Why the worst feedback is the best feedback

UnderLast year I tried out NaNoWriMo for the first time and completed the challenge of writing 50,000 words within a month. It was a great experiment – for the first time I thought “this is possible!” I didn’t immediately start thrusting it under the noses of publishers though – I knew it wasn’t fit for public consumption. And it also wasn’t completely finished.

So I let it sit for a while, and did other stuff. Wrote a couple of short stories, kept submitting ones I’d already written, and carried on working through my Writer’s Bureau course.

One of the assignments was simple: send in the first chapter, or the first 2,500 words of your novel to be marked. I went through my first chapter meticulously, sentence by sentence, and sent it to my tutor. My feedback came through a couple of weeks later and though I disagreed with a couple of subjective issues about the topic I’d chosen, I could see where I’d gone wrong. Too many ellipses and long dashes, characters that weren’t fully developed and other mistakes that needed to be sorted.

All of that was fine. It was private feedback; no biggie.

What I did wrong was forget the no.1 rule in any writer’s handbook – do NOT send your work out into the public until it is as close to perfect as you can get it.

I subscribe to Writing Magazine (anyone else get it?) and every issue has a fantastic piece called Under The Microscope, where author and lecturer James McCreet dissects the first 300 words of reader’s novels, which they submit to the magazine. Overexcited by the prospect of dissection, I fired off the first 300 words just after emailing my assignment to my tutor. And then promptly forgot all about it.

So you can imagine my surprise when I was chilling out on the sofa with the magazine and an ice-cold glass of lemonade, and I saw my photograph next to the title. Giddy, I ran to show my sister what had happened WITHOUT EVEN READING IT MYSELF FIRST.

Fortunately, she read it for me and softened the blow. It was a pretty damning critique. But you know what?

Everything he said was right.

After the shock wore off, I went through his sentence by sentence critique and highlighted all the ones that made sense.

I thought back to a blog post I had read a while ago where a plucky author copied out every single rejection letter he’d received. Some were simple and to the point. Others made me laugh out loud. So, in that spirit, sharing the wealth, I thought I’d post the summary of Mr McCreet’s article here, so that other beginner writers out there know they’re not alone:

“There’s potential for an amusing and engaging scene here. The will and its obvious significance is a good plot trigger, but I’m afraid the piece is too confusing to be effective. The description is clichéd and imprecise, baffling rather than enlightening the reader. The paragraphing is haphazard. The tone should be amusing but is just mystifying. Details that should lend veracity ring false.

The cumulative fault here is that the scene has not been conceived from the reader’s point of view. The writing should be transparent: clearly and convincingly presenting a scene we can inhabit. Instead, we have a combination of words put together in a way that only the writer truly understands.”

But as criticisms go, it’s fairly benign. It only took two days to get over and I’m already setting a plan in motion to start again from scratch, taking the feedback into account and with the plot more formed in my mind and Scrivener (which is brilliant by the way) to help break down the chapters and work on it in bits.

No, it might not have been the best idea to send out a piece of work that screamed “I’m a first draft!” all over it, but in a way, it’s probably the best and most direct piece of criticism I’ve ever received. And if I can handle that, I can handle anything.

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2 comments

  1. Glad to hear you found my feedback useful. It’s always difficult to get harsh criticism (I still get it myself) but a real writer takes note and learns from it. Good luck with your book.

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