Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Have You Found Your Ideal Readers?

If you are a writer, I'm sure you are familiar with peer review and feedback on your works in progress. Writers mostly find it invaluable even when the truth hurts. But can it sometimes do more harm than good?

The initial Finish That Novel group set up by Greenacre Writers attracted some great writers and we all read and critiqued each other's work with a mix of good and critical comments. I think I'm right in saying that we all found the experience beneficial and our writing improved. I know mine did but I was fortunate in finding, by chance, my Ideal Readers - as Stephen King called them.

I joined a similar group with a different novel and here my experience was mixed. The group was less stable with a number of people joining and leaving after only a few sessions. Some people joined after several members, including me, had already presented the first few chapters. The newcomers complained that they didn't know who various characters were - in spite of us providing detailed synopses of the work so far. After a few meetings, I realized that only three members' feedback was worth considering. Of these one did not hold back in criticism but it was all constructive and extremely helpful, and another was very supportive. The third fed back so much negativity in comments it contributed to my losing confidence in my writing so much so that I left the group and abandoned the novel. This person's comments about my main character were totally at odds with how I perceived her. Was I writing this character so badly that she could be completely misjudged? Evidently so.

I'm not a snowflake so why did I crumble from these comments and criticisms? This all came at a time when I was struggling to regain health after thyroid cancer and my energy was severely depleted. My replacement thyroxine was sub-optimum leaving me on the border of depression and I was also having an extremely difficult time with a colleague at work who undermined me at every opportunity. My confidence in my abilities disappeared down the plughole. Receiving such negative feedback on top of that resulted in me losing faith with my writing altogether, that even the other members' support could not counter-effect.

I'm pleased to say that four years on, I'm in better health and feeling more assured about writing having had some good feedback on my first novel and flash-fiction pieces. The other novel, however, remained hidden in my PC files until a few weeks ago.

I'd been having a huge de-clutter and tidy up, and found the hand written notes from the feedback group. I re-read these notes and have been working on some re-writing. The extensive notes written by that first member have been used in tweaking and deleting, and have been extremely valuable.

Reading the notes from the negative critiquer with fresh eyes, I now see that this person was simply not my Ideal Reader. Far from it. Some comments are valid certainly but many are not. This reader wanted me to write a different character altogether. Actually, it seems, a different novel!

I must be honest - some points were worth considering, and perhaps deep down I knew there was a degree of truth in the harsh criticism which made it harder to hear. I am examining those comments closely to see where I can improve my characterization, but I feel free to discard anything that is not useful to me. This person was not my Ideal Reader and I now have sufficient faith in myself and my writing to throw out anything that is not beneficial in improving it.

I am not advocating surrounding yourself by people who will give unstinting praise - no-one grows in that environment. Listen to your critiquers and consider their feedback - but, please, do find the courage to disregard criticism that doesn't allow you to feel enthusiastic about your work and its development.


Alex (Mistakes Writers Make) said...

Feedback is feedback - not a definitive right nor wrong.

I think all feedback can be used in some way - but it doesn't have to be used in the *same* way.

Some you can take on board, some you can use to inspire another piece, some take great pleasure and motivation in completely ignoring ...

All grist to the mill!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Lindsay. As a creative writing tutor, I have done my fair share of 'critiquing'/giving feedback and sometimes I worry, afterwards, that perhaps I've been too 'harsh'. (I don't think I am particularly - I always try to include something positive - but as you say in your post, it's pretty pointless just saying everything is wonderful!). Some people are more sensitive than others though, or they may, like you experienced, also be going through a rough time in other areas in their life, which of course is something that the critiquer may not be aware of. It's tricky! But there's no point in staying in a group that's making you unhappy or sapping your confidence. I left a group that I didn't enjoy and I would do the same again.

Anonymous said...

I'm reassured by this. I thought I was being too sensitive because my work has been criticized very harshly in a group by just one person. The others were fair. The harsh one admitted he didn't get my writing style - and dismissed what he called women's stories as not being literary but that's want I want to write! He isn't an ideal reader. I'll stick to my guns.

Lindsay said...

Thank you for your comments. We all agree use the useful and discard the rest!

Emily Benet said...

Good - glad your confidence is coming back because I'm desperately waiting for a novel from you! I had a similar experience in a writing group. Everyone would write very extensive notes and I was impressed with the effort they would put in - but as the months passed I got the sense they were trying to turn my romcom into their kind of novel - which was either fantasy, literary or political! I abandoned that book too in the end. It's so important to find the right audience. I'm no snowflake and can take constructive criticism - but I think you can have too much feedback sometimes!