This is part two of the blog about evaluating feedback on your writing or other artistic pursuits. Read part 1 here.
A person giving negative feedback can be biased in some way. We can sometimes tell from their words. I have some examples here:
A CD reviewer once slammed my instrumental guitar CD, but she actually said almost nothing about my album, which she mostly used as an excuse to mock the whole genre, only 1 of 10 comments being about my disc. She went out of her way to be rude, even searching the web for an unflattering, informal picture of me in rehearsal to accompany the review instead of using the promo shot I’d sent, and then mocking the photo. All of this revealed her bias, which meant her opinion had little value due to lack of objectivity.
In another example, regarding a novel of mine, a trusted friend complained about the descriptions being too long. It really got on her nerves; she went on and on about it. Picking up on this, I asked if she didn’t like descriptions as a general rule, and she admitted this was true and that she generally skips right over those paragraphs. “Aha!” I thought. But still, she had a point, and I took a good look at my descriptions and shortened them. They were long. The point is that, despite her bias, she still had good feedback.
Try not to discount biased feedback altogether because those people sometimes have a good point anyway, but not always.
Not Your Target Audience
When feedback comes from someone other than your target audience, you need to consider how much of a point they have. My mother doesn’t listen to heavy metal and thinks some of my lyrics are mean, but they’re nothing like Slayer lyrics, for example. I take her opinion for what it’s worth – if I want people outside the genre to listen to those songs, maybe I should keep that in mind.
Another example is when someone doesn’t “get” your work. Usually, fault there lies with the creator, as it’s our job to help the audience understand, but the audience also needs to absorb what they experience. We have to figure out when we need to fix something or leave it alone.
For example, I recently submitted a fantasy story to a fantasy story contest, so the judges were the target audience. Or were they? The story was literary, too, meaning philosophical and not an adventure yarn, for example (many things in the story were actually representative of something, not literal). While fantasy fans can certainly process and enjoy such a story, these judges clearly couldn’t, based on their feedback, which suggested many changes that basically said to me, “We have no idea what this story is about”; if they did understand, they’d never have made those suggestions. The story was over their heads. They weren’t the target audience. My mistake wasn’t the story itself, but submitting it to that contest. A literary contest would’ve been better.
This didn’t mean that their feedback was useless, however. It helped me evaluate the content of the story and, by contrast, my simpler ones.
Feedback that is Wrong
It’s tempting to think that all feedback that hurt your feelings is wrong, but that’s too convenient. However, sometimes people are actually wrong. Take this example:
Someone once told me my story had “a bunch of run on sentences”. A run on sentence is basically two sentences without the period in between. For example, “I’m hungry we ate” should be “I’m hungry. We ate.” Or “I’m hungry; we ate.” I haven’t written a run on sentence since grade school, and sure enough, not one run on sentence existed in the story (I checked). He was wrong, but was there something to learn from this?
Maybe. Many people improperly use words and phrases, like “run on sentence”. I thought, “Maybe he means some sentences are too long for him.” I looked and decided to shorten a few, though I’d never have considered them genuinely “long” (I can do a lot longer). Some readers are less sophisticated than others and can’t handle length or complexity even if those sentences are grammatically correct. Casting for a wider net, I simplified. I could’ve left them alone, but changing them didn’t hurt anything whereas leaving them might bother some people.
The point here is to not discard bad feedback but figure out what it can tell you.
Feedback that Includes Suggested Solutions (Which Are Wrong)
Oftentimes, people notice a problem and suggest a solution that isn’t a good one. As the creator, you know your intent and they don’t, so their solution may not suit your goal.
Here’s a good example: a reader took an allegory of mine literally and wanted me to say where the story took place and what else was happening in the world. Well, it took place in a forest that represented the unknown. Changing it to be Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C., for example, would have stopped it from representing anything.
Sometimes a reader wants to know something, too and complains that you didn’t tell them, but that doesn’t mean you give it to them. Sometimes they aren’t supposed to know. Stories have cliffhangers or unknown resolutions at times, and lyrics are sometimes ambiguous so people can decide for themselves what they mean. Their “upset” is okay.
Resist caving in to pressure!
Feedback that Includes Assignment of Motive
People can really cross the line with feedback at times. Sometimes they’ll assign motives to you and then criticize you for having them (when you don’t). Either that or they’ll say you don’t care about some fundamental aspect of your artwork when you do. Generally, they smear your character in some way, often going for the ego. It should be largely ignored if it happens to you. And you may want to not only stop asking for feedback from them, but reconsider your relationship.
I see this most often with reviews by strangers, where you’d think they’d be more professional and avoid personal comments, but nowadays many amateurs blog about their opinion and don’t rise above this.
An example is something like, “Ellefson’s trying to be the fastest guitarist in the world but should keep his ego in check, because he’s not.” Or “Ellefson wants to be the next J. R. R. Tolkien.” Each assertion is fabricated (I care about neither). So is, “These lyrics aren’t good because you doesn’t care about writing them.”
People shouldn’t be theorizing about your motivations or personal characteristics. It’s unprofessional for some and just obnoxious for anyone.
Sometimes they’ll make up the circumstances in which your artwork was created without knowing what actually happened, then criticize you for that invented situation. For example, “Ellefson played all the instruments on the album (he’s obviously a control freak).” In that case, they don’t know the real reason(s), or care.
This kind of feedback is painful and trying to ignore it altogether can be difficult. It’s tempting to think about it, but there’s little reason to because there’s nothing to gain, no insight hidden in the meanness, and no change to make. If that person had anything valuable to say, they would’ve done it without the attitude. Whatever glimmer of usefulness might be found in there is not worth the pain of examination.
Regardless of what kind of feedback you receive, always remember that everyone’s got an opinion and no one is necessarily “right”. This is one reason to get as many opinions as you can from a wide variety of people. It helps keep everything – good and bad – in perspective.
And don’t let it stop you from doing what you love!
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