’t, would you? Hello? Anybody out there? Or would some of you just rather avoid thinking about that particular situation until it’s upon you?
I hate to be the one to break it to you, kids, but being on the receiving end of critique from a thoughtful agent or editor is the GOOD outcome here. Try to think of the feedback situations along the way as dry runs for that happy day.
And when that day comes, you’ll be such an old hand at taking feedback that you’ll listen carefully, pause long enough to indicate that they’ve raised interesting points, then open your mouth and chirp, “Wow, that’s an intriguing idea. Let me sit with it and the manuscript for a few days, thinking about it.”
Hey, it’s my job to envision you at your best and most successful. More tips follow next time — and please, critique veterans, feel free to pass along wry anecdotes and helpful hints of your own.
Keep up the good work!
(PS: today’s picture appears courtesy of FreeFoto.com.)