Feedback is the broccoli of writing. I know it’s good for me, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.
In screenwriting, we give “notes,” a term I find a little gentler than publishing’s “critique.” But whatever you call it, criticism is still another person saying my creative output was not entirely perfect the second it leaked from my brain.
The worst part is, they’re right. Once I get past my initial blind rage at being imperfect, I usually see the weakness they did and am grateful for the chance to fix it.
Over time, I’ve learned to take in feedback for what it is — a reader’s opinion. Because even when accomplished writers are reviewing my work, what really matters is how they react as a reader.
I find that even the least literary person can tell me when something doesn’t work. The flip side is that even the most literary person can’t tell me how to make it work. When they try, they usually end up making things worse.
Neil Gaiman tapped into this experience in his 8 Rules of Writing:
Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
I recently got a note that I was using said too many times as a dialogue tag. The critiquer suggested I opt for more active dialogue tags like protested or argued.
I’m not a fan of those tags as a writer or a reader. Like Elmore Leonard says in his iconic 10 Rules of Writing, they are distracting and unnecessary.
The clever literarti who agree with me and old Elmore have even come up with a term for such dialogue tags: saidisms. (There are lots of articles written on saidisms, the most concise of which is here.)
I was prepared to hang on to my many saids, secure in the knowledge that I was right — and I had the internet to prove it! But then something funny happened: I started noticing the saids in my story. Certainly they were less distracting than exclaimed or asserted, but they were still unnecessary. And getting more annoying by the minute.
I rewrote the piece, eliminating many of the dialogue tags and adding a bit more action to make it clear who was speaking. Not only did this get rid of the extra saids, it grounded the characters in the scene and made the dialogue part of the story rather than two talking heads.
So as is often the case, the critiquer identified the problem, but did not solve it. That part was up to me. And I never would have gotten the chance if I hadn’t been willing to eat the broccoli*.
* I actually really, really like broccoli. The only vegetable I actively dislike is the lima bean, but “Feedback is the lima bean of writing” just didn’t have the same ring to it.