Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is not asking questions in the drafting process.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Asking Questions in the Drafting Process
I’m not exactly sure when I first encountered the feedback process. I’ve been writing since I could write, so there was no defining, “and now I will learn how to revise my work with an outside perspective included.”
Mostly, I think our workshops—whether academic or local groups or private back-and-forths between friends—are based on what we learned in school. You write something; you hand it to your teacher; they tell you what they liked and didn’t like. The end.
But we shouldn’t approach our revision process as if it’s something we need to get a good grade on. That’s like locking ourselves in a cage and throwing away the key, and that’s not even getting into the fact that revisions should be fun. Our stories are living, breathing worlds that have complex and rich characters. I think at some point or another, we’ve all gotten a comment that “this image feels flat” or “this dialogue is clunky” or “your work is predictable.” But what the heck are we meant to do with that information?!
In our latest episode of the Writer’s Digest Presents podcast, Michael and I talked about the typical workshop structure as it relates to creative writing classes and MFA programs in particular. This structure can be, in a word, brutal, especially for students of color. Beth Nguyen wrote a wonderful article for LitHub in 2019 about this subject. And while not all of us have experience with workshops in an academic setting, I think the idea translates to our feedback process all the same.
For example, in an academic workshop, the idea is that everyone will have read the piece before class. Then the author will sit silently while everyone else discusses the piece as if the author isn’t there. While most workshop leaders will have people follow a format of praise-then-critique, this is not always the case. The author is not allowed to speak until the very end, where they are given a very brief window to respond to the discussion. The unspoken rule of workshop response: Don’t be defensive.
For local non-academic workshop groups I’ve been a part of, we follow a similar structure in a very different format: I give them my Word or Google doc, they read it and leave comments, and then I take that feedback into my writing lair and attempt to revise based on what’s been given to me. Then we move on to someone else’s piece. Very rarely do I follow up with the commenter; I don’t want to take up any more of my group’s time nit-picking about comments I don’t understand. Besides, it’s my job as the writer to make sense of the reader’s experience and move forward with my draft, is it not?
No, my dear friends. It is not.
Mistake Fix: Individualize Your Feedback Structure
As an editor, I’ve run into so many different kinds of writers. I’ve had authors say, “Don’t be afraid to tear my work apart. I love that kind of direct feedback.” I’ve also heard authors say, “I’m feeling very insecure about this draft, so please go easy on me.”
As a writer diving into revisions, you should be able to control who your feedback comes from but also how it comes. Are you a visual learner who does well when someone writes paragraphs of feedback and sends it to you in an email for you to peruse at your leisure? Or an auditory learner who would prefer to jump on a call and discuss your reader’s feedback with them? (If this is you, I strongly recommend recording your conversations so that you can listen to them back at a later date—this way, nuggets of wisdom don’t fall through the cracks!)
If you’re overwhelmed by the prospect of getting a longer work’s feedback all at once, you can absolutely split up your document into smaller parts and give your reader the material piece by piece. Or, if you find that you never get feedback on the parts of your work that you really need feedback on, draft a cover letter asking people to focus on specific areas. Or, better yet, dictate the flow of feedback by only asking your critiquers to answer a series of questions that you ask—a workshop structure called The Asking—which will cut down on unnecessary chatter and give you pointed advice only on the aspects you want advice on.
As for workshop groups, if you find that you’re stuck in a particular pattern, don’t be afraid to speak up! You can say something like, “I really value the work and dedication this group has brought to improving my work. But I’ve found myself a little overwhelmed by feedback lately. Moving forward, it would be best for me to streamline my revision process if we approached my work X way.”
It's important to keep your critiquers time and energy in mind as you’re asking for these changes. If what you really need is hours and hours more of their intense focus, maybe you should be looking to hire a freelance developmental editor instead. We don’t want to take advantage of your support system; we want to make your support system work just a little better for you.
Revisions can be a scary, daunting process, and it’s always a great idea to utilize your writing community when entering those waters. But that doesn’t mean you need to limit the way you receive feedback to the same rigid structure we’re used to.