Not all feedback is helpful.
In fact, some of it can be downright terrible. Recently, I penned an article called The Only Creative Writing Feedback That Matters, in which I detailed my somewhat traumatic experiences negotiating other people’s destructive opinions and my fluctuating writer’s ego. I concluded that there are only two kinds of productive feedback: first, the sort that excites you because you know it’ll make your work better, and second, the sort you don’t like but keep hearing again and again.
But what if that isn’t enough? What if, despite everything, you still find yourself questioning if that particularly brutal piece of advice you once got slapped in the face with is any good. For one thing, I’m still learning that knowing good advice doesn’t always mean recognizing bad advice. So, after much thought, I’m going to detail four useless kinds of feedback that are sure to not only ruin your day, but possibly your writing too.
1. Everything is Shit
I’m going to start with this because it’s something that happened to me recently, and it certainly wasn’t the first time, either. I’ll be brutally honest here: the kind of person who tells you everything you’ve written is constitutionally boring, useless, nonsensical, cliché, and any other manner of insult, is a miserable sod who was either forced to read a piece of literature they didn’t like, or has lost all semblance of control in their lives and is out to get it where they can — namely, by pooping all over your writing.
To be fair, the latter is far less common in my experience. Nearly 100% of the time I’ve been given feedback by an individual who had absolutely nothing good to say about my writing, it was because they just didn’t want to read it. However, since they were being paid or doing a friend a favour, they felt compelled to finish, only to unleash the full breadth of their resentment towards me, the author.
Even when I make it clear that readers are free to drop my manuscript if they find it unpalatable, they persist out of a misguided sense of obligation, only to give me one of the most useless and demoralizing kinds of feedback: they tell me I’ve done nothing right.
Now, you might be asking yourself: “What if everything I write is shit?”
It’s certainly possible, though I reckon you would have given up by now if literally everything you put into the written word was garbage. It’s also possible that you’ve deluded yourself into thinking you’re a brilliant writer when you can barely string together a coherent sentence, but my experience is that these sorts of people aren’t crippled by uncertainty and dwindling confidence in their ability to write. If you’re asking yourself the above question, you’re probably not one those pesky narcissists. Sensible writers with experience and at least some skill have a sense their shortcomings; they know there’s always room for improvement, but that they still have something valuable to offer even when their writing isn’t perfect. If you’re one of those people, I can almost guarantee that not everything you write is nonsense deserving of such disparaging treatment.
Do yourself a favour: share the meanie’s cutting words with a friend, laugh it off, and move on.
2. Everything is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G
This kind of feedback is the writer’s version of junk food. Tastes great and goes down easy, and yet it always feels somewhat empty, even after you’ve devoured the whole bag. The reason for that is simple: like a giant sack of Doritos from Costco, there isn’t a molecule of nutrition for your self-deprecating, artsy soul.
No serious writer wants empty compliments. Sure, they might feel good at first, but it doesn’t take long to start doubting their value and legitimacy. Even if the person really did adore every single word on the page, their lack of critical feedback feels superficial and vacant. Besides, if your writing is so damn great, why don’t you have an agent yet? Where are those six-figure advances, the book tour and the adoring fan-base?
That said, I’m a big opponent of this notion that you must provide criticism even if there is none to be found. Criticizing something just because you think you’re supposed to only damages a person’s sense of competence, so I am not suggesting that readers should make up problems where there are none.
But the problem with unbalanced positive feedback isn’t just that it lacks meaningful critique. It’s also damaging because writers don’t know if they should actually start to believe it. Praise without substance rattles my equilibrium just as much as bone-crushing criticism. I start to wonder if I’m crazy or if publishing is crazy (probably both).
The last thing I want is a tortured genius complex. Maintaining a healthy perception of my own abilities is hard enough, and no writer needs feedback — whether negative or positive — that distorts that perception even further.
3. They’re Super Offended
This kind of useless feedback can be hard to notice. It tends to be amorphous, because it can be targeted at any aspect of your work, big or small. Also, people don’t normally tell you they’re offended by your work when you’ve asked them for feedback. They know, at least implicitly, that this isn’t appropriate, but it doesn’t mean their sense of being offended doesn’t colour their advice.
The problem with feedback rooted in offense is that it’s self-serving. Rather than considering the author’s intent or goal, an offended reader will respond with feedback that is aimed to alleviate their own revulsion. That may not be their intention; they might legitimately think their feedback will make your work better, but of course, that’s only because it would no longer offend them.
I don’t say this to give problematic work a pass. For example, I can criticize the misogyny in 50 Shades of Grey without being personally offended by it. I can do this, because I am an educated, generally competent and rational individual who can identify the use of toxic stereotypes in painting an abusive relationship as romantic.
However, if I was to rip into the protagonist of 50 Shades simply because I find her meek, unrealistic, and tragically stupid — ergo, she offends me — then I am not actually providing helpful or constructive feedback. Rather than focusing on why the character offends me, I can point out that she is unsympathetic because she lacks believablility, and give examples to illustrate my point.
The Offense Radar
So how do you know if someone is offended by your work?
One of the most consistent tells I’ve noticed is that they fixate. When someone is offended by something, they have a hard time letting it go. I once had a reader who was very, very hung up on the amount of swearing in my novel — so much so, that it was the only issue they really spent time on in their review. Everything else — the plot, the pacing, the voice, the world-building — seemed secondary to the fact that I had incorporated some creative vulgarities into my prose and dialogue.
“I wouldn’t let my teenager read this,” they’d written, and I remember thinking, “Well I’m not writing for your pristine little angel!”
That was when I knew: I had offended them with my cussing, and it was the only thing they could remember about my book. More importantly, I knew their recommendation to “tone it down” wasn’t useful the moment they brought up their child. I wasn’t writing for people who washed their kids’ mouths out with soap, so why would I let them near my filthy mouth? Soap tastes bloody awful.
I also decided to fact-check their claim that I was somehow exceptionally vulgar. What I found, however, was that according to the f*ckety index (an actual thing) and the NY Times Best Sellers List, my novel scored below average for its genre where profanity is concerned.
This person’s advice, then, had nothing to do with my work, but everything to do with their drive to alleviate their own discomfort with a few naughty words.
4. They Hate Your Characters
This is kind of an off-shoot of the previous point, but it happens so often to fiction writers, I thought it deserved its own dedicated section. I already talked about it briefly with the 50 Shades analogy, but let’s dive in a little deeper.
One of the things I care least about is whether my characters are likeable. In fact, I approach anyone who has such strong feelings about made-up people with caution, and at least a little bit of side-eye. The idea that someone would be so profoundly put-off by a character that it would motivate them to put a book down (assuming there is no other reason), is a little bit strange. If American Psycho has its own dedicated readership, I have trouble believing anyone short of Patrick Bateman could compel readers to drop a book en masse out of sheer disgust towards an imaginary person.
As someone who doesn’t give a hoot about my characters’ likeability, but invests copious amounts of energy in their believability, I could care less if my reader wants to be friends with my grouchy protagonist. Valuable commentary on characters focuses on how convincing and interesting they are. Such feedback can explain specifically why a character fails to meet these criteria and may offer suggestions to make the character more cohesive.
What I care about is that my characters are interesting, believable, and messy. If a reader’s only comment about a character is that they wouldn’t want to eat brunch with them, I have nothing more to say than, “Good for you, sunshine. He doesn’t like you either.”