The Down and Dirty of Constructive Feedback

Being an indie author is a seriously unhealthy cycle of laying bare your heart and then enduring a vigorous whipping over and over again. But if you want to be good at what you do, you have to ask for feedback. Honest feedback. And CRACK goes the whip across your back, and not in a sexy cat-o’-nine-tails way.

So anytime an indie author posts a blurb or cover or excerpt in a forum or Facebook group, I whisper, “Bless your heart,” and pour one out for the bits of that author’s self-esteem that won’t live to see another sunrise.

I can’t think of a single instance when I’ve posted a part of my work to a large Facebook group or forum, because that whole pearls-before-swine thing. There are so many people who use requests for honest feedback as an opportunity to onanistically insult you to make themselves feel better.

Do I ask for feedback from a select few fellow authors whose opinions (and the way they express them) I trust? Shit yeah, I do. I want to get better. But I want to get better without excessive bloodletting becoming a more desirable option.

There’s this thing among indie authors (and I know I’m stepping in shit here) where some — not all, but some — don’t seem to think that learning the craft of storytelling is all that important. Okay, so you didn’t study it in college like I did. Fine. I didn’t learn that much practical knowledge anyway. What writing workshops in college did provide me, though, is the priceless experience of what it feels like to have your work shat upon, set on fire, and then watch as a professor, who supposedly knows what he’s talking about, pisses on the ashes of your dreams.

It hurts. A lot. But that’s what alcohol is for, and that’s why it’s important to experience this trauma while you’re youthful and not especially prone to hangovers. You learn to rebound, but more importantly, you learn how big of dickheads other people can be when they give feedback, and you vow to never be like them. Then you figure out nice ways to tell people their work sucks.

And that’s important. There are other ways to learn this skill (otherwise known as empathy), but in relation to this particular industry, writers’ workshops are the quickest and most painful way to go about it. Am I selling you on them? No? Okay fine.

The point is that there are droves of folks who are self-publishing and have never learned the golden rule of, “Post unto others on the internet as you would have others post unto you (on the internet).” So a simple request for feedback turns into a shitslide of brutal nitpicks, patronizing opinions presented as Truth, and that one dude who keeps trying to trick everyone into signing up for his newsletter.

To be honest, the complete social ineptitude with regard to providing constructive feedback would be entertaining if it weren’t so damn horrifying.

Listen, I get it. If you take your career seriously and go get a professional cover (or learn how to use Photoshop and Illustrator well enough to make your own) only to see someone post a hand-drawn cover and ask, “Why aren’t people buying this?” it can be mega tempting to tear them a new choice orifice. After all, they’re basically demolishing the reputation of the self-publishing industry with that subsubsubpar nonsense. But if you say, “People aren’t buying your book because it looks like your dog drew that with its asshole,” you’re not helping anyone improve. Even if you’re 100% correct in your observation, you’re being a dickhead by saying it.

Practical tools

After working as an in-house editor of erotic romance, I became a veritable guru of providing constructive feedback to authors who just didn’t have a clue about things they should’ve known. (BTW, the hymen is on the outside, not inside. Apparently no one knows this.)

So here are some examples of what you might want to say but what you should say instead.

Blurbs

Want to say: Is your target demographic masochists? Because anyone who stumbles through 200 words of this complete nonsense and asks for more could only be a masochist.

But should say: There are a few places where the language might benefit from some tightening up. Your editor could probably help tremendously, since she’s familiar with your story.

Want to say: It looks like you ate a bunch of consonants and then projectile vomited them as made-up words that you’re trying to pass it off as sci-fi.

But should say: Readers may not need to know so many specific names, places, and terms all at once. Consider limiting any unfamiliar words to the main character’s name and perhaps one planet(?)/whateverthefuckthatis to avoid overwhelming readers.

Covers

Want to say: This looks more like a ransom note from a blind psychopath than a book cover.

But should say: There are a lot of interesting elements demanding attention, and readers may overlook the more important ones because of that. Consider simplifying so that the most engaging elements can really shine.

Want to say: My grandfather could make a better cover on Word using only Clip Art, and he has literally never used a computing machine of any kind, including abacuses.

But should say: You have an interesting concept here. Have you considered hiring a professional cover artist to run with this? Here’s a link to an affordable one I love: [link]

Excerpt

Want to say: I’ve never been religious, but I just begged for Jesus to enter my heart for the sole purpose of praying to him that English isn’t your first language.

But should say: There’s a strong story in here. Strengthening and tightening up some of the technical aspects of grammar, spelling, and punctuation will help readers focus more on the story, which they’ll love. Here’s a great resource I use: [link]

Want to say: If I could, I would wrest a dozen of those mind-bogglingly extraneous commas from the page and use them as throwing stars to slowly and purposefully inflict the kind of carnage upon your body that your baffling punctuation just inflicted upon the language centers of my brain.

But should say: Consider combing back through to remove any unnecessary commas that might impede the flow. That way, the reader will be able to appreciate this as the page turner it is.

Neutralize your disgust

Below are common thoughts that might pop into your head followed by a constructive way to phrase them so that the writer will actually listen.

Is this a prank? This is a prank, right? → “Is this the finished product?”

Holy. Hell. I don’t even know where to start … → “Is there specific feedback you’re looking for?”

Oh for fuck sake. → “That’s a unique take. What made you go in that direction?”

Literally quit. → “Joining a local critique group may help you hone valuable skills to strengthen your craft.”

The fact that your books aren’t selling restores my faith in humanity. → “It’s always impossible to catch our own mistakes, which is why hiring an editor is a must for everyone!”

Words you should never use

“Hate” — Let me be clear: it doesn’t matter one nanofuck if you hate something about someone’s work. Don’t use that word in your feedback. Not only will it make the recipient wonder how far they have to jam a splinter underneath one of their fingernails just to feel something — anything — again, but it’s vague and unproductive. If you hate their main character, leave your feelings out of it and be specific about what you didn’t like. For instance, “I lost sympathy for the MC when she boiled her boyfriend’s puppy — the third one that week, if I read it correctly — poisoned the broth, and then served it to all those orphans. That could turn potential readers away.”

“Wrong” — Listen, citizens of the internet, I know you love telling people they’re wrong because it feels good and all the popular redditors are doing it, but it’s not helpful feedback. No one wants to admit they’re wrong, which is what you force someone to do. You’ve just built a wall for their ego to climb over or tunnel under before they can even consider your suggestion. So actually, you were wrong in your feedback because you went about it the WRONG way. See? Sucks to hear, doesn’t it?

“Terrible,” “Dumb,” “Stupid,” etc. — I’m lazy by nature, so if I didn’t feel compelled by experience to include these, I wouldn’t bother. But apparently it’s not obvious to people that these are shitty words for giving feedback. So remember, kids, that things have opposites. If you’re tempted to use a negative word, you can always spin it to use the opposite. Don’t tell someone they have a weak ending; make a suggestion for how the ending could be strengthened. People like making things better more than they like being insulted. Go figure.

Words that are your new best friends

“Consider” — By adding this word before your suggestion, you clarify that what you say is simply that: a suggestion. When you avoid telling the person they must do something a certain way, they’re more likely to consider your point of view with an open mind and their emotional defenses down.

“Clarity” — Something make no goddamn sense? Suggest the writer consider making a change for increased clarity of an idea. Everyone strives to be clear. Except for pretentious assholes, maybe. And fuck those guys.

“Flow” — When reading a sentence feels like falling down three flights of stairs, suggest the writer work on the flow of language. This applies to overuse of commas, botched parallel constructions, never-ending sentences, and thesaurus vomiting. It applies to everything.

“Consider revising for clarity and flow.” — This is a last-ditch phrase that should not be used lightly. I repeat, this should not be used lightly. This is the “I give up” phrase. This is the emergency rip-cord of constructive feedback. It should only be used for “sentences” like, “I went, to got sadness, sprocket in a pancake for the butter; nothing.” I just made that up, but I might save it on my desktop to reuse if I ever need to fake a stroke to get out of a meeting. Anyway, that’s the kind of sentence you reserve “consider revising for clarity and flow” for. Nothing less.


That’s it for now. Do you have any favorite go-to constructive feedback tricks or phrases you employ on a regular basis? If so, drop them in the comments for others (myself included) to steal.

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