Tell people you’re writing something and it brings out their inner critic. They’ll queue up to give you their unsolicited opinion. Even perfectly benign souls find it hard not to rip your work to the kind of shreds which wouldn’t be out of place on a pulled pork sandwich.
Faced with these acts of savagery, what do you do? Yep, you do the same as the rest of us. You tell yourself that this sort of criticism is what’s needed to turn you into a better writer, and try to incorporate your aggressor’s comments into your finished work.
But that’s often a bad idea. Here’s why.
Halfway through my MA in creative writing I had the epiphany that most of the feedback I was being given actually weakened my writing. It diluted my style, caused me to wander far from my message and generally robbed my work of its power. Writing to accommodate reader feedback is effectively writing by committee. And although committees may be invaluable for some things (like setting the price of bread in communist Russia, for example), they’re not renowned for great writing.
Sometimes, though, I did get advice worth acting on. I noticed that this kind of rare, useful input seemed to arrive—like a rainbow—only in certain circumstances. Naturally, I made a note of these circumstances, and used them to fine-tune my antennae for when a reader’s advice was likely to be worth taking.
Based on these observations in the field, my recommendation is to ignore all critical feedback from readers unless one or more of the following conditions have been fulfilled:
- You’re convinced your reader knows what they’re talking about (your tutor told you to cut all the adverbs from your piece, and you’re sure the end result is a great improvement).
- Your critic definitely had your best interests at heart when they gave their feedback (they might have an unjustified bee in their bonnet about adverbs, for example, or were crotchety because of pain from their bad back).
- You think they’ve made a great point you’d entirely failed to consider (What? You’d really write an essay on poststructuralism without mentioning overdetermination?).
- Your critic has said things you can reasonably act upon (one of my readers told me she didn’t like a particular word I’d used because it made her feel ‘squirly’. All I could do was offer to get her a nice cold flannel).
- They’re paying you for your writing (the customer is always right, after all. But even then you might be justified in going your own way).
This list isn’t exhaustive, by any means. So let’s hear your take on the kind of feedback you’ve found genuinely useful. And next week I’ll tell you how to solicit great advice.