Be a Better Writer: The Importance of Feedback

I joined a writers group this weekend. It’s a group of people who meet regularly at the library to share things they’ve written for critique. The intention is to bring a piece of writing to share, consider everyone’s suggestions for edits, and improve your writing.

Although I’ve frequently shared my writing online, sharing it in person was different. In addition to being able to see and hear how people reacted to what I’ve written, I also was exposed to their own individual writing styles. I met an older man writing a humor piece on the topic of human intelligence, a black woman revising an opinion editorial to submit to the local paper, and a mother writing about her first experience with love to submit to an essay contest. It was really cool to meet a group of like-minded recreational writers, and to read their works in progress.

In addition to enjoying their varied perspectives, I also liked how positive and supportive the group was. Anything they disagreed with or didn’t necessarily like would be explained in a way that wasn’t offensive to the writer. Constructive criticism was offered as a response to the writing itself: “This sentence made me feel…” versus “You made me feel…”

Having a conversation with my audience this way was beneficial. I was able to better understand how people aren’t inside my head with me as I’m presenting my writing to them. Surprisingly, they’ll react in ways I totally did not expect nor intend.

To better demonstrate what I mean, consider this example. The following line is from a story I shared with the group. It’s part of a chapter where I’m introducing a new character:

Traicoff was more or less deaf in both ears, consequence of a close one in Vietnam.

When I mentioned Vietnam, my intention was to offer an explanation why the character was hard of hearing. I didn’t think much of it other than that.

My group really honed in on this, even though I thought it was only a single detail! They told me that mentioning Vietnam causes the character to transform in their minds. He’s now a military man. If the story is taking place in present day, he’s an older military man.

Furthermore, they understood why I used such foul language throughout any of Traicoff’s internal dialogue. Being a war veteran, they expected a certain ruggedness from him: he’s a guy who spits, takes no crap from anyone, and curses often.

All this considered, they also explained that my liberal use of cursing was a bit off-putting. They suggested how unless I’m cursing to define the character, all I’m doing is distracting from the story. In other words, even though I believe cursing throughout my story is acceptable, it doesn’t make the story any more bold, urgent, or important. When I curse unnecessarily, I’m really only hurting myself.

Interestingly, I’ve actually received feedback regarding my frequent cursing in my writing before. Here is a comment left on my website, in response to some fiction I published:

I don’t enjoy reading all the f… and sh… words. You can turn a lot of people off with that kind of language.

When I first received this criticism in 2008, though, it was impossible for me to distinguish this anonymous comment from all of the other negativity I’ve received from my blog articles. At the time, I figured the anonymous haters were saying negative comments about my fiction simply because they could hide behind the veil of the internet. As a result, I didn’t take their feedback seriously.

Having received similar criticism about my curse-laced writing style from people in the flesh, though, makes me realize that it is a real problem area that I need to focus on. Highlighting another example from my story, I can really see their point:

He gave only a quick glance towards the far side of the barn where the worst of the strike had hit, and might have kept running towards the house if there hadn’t been a giant fucking meteorite where his barn door used to be.

The use of the f-word here isn’t part of the character’s internal dialogue at all — it’s the narrator that’s cursing. My intention was to give the impression of just how tremendously surprised Traicoff was when he discovered the meteorite, but I should be doing that some other way. Using bad language is an amateur tactic, and I need to stop using it as my crutch.

Like I indicated previously, the writers group was generally positive. Although there were a few moments where I felt like they were “nit-picking” my piece, I believe that I was simply being defensive of my creation. I’m proud of what I’ve written so far, and naturally I’m going to be a bit sensitive when someone doesn’t love it as much as I do.

Honestly, the last thing that I want is to turn a reader off of my piece because of some bad words that I could have left out completely. The thing is, cursing in my fiction is going to offend some people, and cause them to stop reading. What I’ve managed to take away from this first meeting is that there’s a time and place for everything — but unless there’s a good reason to have my characters drop the f-bomb, I should try and avoid it.

Rewrite is a crucial part of the writing process. Armed with this new knowledge about how people reacted to my potty mouth, I’m willing to eliminate all of it when I go back to make edits. Without this feedback, I would have submitted my piece for the creative writing program that I’m applying for with the curse words still in it.

Maybe it would have caused my application to immediately meet the bin. Maybe it wouldn’t have. Whichever the case, I know that I’m serious about becoming a professional writer. With this in mind, I don’t want to do anything that will hurt my chances in that pursuit. Similarly, I’m grateful for any feedback and constructive criticism that will help improve my writing, and increase my chance of success.

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One Response to “Be a Better Writer: The Importance of Feedback”

#1 Jerry Lopper on 31, Aug, 2011 at 11:31 am

Totally agree. It’s amazing the quality of feedback you can get from the right group of serious writers. Finding the right group is the key for me. I had trouble in finding a group that provided useful feedback, so I started my own writers’ group with another writer and that’s been so productive, very helpful.


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