What does it mean to enter your writing for a scheme and get feedback? What are the expectations on both sides, and how can the writer and the feedback-giver come together for a meaningful exchange? How can it help your writing, and how might it hinder it?
I have been in this experience as both a writer and the feedback-giver. As a writer, I often yearn for someone else to read my work and tell me what I’ve got right and what I’ve got wrong. I long for some superstar playwright to cast their expert eye over my stammering words and say – yes, Catherine, yes. You’re good. My god, you’re good.
In short, I want validation. I want the gold star and the big tick. I want permission to proceed. And this is a dangerous state to be in, for two reasons.
Firstly, there are no objective criteria with which we can pronounce a play good or bad. One person’s great script is another person’s nothing special. There are no gold stars. Apart from the ones in reviews, and they’re subjective too.
Secondly, it’s nice to be told nice things about yourself:
Catherine Grosvenor liked my script! Hurrah for me! I must be good!
But if you’re relying on someone else to validate your work, what happens when that person doesn’t provide it?
Catherine Grosvenor says my script is confusing. Oh, crap. What do I do now?
(For the record, that’s not the kind of thing I say in feedback sessions.)
Feedback comes in many different forms and from many different kinds of people, and some of it can be blunt, unconstructive and ultimately unhelpful. If you go to a feedback session and accept what you are told about your script as The Truth, you risk leaving the session in the depths of despair.
So what would be a healthier way of approaching these kinds of sessions?
A key idea is that feedback givers are not doctors. They can’t hand out standard cures to fix the nasty pain in your Scene Three. They are more like guides. They are there to get to know you and your work, and to work out what kind of journey you want to go on, and to help you get there. But they shouldn’t tell you where to go, and you shouldn’t ask them to. It’s your work, and your journey.
A few other ideas:
- Repeat: this is all subjective.
Everyone comes with their own set of tastes and experiences. The person giving you feedback is no exception. Be aware of that, and how that might influence how they respond to your writing.
For example, I have a preference for work that is in some way feminist, breaks the fourth wall and has some dark humour. As much as I can, I try and keep those preferences out of the feedback session so that it’s about you, not me. However, if you come to the session to get some feedback on a light-hearted two-hander about fly fishing and leave feeling like you should really be working on a postmodern epic about the suppression of women’s voices, I have probably failed in this mission. (On the other hand, if you’ve always wanted to write such an epic but have no idea how to get started, do call me.) Which brings me to Point Two:
2.Different people have different agendas.
Who is your feedback giver and what might be their interest in your play? An artistic director from a big theatre looking for work to stage will have a different set of considerations than a freelance director who is just starting out. An actor might be thinking of the kind of character they’d like to play rather than the kind of character you really want to create.
- Line up a few feedback sessions, not just one.
A good rule of thumb is to get feedback from three different people. They’ll all pick up on different aspects, but if they all ask you about the same thing, that’s a strong indicator that you need to do a bit more work on that specific point.
- Remind yourself that you are not your work.
This can be easier said than done, particularly as we often put so much of ourselves into our writing. But there is an important distinction between you and your work. You are a human being, full of the richness of your experiences and your life. Your work is some words on some paper. It can be lousy. It can be boring. It can be confusing. It can be unsuccessful. It can be weird. In fact, it will probably be all of these things at some point in your writing life because you’re a human being and writing is much more difficult than people give it credit for. But it doesn’t mean that you’re weird. Or confusing. Or bad. Give yourself permission to get things wrong, allow yourself to be lost, let yourself try stuff out and see what happens.
- Reflect on what you’d like to get out of the session before you go in.
Maybe you want to get the name of someone else you could send it to. Maybe you want to talk over issues of dialect and tone. Or maybe you can’t get anything that specific – maybe you have just kind of ground to a halt, and you just want some encouragement to go on. And it’s fine to come in and say that. We’ve all been there. So be upfront. Say what you want. Even if it’s to say that you have no idea what you want… We’ve all been there too.
It is a wonderful thing to be creating a piece of writing, and it is a privilege for me to get a glimpse of all these possible worlds that other writers are conjuring. It can also be a frustrating and bewildering process, and sometimes it’s nice to have a companion to share part of the journey with.
What have been your experiences of feedback? What has worked well for you? What advice would you give?