How (not) to take feedback

The first half of the year is full of writing competitions and they’re everywhere. I didn’t realise it until I started looking – and finding them scattered throughout the writing community piqued my interest and had me finally putting my words ‘out there’.

I’m not an expert, but I would suggest that before you enter a competition first question what you want to get out of it. Many of these competitions are not free, so not only are you putting your hard-earned words out there for others to critique, but you’re giving them money too! Some offer feedback – many others do not, so think about it before you enter!

I enter competitions mostly for feedback, to gauge whether or not what I have written is palatable for the general public – or whether I am deluding myself about my writing/writing career. Feedback is important on so many levels and if you’re not putting yourself out there then you are doing yourself and your writing a disservice. Be prepared to fail (because as Brené Brown says: ‘If you’re not failing, you’re not showing up’), be prepared not to be everyone’s cup of tea, be prepared to work on getting better and listening to what you need to do to improve.

As far as competitions are concerned, I hope sometimes I might get far enough that I win something – I’m not asking for huge accolades – just a small win to boost my productivity and make me enjoy this journey (which is frequently paved with my own doubts!)

A couple of caveats to what I’m about to say — the first is that this is my personal experience and what I’ve learned from entering many competitions from a variety of places — the second is that the judges in many of the comps are volunteers and many give up their free time to read your work. The majority of judges give excellent feedback and want to encourage you to learn more and more importantly, to keep writing! There are only a small percentage who feel that tearing down your work involves personal attack on you and your writing ability. Don’t listen to them. If ever you encounter a judge who does this, their feedback isn’t worth taking into account. They may be a frustrated writer, they may be going through a tough time, or they may have an agenda you have nothing to do with but they’re taking it out on you. Chin up, or as it goes, bums up, head down and keep writing!!

What I learned about my writing and me

The first writing contest I entered was at the beginning of 2018. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know how the judging worked and when my scoresheets came in, I didn’t do anywhere near as well as I expected. A good reality check to my own hubris in other words!

The most crushing comment though (and I laugh about it now) was: ‘This story is silly’. The comment, whilst not overly harsh, was rather subjective and enough for me to feel temporarily gutted, but not enough to deter me. I began entering contest after contest after contest. From that I began to see patterns in my writing. Elements of my technique that judges thought needed work (still do) things like:

  • More emotion
  • Too much description
  • Telling not showing
  • Pacing too slow/too fast
  • Synopsis not telling you why a certain thing happened
  • X plot point for story Y feels contrived/cliched

These are all good points and things I can work on and will continue to work on.

If 1 judge out of 10 says you need to work on X – take it with a grain of salt. If 8 out of ten say you need to work on X – listen, because that IS valuable to know.

An example: in a recent short story competition I entered with 5 judges, all 5 judges picked up on my confusing starting point – and the confusing emotions of the protagonist. Several made the comment that they would have liked more development of the main characters (sometimes a little impossible with a short story!) and that they felt like it was really only a vignette of a longer story. All of this was true (and in regard to length yes because this was a vignette of a longer story/full length novel I have planned – but which only exists in my head right now!)

The valuable lesson I learned? I can be a bit precious, but ultimately, I am open to listening to criticism and seek to actively change my writing for the better. I am persistent!

The dreaded third judge

Judge’s hold hammer on wooden table

My recent entry into a competition came back with 2 very high (almost perfect scores) and one at least 25 points lower, virtually tanking any possibility of finalling in that competition. This is not the first time this has happened. Many who enter competitions will talk of that judge. Sometimes I call them the hanging judge!

Yes I was upset, yes I doubted myself (despite finalling in other competitions and even winning one) I stuttered for a moment, I had a cathartic cry, I spoke with other writers about how I felt (combined with isolation and social distancing for my extrovert self, it’s been more draining than I realised) then I picked myself up, brushed myself off, looked around, realised I’d over committed myself on current projects, realised I’d been overly harsh about myself and my writing (come on now Nancy two high scores for a 2nd draft!! That’s a bloody win!) I re read the comments, then I took a break.

During this time, I:

  • Read something completely unrelated to my current writing projects
  • Drank some delicious wine
  • Ate a whole packet of Tim Tams (I might have done that more than once)
  • Made Jam
  • Baked bread
  • Binged watched TV shows and movies (Billions is great btw)

Then when I was ready, I sat back at the computer, took what I could from the feedback, discarded the rest and focussed on what really mattered in all of this, why I’d entered the competitions in the first place – because I FRIGGING LOVE WRITING.

Unhelpful feedback

Often you get a low score and it seems ridiculous because the judge never really explained anything to you as to WHY.

An example:

On one short story I submitted to a competition at the beginning of 2019

  • The entry didn’t draw the judge in 1/5
  • Didn’t have a romantic theme 1/5
  • Dialogue was unconvincing 1/5
  • Story wasn’t fresh or interesting 1/5
  • The ending wasn’t satisfying 1/5

However, there was nothing in the comments that explained in any detail why they came to those conclusions and why they gave me such a low score. In fact, what they said was completely opposite:

‘A little polish with more emotion and its promise would bloom. The setting and time in history are terrific. Likewise, the heroine’s stoicism. Great storytelling needing a little more emotional punch.’

Everything they said is undermined by the score they awarded me for the technique I used.

So, what do you do with feedback like this? I took the teeny bit of feedback I could glean from it, ‘more emotion’ and ran with that. But If you can’t use it, if it doesn’t work for you, simple – bin it, consign it to history, burn it in a ritualistic and cleansing fire, do what you need to do and then get back to writing. Focus on feedback that does give you direction, that you feel has a point and you can work on actively changing and improving.

A word on voice

In some recent line edits for a short story, most of the line edit suggestions were perfectly sound, but they’d stripped something important from my story—ME. Although I’m not a seasoned author I am seasoned enough to recognise when my voice is being erased. I still don’t know exactly what my voice IS but I know what it isn’t – and if that isn’t confusing then oh boy wait till you start researching show not tell!

What is voice? It isn’t writing style or technique it’s something more. It’s your quirks, foilbles – it’s your strengths and personality. It’s YOU!

A hundred people can write the same story, but only you can write it your way with your voice. A bit like a fingerprint!

FEEDBACK OVERLOAD

There is also something called ‘too much feedback’ where you can get lost in the (often well meaning) opinion of others. But be careful about taking too much feedback on board – because that too can erase your voice.

In conclusion

Writing…
Is hard
Is frustrating
There are days where you can write barely 50 words
Then there are days where:
It flows like a great river
Story/words/characterisation come easy
Your word count is off the charts

And what, you ask, are you going to do with the feedback of ‘This story is silly’?

I’ll consign it to history, better yet, I’ll use it as a motivator, cross-stitch it and put it above my writing place!

Rachel Johns – award winning writer and all round brilliant nice person once said: ‘If you can walk away from writing, do it, walk away.’

I won’t be walking away any time soon.

3 Comments

  1. What a great blog, Nancy! I feel your frustrations as an avid competition enterer, and like you’ve learnt a lot about what to listen to and what to let slide through to the keeper. There’s nothing worse than getting a low score and no feedback to back it up. Likewise, it’s also frustrating to get full marks for every section and a ‘this is a great story’ as feedback.

    When I’ve judged this year, I’ve made a real conscious effort to give as much constructive feedback as I could to relate to the score I gave.

    And, I keep telling myself: writing is like a piece of art, some will love it and for others, it won’t be their cup of tea.

    Keep up your great work!

    Jo
    x

    Like

    • nmcunningham says:

      Thanks so much Jo! I think my next step is take on some judging for comps I don’t enter – having been on one side I’d like to try the other (I’ve judged the Ruby but that’s kind of for ‘reader’ judges and they don’t want feedback just whether you liked the work and it hit all the beats!)

      Like

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