Tomorrow I’m having lunch with a very good friend.
Yes? I hear you say. And?
OK, it’s not an unusual activity. Women talk to each other, and sometimes we do it over lunch. This lunch, though, is a working lunch. The friend is so generous with her time and expertise that she has read a hundred-thousand-word first draft of a novel I’ve been revising, and is going to give me some feedback.
Which leads me to ponder on the value of feedback in general. Not specifically this feedback on this novel from this friend; I know it will be useful, because she’s done it before and she’s never less than perceptive. In fact, she’s one of very, very few people I trust to provide a useful opinion, full of suggestions I can work with – and maybe even a solution to what I know is an overriding major problem.
But in general, just how useful is another random person’s opinion of your/my/anyone’s work?
I’d better declare an interest here. For the past thtymumble years I’ve run an appraisal service, editorial consultancy, call it what you like, offering exactly that, from me and assorted acquaintances whose area of expertise is different from and complementary to mine. It’s not that I consider myself particularly qualified to do this, but there are people who seem to think what I tell them is useful, usually when they’ve had time to think, and stop sticking pins in my effigy. Besides, a disinterested pair of eyes on a piece of writing rarely goes amiss, if only to pick up the typos which invariably slip through the most meticulous proofreading by the author. So I suppose you could say I approach this question with a certain amount of bias.
On the other hand, giving advice is always a lot easier than taking it. I’m as guilty as anyone of slapping my forehead and screaming You’ve missed the point! I may even be thinking in terms of pins and effigies myself by this time tomorrow. But it won’t be for long. Because I think I’ve discovered the secret of useful feedback – the only kind worth looking for.
The secret is to find someone you can trust to come up with a better way, and not just a different one, or worst case scenario, the way they would do it, which, if only they could understand, would make it their piece of writing and not yours.
I’ve been given both kinds of feedback, and I’ve listened to it being given to other people. As well as the consultancy role, I’ve also, in the past, run writers’ workshops and contributed to writers’ groups which operated on similar lines: a whole bunch of random people offering their views. And something I learned early about groups of writers was that asking a dozen people for their opinion of your work results in thirteen different opinions, possibly all conflicting. It revealed another secret: most of all, you have to trust yourself. OK, not easy; writers, I’ve found, have insecurity and self-doubt built into their DNA; I think it’s there and well established long before the rejection slips start arriving. Sometimes it’s hidden under a carapace of defiance and apparent conviction that it’s the commissioning editors who are blind, not the work that doesn’t make the grade, but that carapace is thin and brittle, and I’ve yet to meet a self-published author who isn’t privately (or not so privately) in search of a conventional publisher.
All the same, under the doubt, whatever its manifestations, there’s usually a small voice of reason. Or possibly protest. All you have to do is listen out for it, and it will tell you whether a piece of advice or opinion is
a: exactly the point that’s been hovering on the edge of your consciousness for days; or
b: something worth considering when you embark on your next draft; or
c: maybe something that would work for the person that’s giving the opinion, but a country mile away from what you’re aiming at.
Of course, if you’re still reading, you’ve realized by now that all the above is as much for my benefit as anyone else’s. My carapace may be built of editorial experience and people’s positive reactions, but when it comes to my own work it’s as fragile and vulnerable as any first-time writer’s. It’s kind of the nature of the game. And to compound the problem, I’m totally (and painfully) aware that there’s a big problem at the heart of the work my generous friend has looked at for me, and I’m not at all sure how to resolve it.
But if there’s a better way to improve a piece of writing than by seeking input from someone you trust to be honest, perceptive and completely un-self-centred about it, will somebody please tell me what it is and where to find it?