I love getting feedback on something I’ve written. Especially when it comes from someone besides my mom (no offense, Mom). Good feedback, of course, is great. But critical feedback –not necessarily negative — is essential, too.
I get feedback all the time from my editor, who sees everything I write before it goes live (I write mostly for the web). It’s nice to get a piece back with most of the redlines being style points or suggestions for tightening up the prose — meaning, in other words, that my editor was satisfied with the organization, explanation and overall writing in the piece. I think a good editor is one who understands that each writer has her own voice, and so edits around that, making corrections only where it helps the flow of the story. (I’ve had editors before who have changed adjectives or verbs for no apparent reason, inserted completely new phrases, etc. that have made the final product sound nothing like anything I would write. But I digress.) When I write, I do try to self-edit as I go along, but having a fresh set of eyes always helps.
Getting feedback from colleagues is also nice, but can sometimes feel gratuitous: “Nice story today, Lauren.” I mean, I don’t think they would say anything if they didn’t like my work, and it’s a great compliment regardless. But every so often, one of my coworkers will send an email with a specific reason they liked a story, and that feels awesome. Especially when their comment, something like, “You made me feel like I was standing right there watching it happen!” is what you were trying to get across in the first place. Also awesome when said coworker is an award-winning journalist.
The most nerve-racking kind of feedback is probably from the subject of a story. You always want to provide a fair description to your readers, but knowing that the person you’re writing about is inevitably going to read the piece, a general tendency is to err on the side of praise. I’ve learned to avoid this by cutting out as many adjectives as possible, writing only facts and letting any subjectivity in solely through quotations. When I have consciously done these things, the subjects have been very pleased with the story and the readers have felt a personal connection to the subject on some level.
Then there are the people who aren’t a part of the story, but are either very close to it or know a lot about it. These are the people who aren’t looking at your grammar or punctuation — they are mostly concerned with the content. Hearing from them that the story was “spot on” or even a “really nice description” feels good. Last week, I got an email from someone I had never met, who was very familiar with the topic of my story, and told me that not only was I a talented writer (!) but also a very talented observer, which I think go hand in hand. Having only done about 3 to 4 hours of reporting for this story (really not a lot!!) I had managed, in his eyes, to capture the environment, the connections among the people in the environment and the importance of these connections. He noted that it took some people several years to finally become cognizant of such things, even being immersed in the environment on a daily basis. It was really the most unique feedback I’ve gotten in quite some time, and it certainly boosted my confidence in my ability, as a writer, to portray things as they really are.
Then there is what I like to call “accidental feedback.” That’s when the person behind you in line at the coffee counter is talking about the story you wrote. I never announce myself to these people. It’s usually been good when this has happened, but good or bad, it’s still nice to know that people read my work and it sticks with them long enough to warrant a conversation.
Clearly, feedback comes in many forms. Some of it is on the technical side, some is about the content, some about the writing itself. It comes from trained and untrained eyes, from subject-matter experts and the uninitiated. The good feedback reassures me that I’ve chosen the right career. The bad feedback stings, and sticks with me longer than is probably healthy, but in the long run makes me conscious of my mistakes and a better writer. Both kinds make me want to keep doing what I’m doing.