‘I liked how it was before’, and other things never to say to a writer

This is draft 29. Since the project began you’ve had 23 names for your lovingly-crafted protagonist (hard to believe she began as illiterate – now she’s a linguistics professor!) and 52 versions of chapter eleven, and losing the first eighty pages was one of the best decisions thus far in your writing career (not to mention the brilliant new twist at the end – Booker judges, look out!), and you lovingly parcel your putative book with the digital version of string and brown paper, and bundle it off to the friend/family member/significant other who read drafts 14, 17 and 20.

And one merry day, when you’re happily minding your business, the feedback arrives: ‘I liked how it was before!’

And the person who offers this feedback invariably seems to think it’s a nice thing to say, for some reason I’ve never quite managed to fathom.

For the writer it’s rather like laying the very last brick in the flat-pack house you’ve built for yourself – from your own skin and bones – to be told by a clipboard-wielding bastard that you’ve got to knock it down again.

Dear People of Planet Earth, there is a rule of thumb to be used (with your nearest and dearest) in such situations: sharing one’s writing with friends and/or family members is rather like sharing one’s body. If you wouldn’t want to hear it post-coitally, then consider the chance that your friend/spouse/significant other is equally un-keen to hear it post-novelly.

For each of my Top Five Most Hated Responses imagine – go on; you’ll enjoy it, I bet – that you’ve just done the deed for the very first time with the (wo)man of your dreams, and you’re naked in all of your pale English glory on top of their tumbled silk sheets and you’re asking – you’re actually asking! – said conquest to rate your technique twixt those sheets.

1. It was fine!*

2. I only got halfway, but… it was good until then!

3. Well, obviously it needs work, but I’m sure you know that!

4.  It was quite interesting!**

5.  It reminded me a bit of something else!

* Exclamation marks, I’m sorry to say, seem obligatory in these circumstances.

** Never use the word ‘quite’ except to say ‘quite, quite’, as in ‘quite, quite magnificent’.

Sharing your writing really is that exposing. No writer expects (no serious writer expects) kid gloves from a paid editor/mentor, but when it comes to friends and family – jeez, go easy. Pause for a second – with fingers on keyboard, or pen in your fingers – and run your response through the post-coital sensitivity filter. It takes many years – perhaps decades – to write something really worthwhile: if you hobble a writer mid-stream on that journey they might just give up and do something more boring instead. And the world – as I’m sure we agree – has enough boring people already.

The Praise Sandwich: On Giving and Receiving Feedback

Anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of teacher training will have served up many a Praise Sandwich in their time. Unknown-1It goes a bit like this (do try to keep up if you can; it is tricky):

1. Say something nice.

2. Insert constructive criticisms.

3. Say something nice.

Having once had the pleasure of feedback from someone who omitted all three steps I can tell you there’s an art both to giving and receiving comments on a WIP. As the giver (unless you genuinely intend the giv-ee NEVER to write again) then, please, for the love of god – find something nice to say. It may be that you’ve seen a pile of vomit with more artistic merit, but comments such as ‘this line captured my attention’ and ‘what an interesting idea’ are noncommittal enough that you don’t look like an idiot whilst encouraging said ‘giv-ee’ to keep writing long enough to (just maybe) get a little bit better at it.

In my workshop I ask all participants to follow some simple rules when offering feedback:

1. ‘Show your working.’ (e.g. ‘This character wasn’t believable as a neurosurgeon, because on page 4 you described him as unusually clumsy’… as opposed to: ‘This sucked.’)

2. Adjust feedback according to which stage the draft is at. (A first stab? Stick to generalised comments on character, pace and structure. You might as well piss in the wind, at this stage, as tweak every sentence.)

3.  Don’t be a Grammar Nazi. (By all means, mark up the draft, but few workshops can survive an hour-long diatribe on the semi-colon.)

4. Remember: it’s not your story. Be careful not to impose your own style and/or interests on another writer. (‘What I think’s missing here is an S&M scene…’)

5. If you possibly can, read it twice (the first time without comments). Apply this to your own self-editing, too.

And the rules for receiving feedback?

1. Shut up and take it!

2. That’s it. Just shut up and take it.

Have you ever seen Hilary Mantel on Amazon arguing against one of Wolf Hall‘s one-star reviews? I’m guessing that’s a no. On the rare occasions When Authors Fight Back (you can have that if you want, Channel 5) they only ever make themselves a laughing stock. (See here for some bad behaviour from the self-published author of The Greek Seaman.) Practise for your own one-star reviews (no, seriously, practise: everyone gets them) by bringing up the drawbridge. Fine, speak out if a factual error’s been made, but otherwise: stiffen that lip; turn the Biblical cheek; keep a dignified silence. The one thing you ought to be doing is this: taking notes. Hide the notes in a drawer for a week if you need to. The odds are you’ll find, when you tiptoe towards them again, that the shit-storm you thought you got caught in was (a) not as turd-filled as first it appeared, and (b) at least partially justified.

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Personally I don’t think this piece has enough adverbs in it.

Here, let me just take a break to admit that you may have a fair few buffoons in your workshop. We’ve all known a reader who blunders through prose with the grace and finesse of a spec-less Mr Magoo… who wouldn’t know quality prose if it came rubber-stamped from the government’s Quality Prose Department (which, thank god, doesn’t exist). In a workshop (as on twitter) you’ll soon learn the voices worth listening to. Use your judgement. Buffoons can be safely ignored (in fact, should be). And, likewise, if someone has clearly cast only the vaguest of looks at your work (from a passing train window, say) then start pinching that salt. The two blokes, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, who later wrote one of my favourite programmes, Peep Showwere both in my final-year writing class at Manchester Uni and all these years later I still have fond memories of Sam Bain’s two-word response at the foot of my story: Well done. Not as harsh, of course, as the two word-review of Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich, but still. Two words? Two fingers, more like.

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The aforementioned team behind TV’s ‘Peep Show’. Oh, and Jesse Armstrong also co-wrote a little thing called ‘The Thick of It’. Not too shabby.

Never mind. I came top of the class and that, of course, is the salient point here. (And, while on the subject: there wasn’t much evidence, back then, of Sam Bain’s scriptwriting genius, although Jesse Armstrong produced a spectacularly horrible story called Pig Rodeo that, with hindsight, had more than the whiff of a Peep Show blueprint about it…) 

Most writers, of course, are at least 64% Jealous Bastard (rising to 86% if they’re currently on an MA). If you’re sharp-tongued yourself, I suggest you brace everything for the little-known phenomenon of The Revenge Drubbing, a feature of certain, power-hungry workshops. (I’ll see your ‘incomprehensible gibberish’, madam, and raise you a ‘slightly less fun than a coma’. Touché!)

Luckily, my own experiences with Mentor Extraordinaire Michelle Spring (as part of Arts Council England’s Escalator programme) have been as far removed from buffoonery, and drubbery, and two-word reviews, as humanly possible. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been force-fed a turd sandwich or two, but my lip is so stiff now it’s practically Botoxed. The news from the frontline was good today: all the bits I like best in my book are the bits she likes too.* So, onwards! (As my late, great, phonetic-namesake Lindsay Anderson was wont to say.

*Although apparently it’s got too many breasts in it…