Devourer of Words 049: Feedback Loop

Toucan reading a comic
Marc Bernardin

We are, all of us, working in mass media—meaning that the writing we do is meant to be shown to an audience. Even though we are always the first readers for our work, the plan is to not be the last readers.

Feedback is important, especially early on. What works in our heads—and in our first drafts—might not work for people not as intimately familiar with what we’re after. And just as we need to get that feedback from people, we also need to give it. (We’re a community—and we have to look out for each other.)

So, here’s a look at what I’m personally looking for in feedback and what I hope to offer when I give it.

1. Pick Your Readers Well

Look for a plurality of opinions. Don’t just choose people who love you, don’t just choose people who love the subject matter—what you need are people who will come at the work from different places and perspectives, and then you can see where they agree or don’t. Pick people you trust and can trust to tell you the truth. You don’t need lies here and you don’t need kindness.

2. Ask for What You Want

A friend of mine used to say, “Do you want me to tell you you’re brilliant or do you want me to tell you what’s broken?” Because honestly, both are valuable. Writing is a solitary leap of faith; sometimes you really do need a little ego salve and have someone to tell you you’re not crazy. Personally, almost every time I finish something new, I’m never sure if I’ve entirely forgotten how to write. We all suffer from impostor syndrome, to one degree or another, so to have someone tell you that you weren’t crazy to write THIS can be helpful. But in order to make the work better, you need to have someone tell you were you can improve. My advice: Turn to different people for both things.

3. Don’t Argue

You might find the temptation to disagree with the notes. Fight that urge. Listen and absorb. If you’ve chosen your readers well, and even if you don’t necessarily agree with the notes, there’s always a reason for the note. Sometimes, they’re symptoms of a larger disease. Remember: You don’t have to make every suggested change. Take what you think will make it better, leave what you think will make it worse. Until someone pays you, it’s all yours.

4. Don’t Take It Personally

Again, if you’ve chosen your readers well, you know that they’re trying to make you and your work read as well as it can. Don’t get angry at them for doing what you asked them to do. Just get ready to buckle in and get back to work. Writing is rewriting — and now you’ve got a roadmap.

1. Be Honest

Don’t be brutal. If someone has asked you for your thoughts, they don’t want or need to be beat up about what doesn’t work. Don’t be mean, but don’t lie, either. That’s a kindness that won’t be repaid by editors, executives, or the buying public. Be like a doctor: First, do no harm.

2Pick Your Shots

A different friend told me once that people can only really absorb three pieces of criticism, after which, they begin to emotionally shut down. So choose those three pieces well—make sure that they target the most crucial areas that need improvement. (And add a little sugar before the medicine—everything goes down easier with a little sugar.)

3. Don’t Do Their Work for Them

You might see the perfect solution to one of the problems plaguing the script. Offer suggestions, potential fixes, but never offer to rewrite. Give a writer a fix, they’ll eat today, teach a writer to fix for themselves … you get the tortured analogy. Sometimes, a writer just needs a nudge in the right direction.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!

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