Too many cooks spoil the cupcakes: How to solicit quality writing feedback from the get-go

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By Annalisa Parent

It is said “too many cooks spoil the cupcakes,” or something like that. Was it soup? Broth? Doesn’t matter; the point is: the same is true for excessive feedback on writing. Once we’ve solicited a lot of feedback, it can be difficult to figure out which voices to listen to or to discover the final direction for a piece of writing.

Here are some writing tips to keep your sweet little nuggets of writing genius from going sour.

Know when your piece or writing is ready to share. To everything a time and a season

There’s a moment for creation and a moment for polishing. Imagine you were going to bake cupcakes, so you take out all all the ingredients, then invite me over. You show me the flour, the mixing bowl, and the cute little paper cups. “What do you think of my cupcakes?” you ask.

Now, if I start meddling in your process, asking questions like “Why did you choose vanilla instead of chocolate?” or offered advice such as “Use multicolored sprinkles on your frosting for better appeal,” you might feel so overwhelmed by all the possibility that you never follow through and make the cupcakes.

The same is true for the creative process. Like baking, if I share before a piece is fully formed, I will get feedback that both impedes my creative process and the piece’s potential to come to fruition.

Imagine instead that you bake the cupcakes and then invite me over for a taste. Then I might as questions such as “Why did you make vanilla over chocolate?” to help me understand your process. But it’s more likely– because the cupcakes are fully-formed– that I can go deeper and give you feedback that will help you make better cupcakes next time. As your friend who cares deeply for your development as a cupcake baker, I can offer suggestions such as “Use more egg next time for lighter cupcakes.” or “Use less sugar in the frosting.”

This type of feedback will really help you to improve your baking rather than confuse or overwhelm you.

The bottom line is: don’t confuse the creative process with the critique process. Critique should only happen once a piece is as fully formed as you can get it.

But what if you’re stuck and want feedback to move you forward?

When this happens to me, when a stubborn character won’t move or I don’t know what he says next, I come up with one specific question and play a “what if” game.

For example, recently I decided to add a plot line to a novel I have under revision. I knew the general direction I wanted to go, but I also wanted a spur on my creative self. So I sat down to dinner with friends and said “Suppose there’s this mysterious couple living across the hall….”

After I’d explained the scenario, my creative friends threw in lots of “what ifs” that helped confirm some plot ideas I had and gave me a new direction for my thinking. The conversation also had the added benefit of re-energizing me about my work. My friends’ enthusiasm rubbed off on me, and I approached the plotting with new eyes. All of this happened without a single bit of feedback on what I had actually written or conversation about the plot as it stood. I protected the piece from premature scrutiny, and was able to spur myself back into creativity.

Get the right kind of feedback at the right time

I once read about a famous women’s lit author who gets through the loneliness of the creative phase by having a celebration for her writing. In order to hold herself accountable for completion, she pledges to provide X chapters to her friends every month, week, whatever. During the creation phase, her friends only tell her what they liked. This positive feedback helps her to move forward with the creation phase. Once she’s completed a finished product, she’ll revise and then ask for content feedback.

There’s an important distinction between the creative function and the critique function– you are using two separate parts of your brain. Keeping those functions separate is an important part of enhancing creativity and bringing a piece to completion.

To continue the cupcake analogy, you don’t want intricate baking advice from someone who can’t really evaluate the situations. Sure, we all love cupcakes, but that doesn’t make us experts on baking them. It only makes us experts on what we like and don’t like. Readers and writing workshops can give us feedback on what they like and don’t like, but they don’t necessarily have the technical expertise to talk about how to increase tension, where to enhance or reduce dialogue, or when to use understatement. For that kind of quality feedback, you need to work with people who truly understand the intricacies of quality writing, how to explain it, and how to help a writer to implement it.

It’s important to have a coach or critique group who knows the difference between the creative process and the critique process and when and how to give feedback one each.

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Chair & Pen publishes stories on the writing process and the writing life. It is edited and curated by Writing Coach Annalisa Parent. To learn more about how to work with Annalisa, visit www.DateWithTheMuse.com

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