The Insidious Beast Known as Feedbackus Onlinius

Or “Caution: Here be Egos!”

I have been active at a variety of “writers’ forums” and “writers’ communities” over the last couple of years, and on every one of them, eventually, feedbackus onlinius has shown its true colors. FO is, of course, present by default at all of these places, but most of the time it attempts to pass itself of as a benign interest in “helping another writer become the best writer he/she/it can be.” Don’t you believe it.

I don’t know about you, but I write to be read. I write so that a reader somewhere can read the story I’ve written. I don’t write so that another writer can feel better about his own ego. I write the best story I can, I polish until it shines as brightly as I can make it shine, and then I give it to readers in the hopes that they will enjoy it.

If I show, for instance, A Reason for Living to a group of readers, most of them get it. A lot of them have liked it. Some of them love it, and that’s even better, but when I show it to a group of readers none of them start listing all the things they would have done differently, assuming that I’ve made “mistakes,” assuming, in fact, that the reason I showed it to them at all was to obtain their assistance in making it acceptable.

But if I show it to a group of writers, the picture changes. If I show this story to a group of writers, I’m never sure whether they’ve gotten the basic point of the story, the point that seems so obvious to me and to that group of readers I just showed it to, in the last paragraph. It matters a little less to me whether they liked it than whether they got it, but I’m left wondering about both questions.

Dozens of times in the past few years, I’ve seen (and sometimes become embroiled in) discussions (usually bitter and acrimonious discussions) about the “proper” way to leave feedback, the “proper” kinds of feedback to leave, the “proper” kinds of things to point out. It is “dishonest,” I am told, to admit to liking something. It is “useless,” “unhelpful,” or “misleading” to not point out all the things the writer did “wrong.” I am told that feedback is not meant to elicit a discussion, and that a writer who responds to feedback, other than to incorporate someone’s commands into the story, “just doesn’t know how to take criticism.”

The fact is that in writing fiction, there is very little outside of spelling, punctuation, and grammar that a writer can do “wrong.” Even those things are subject to being bent to the writer’s needs and will. But if I write a 17,000-word novella in a single, very tightly oriented, third-person viewpoint, don’t tell me that it was “wrong,” that “readers will lose interest if they don’t see other viewpoints.” I daresay if I had written the same piece in first-person, no one would have said that. (Actually, it was very hard to do, and I’m pretty proud of having managed it.)

What I get from readers who have no thought of themselves as writers, but who are intelligent, insightful people with a lot of reading behind them is “Wow, it’s really cool that I can see the motivations of the other characters before [the POV] does, but everything I see is through his eyes.” What I get from people who see themselves as writers first and readers second (but also intelligent, insightful people with a lot of reading behind them) is “You will stagnate as a writer until you learn to handle multiple POVs. Rewrite.” (quote/unquote from a total stranger who had read exactly nothing else of mine).

Beyond the simple fact that 99% of what people claim are errors or mistakes in the writings of another person are, in fact, choices that writer made, deliberately, in full grasp of all of his senses and in full knowledge of the other ways to do it, there is also the matter of the unstated assumptions behind the various “feedback rules” and “feedback formulae” that float around in the ether.

For each thing you say you like, point out at least (pick one – it varies a bit: one, two, three) things that need improvement.”

Always begin with something you like, and end with something you like, but make sure the main body of your comment deals with what needs to be changed.”

Etc, etc, etc.

Yes, we live in an imperfect world. Yes, every piece of writing you can show me is an imperfect translation of your thoughts. Yes, my act of reading it is another imperfect translation. So the first assumption of “constructive feedback,” that the piece as I read it is imperfect, is probably true. What about the assumption that you only showed it to me because you knew it wasn’t finished? What about the assumption that I can make it better? What about the assumption that I’m a better writer, and therefore capable of improving everything I read, and, in fact, obligated to do so?

Where is it written that I, as a writer, cannot read something just to enjoy it?

Moving beyond the questions raised by the assumptions going through the mind of feedbackus onlinius, though, we find a deeper question: “What is feedback for?” To help the writer meet the goals he or she has set? Or to help the feeder-back feel puffed up? Because if it is the former, then consider this:

Say I post a piece online. Say I get two comments.

Comment number one: “Caftan is a funny word. No one will know what it means. Use tunic.” (As though there is any real similarity between the two. As though the scene as written would have worked with a tunic.)

Comment number two: “You made me cry sooo much!”

If feedback is to help me meet my goals, then guess which one of these helped me more? Guess which one of these said I had succeeded in making someone feel, reading it, what I had felt, writing it? Guess which one of these told me everything I needed to know?

By the way:

Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, the Maori for a hill in New Zealand, is considered to be the longest place name on Earth. It translates roughly as “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one.

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