Feedback may be hard to deal with, but it is essential in so many ways.
But you have to know where to look for feedback. And you have to be able to distinguish between the feedback that cripples you and the feedback that helps you grow.
Most people are not qualified enough to give you the feedback you need the most.
In this lonely journey is up to the writer to learn how to distinguish between the two types of feedback. And how to use the advice of other writers and authors to continue to grow.
Good feedback can break the bad writing habits that keep preventing you from becoming a better writer. Here are some of my bad writing habits and how I learned to break them:
1. Playing safe with your writing
As a journalist student in a foreign country it was hard to earn the respect of my teachers and colleagues. My accent was weird, and I had absolutely no background in journalism to help me keep afloat during those first months. During the entire year I always felt I had to work 10x harder than my colleagues to achieve the same results. I felt this tension would never leave me, as if I was burning like a candle on a summer night.
Things got harsher when I meet my Journalism teacher. He was a real editor in a science magazine. Each student would bring his/her own piece to his class and he would read it aloud and give us feedback in real time.
I cringed at the idea of having any of piece of my writing read out loud. But I bore with it.
All classes were pure monologues. Most days I would leave his classes with this feeling of anguish and pain in my chest. I tried to bear with it, but every class was harder than the last. I learned 1000 ways I sucked at writing and 0 ways I could make it better.
One day I bought a news report to the class. It was the largest piece of writing I had ever bought to his class. 3,000 words of pure research and hard work. Then he started reading it and after the first paragraph he turned to me and said:
“This is terrible. I won’t even bother to read the rest.”
And that was it. Nothing else came. No why. No ideas how to improve my writing.
At the end of that day I was crying, feeling more lonely than ever and feeling that maybe I lacked this special talent that all writers seemed to have.
At the end of the year I wrote a personal essay. He’d told me that only very experienced writers would be able to produce good personal assays. My confidence was crushed, I couldn’t even pretend to care…
So, I poured my soul into that assay. I let go of the conventional, of the acceptable, of the respectable. I wrote an assay that was me all over. I laughed when I wrote it. I had tremendous fun. But, at the same time, I felt more exposed than ever; the assay was so deeply personal and I felt it should never be read in front of a class.
You know what happened? He read it, top to bottom, without stopping to correct or criticize me. In the end he looked at me and he smiled. And that was it!
And you know what I learned? I learned that I could not play safe with my writing. I had to risk as much as I could. Risk making a fool of myself. Risk being misunderstood. Writers write to give shape and color to the unspeakable and to the inexpressible. It’s not bound to be an easy task.
I also learned to distrust everybody that says my writing sucked. I can learn nothing from these people. In case you encounter someone like this I suggest that you block them, get away from them or ignore them. I’m not saying that they are wrong. Your writing may really suck. But if they don’t help see your flaws in a constructive way, you can be sure that their sole purpose is to harm you as much as they can.
2. Seeking only validation and running away from feedback
Sometimes we just want somebody to tell us how amazing we are.
I know that feeling, it’s addictive. But, trust me, the feeling will wear off pretty quickly.
Let me tell you another personal story to illustrate this bad writing habit.
Earlier this year I sat in front of two of the greatest sci-fi writers of Portugal. We were but 5 eager students sitting expectantly in a tiny windowless room. One of the students was actually a very experienced literature professor that had come in search of inspiration.
We started the workshop in the typical Portuguese fashion: complaining.
They complained about the editorial market. About the readers. About the lack of sales. About the irrelevance of being a writer in Portugal. About how editors didn’t care about their authors in our country. About how most aspiring writers were silly creatures filled with self-delusion and unable to handle criticism.
It was instructive but utterly irrelevant. A few minutes into the workshop I started to feel as if I was sitting in a chair made of nails. It was hard to keep still and even harder to keep my mouth shut. I hate having to keep quiet during silly monologues, especially the ones that are built on top of ego and self-pity.
Half-way through the workshop they finally decided to do something productive: analyze a short story they had written.
Sounds interesting right? I thought so too… Until they asked us for feedback.
At this point the literature professor spoke. She’d been studying literature for decades, analyzing pieces of writing to understand what made them good. So I could feel she didn’t exactly like what she was reading.
But she gave them amazing tips on how to improve the story. She never told them she didn’t like the story. She just gave them very specific tips on how they could make it better.
And you know that they did? They refused to accept her opinion. They kept telling her that sci-fi is not supposed to be so literary, that sci-fi needs to be more visceral, more in your face. As if being a good writer was not a requisite to write sci-fi.
I was dazzled. Hadn’t they just said that writers should be able to accept feedback? Especially the feedback given by experts…?
The short story was terrible by my standards. I even asked another sci-fi reader his opinion, and he told me the same. But this story had been published, and it had been praised. And here I was with two of the greatest names in Portuguese sci-fi and I had to listen to their displays of ego.
I left that workshop feeling pissed and cheated.
Being praised and validated doesn’t mean you can stop listening to editors and readers (and highly qualified literature professors). It doesn’t mean you can isolate yourself in your ivory town and everybody else. Becoming a good writer is nothing like earning a degree. You never become qualified enough to ignore all critics.
I will repeat this: as writers, we are meant to express the inexpressible. If people tell you they don’t understand that you’re saying, listen to them. Maybe you can learn to make your writing clearer.
And learn where you can get constructive criticism. I prefer to send my pieces of fiction to my brother and husband. My brother is a voracious reader and an incredibly intelligent and witty human being. My husband is an incredibly straightforward, practical and empathetic person. Neither of them shy always from pointing out the flaws in my writing.
Sometimes it’s hard to listen to them. But the more I expose myself to their critical eye, the more comfortable and energized I feel by their feedback.
3. Not exposing your writing
Let me tell you another story.
9 years ago I started a personal development blog that eventually started to grow (it was significantly easier to start a blog back then).
In the pre-Instagram era we had to interact with other blogger (on their own blog) and build a following by commenting and guest posting and other time-consuming (but very rewarding) strategies. One day I woke up and noticed my blog had been included in someone’s list of great personal development blogs… it surprised me and made me happy and scared, all at the same time.
But after some months my writing started to sound hollow. It became stale.
I’d become was more concerned with driving traffic than in doing what I loved the most: becoming vulnerable in front of a blank page.
I was writing with my brain. Trying to be somebody I wasn’t. And my writing suffered. I was writing about the same topics, from a “sterile” point of view. Naturally, I felt miserable, and I felt like an impostor. So I killed the blog.
It took me several years to realize my mistake. My blog and it’s relatively small success were not to blame. My approach to writing was.
The moment I killed my blog I put my writing career on hold.
I tried to launch other blogs, but I never tried to market them as I did before. I kept my face and name hidden. I didn’t talk about them on my social media or in my everyday life. I was writing undercover.
In those years I stopped challenging myself. I stopped trying to write about other topics. I stopped searching for challenges. I stopped exposing my writing.
I was treating writing like a secret calling I had to keep hidden from the world.
It takes discipline to press that publish button. It takes courage to approach great publications with a pitch. It takes an open mind to explore different topics with your writing.
But if you’re not doing any of this, then you won’t be able to grow.
I just want to you to know that I struggle with all these bad habits every day. I’m not writing as an expert, but as someone willing to learn.
Do you have any bad writing habit that keeps preventing you from becoming a better writer?
Let me know in the comments below!
- 4 Types of Useless Feedback for Writers by Xandra J.
- A Writer Should Keep the Future in Mind by Mensah Demary
- John Scalzi’s Utterly Useless Writing Advice by John Scalzi
- Why I Hate All the Writing Advice I’ve Ever Been Given by Umair Haque
- How to handle editing and feedback on your novel by Lisa Poisso