Writing: Collaboration and feedback

This post describes several aspects of collaboration and feedback.

The idea is that — instead of competing against each other and putting other writers down (because you think you suck less than they do), it is more effective to work together (with people you think is effective to work with), as the competition is not your fellow writer, but a relatively huge body of published work that:

  1. Had a professional editor.
  2. Was managed by a professional (literary) agent.
  3. Is (at least!) part of the top 5% of all work produced in that period in that genre.
  4. Has been worked and re-worked to appeal to a big audience and achieve commercial success.
  5. Is forming the mind-set and the range of expectations, towards any next story, of your potential readers.

Summary

I will start briefly on collaboration. How, why and why you should try different modes? Why is it healthy to change collaboration partners from time to time? What is the exit point? And what do you do when your collaboration partner shows abusive behavior?

After that you find several approaches to feedback. Why is it relevant? What can it deliver you? How do you deal with it? How can you assure you get the kind of feedback you need and what can you really expect?

Bottom line

Collaboration can be beneficial, not beneficial at all or only beneficial for one of you.

  1. Understand collaboration is / should be a balanced process with mutual benefits
  2. Define for yourself what you want out of a collaboration
  3. Match that with those of the other(s)
  4. State rules together. When do you stop? What do you both deliver? When is it still beneficial or not?
  5. When a collaboration is broken, know when and how to step out.

Feedback helps you:

  1. To find and identify your blind spots
  2. To improve your work (immensely or enough to make a bigger and more during impression on you readers)
  3. To reach a new (and hopefully higher) level in your work (passing slush-piles, increasing chances on publication in higher-end markets, receiving higher scores in contests)

My own experience

The collaboration process I did involved a mutual agreement to be as honest as possible without taking each other down and in some cases an explicit minimum and maximum amount of feedback cycles (3 to 5).

There were several checkpoints (for instance, by reaching the amount of stories we agreed upon) and on each checkpoint we kind of evaluated to see if we would do a next round in this same way or not.

The outcome could have been anything, from a termination of the collaboration to another round, to a change in the approach and goals we set.

The process until now helped me to deliver better work of a higher quality than I would have done without on those stories and without that process.

COLLABORATION

Basic collaboration process

The basic collaboration process I have in mind in this post consists of the following parts:

  1. Clear scope — What is the collaboration about? What does it include? What not? How many stories? How many reviews / edit rounds per story? How many words?
  2. Clear rules — What can we (both) do and say? What is taboo/better to be avoided?
  3. Clear checkpoints — Where (in the process) and when (in time) do we sit together (or use mail) to discuss the next steps? What are those next steps from that point on? Does that checkpoint include “break apart / continuation of collaboration”?

Why collaborate?

Here are three reasons for collaboration:

  1. Two people see more than one — When you create a story, your focus is on “A”, “B” and “C”. When people read, they might be looking at “A”, “D” and “E”, possibly missing your “B” and “C” as the clues are too much hidden.
  2. You have blind spots — Each and every person has blind spots. Things he or she overlooks due to a lack of awareness, or simply because he/she rather avoids that topic.
  3. Feedback is an awesome tool for self-improvement — as a writer and when given with integrity. Feedback helps you to find the points in your story you overlooked and can improve: making the whole even better than it already was.

Collaboration is one way to get and give feedback where the process of that feedback is structural.

When all works well

  1. Significant improvement in your work — The first result is a noticeable improvement in your own work. Both due to the insights you get reviewing other people’s work as through the feedback you receive.
  2. A better grasp on your process — Each next phase in the process brings small improvements. Things you used to overlook are now part of things you keep an eye open for. You probably will use specific techniques more deliberately, knowing now what they actually deliver when done properly.
  3. A natural drive to do better — Someone with a good and critical eye is reading your story. You won’t get away with sloppy work anymore. So from the start you try to do better, to “please” the other or avoid the avoidable mistakes.
  4. More fun — It probably becomes more fun to do. A good partner uses something line: “THINK”:
    1. Is it True? (as in: factually true? Can you back it up with references if asked?)
    2. Is it Helpful?
    3. Is it Inspiring? (instead of i.e. condescending)
    4. Is it Necessary? (does it really add something to the learning experience?)
    5. Is it Kind? (i.e. do you take the emotions of the other into account?)

Balance and mutual benefits

Collaboration is (or should be, in my personal opinion):

  1. A balanced process — Collaboration should be a balanced proces, meaning that it returns as much value as you invest in it from your side.
  2. Mutually beneficial — You both help each other to improve. To get to a higher ground. One should not suffer for the benefit of the other.

When should you break the collaboration process?

  1. No longer balanced — One is giving more than the other.
  2. No longer beneficial — One or both people have the feeling that things are worsening instead of improving. Costs are higher than the benefits.
  3. A broken process — Too many other things start to play a role. Things become a mess.
  4. The work is done — You both delivered what needed to deliver (at that moment). There is no more work to do.

Why change collaboration partners?

In the collaboration process, it should be a natural process for both to change partners from time to time and/or work with several people at the same time. There are several reasons for that, of which I can name three at this moment:

  1. To get different points of view — Each partner you collaborate with has a different point of view. the more variations, the richer and more varied your own will become as well.
  2. Due to differences in personal growth — Sometimes you grow faster in a certain direction. Sometimes the other does. The collaboration, as a result, starts to come out of balance more and more as that progresses. (Time for a change)
  3. It doesn’t work anymore — Something in the mutual trust got broken. Things cost too much and delivers not enough.

Dealing with a broken process

It is hard to give good directions at this moment, as this process is new for me as well. To break a process is always hard (for people like me, that is)

Here are some basic points.

  1. Always notify the other as soon as possible — Something is not working for you (anymore) or that you are thinking of stopping the collaboration.
  2. Find out what it is — According to you at that point in time. List it.
  3. Talk about it — Whether it is via mail or more personal means. Verify your feelings with reality. Try find out what went wrong together.
  4. See if there is room to fix it — Sometimes there is. Sometimes there is not.
  5. Keep it clean — Whatever happened, try to keep your feelings out. Whether you continue or decide to cut the process, make sure that whatever lies behind stays there.

When the collaborative relationship feels abusive

Worst case scenario, the relationship is abusive. Whenever you ask for correction the old patterns slowly seep in again and again you end up on the giving side while receiving hardly anything.

  1. Know what your exit point is — Define when enough is enough. (Make a list)
  2. Stick to your exit point — This might be the hardest to do.
  3. State a clear frame of reference — to the other. “For each story I review, I expect you to review one as well. I can’t continue to write long reviews if you continue to write such short ones.”
  4. Step out — When things are not improving. And don’t feel bad about it.
  5. Three times is a pattern — People showing abusive behavior have no moral issues in sucking you right back into that old situation by using false promises. “Now things will be really different” might fly the first two times. Three times is a pattern and time to cut everything off.

FEEDBACK

Giving feedback

When you give feedback (on a story), do and include at least the following:

  1. A summary — In three to five sentences: of the story as you read and experienced it. What was it about? What happened according to you?
  2. Highlight parts that stick out — What did you notice most? Why? Did it work for you, or not? Why?
  3. Use questions instead of directions — Instead of telling someone “you should do this”, ask questions. “Why did you do this?”
  4. Address the questions of the writer — If the writer asked you to give feedback on specific things, provide that feedback. Address the questions.
  5. Always write from a personal viewpoint — You can only represent yourself. Your opinion can only represent you. “Everyone says” is dishonest feedback and bullshit. “I think […]” “I feel that […]” is much more honest.

Things to avoid:

  1. Do not try and convince — The story you review is not your story. Whatever you would do with a topic is up to you. Whatever your opinion is, is just that. And can be ignored or laid down by the writer.
  2. Do not use force — It might be tempting to use forceful sentences. “You should”, “you must”. Don’t. First of all, it will close any door at the other side, leading to a rejection of most things you try to convey. Second: it is not your place to tell others what to do or not to do?

Options and alternatives

  1. Coaching — When you go into a coaching-process, the rules change a bit. The writer gives you a certain room to use more direct feedback. Where normally “you should do this” is out of the question, as coach you can give explicit instructions. “Rewrite chapter 1, starting with character #2 instead of #1”. The coaching process can be very confrontational and very fruitful.
  2. “Rip it apart” — In this process, you, the writer, grain your proofreader full allowance to rip your story apart and expose every single weakness your story has at that point. This process requires complete trust to the reader and full trustworthyness of that reader.

What feedback can (and usually will) contribute

When you write stories or produce artistic work, you do this as good as you can. But there are always points and moments in your story you that do not work as you intended and either overlooked or were not aware of.

  1. Find your blind spots — You will have blind spots. Things in your work that require more attention, more work but which you simply overlooked.
  2. Expose laziness/lazy writing — You will probably skip certain aspects of writing because you think nobody will notice it.

In your work you will probably find that:

  1. Beginnings can be stronger — Maybe you start to vaguely, take too much time for the story to unfold, waste too much time explaining things the reader does not really need to know, never come back on the subjects you started with, and so on
  2. Endings can be better — As your story kind of dies out, or you ran out of time or you forgot halfway what you wanted to do and changed direction completely.
  3. Characters are (still a bit) shallow — As they kind of move around to show things in your story-world but not really show personality, nor do they really have a say in the events that develop your story.
  4. Actions your characters perform have no real logical reasons — As you did not really think about the motivations of your characters and things happen “because”
  5. Sentences could have been written better — As you write as you go but not really read back and reconsider if that was the best and most effective way to write down that event

And that is just the top of the iceberg.

An overview of the most common blind spots

  1. Unintended sexism — Your characters behave according to certain stereotypes which are sexist. “Men always do this, woman always that”. You consistently describe men or woman either as “ugly” or “cute” or “stunningly beautiful” and usually they are ugly when they are of bad intentions. Your female characters hardly play a role or always speak softly. Your male characters always reach their goals through force and forceful behavior.
  2. Unintended racism — People of color always play secondary roles. Criminals are most commonly of certain minority-groups which are depicted in negative light in the media. And if your character is a criminal of your own skin-color, he or she is always smarter than the ones who are of different skin color.
  3. Illogical behavior — Your characters behave in certain manner because you think it is necessary. The responses of your characters on the events in your story completely do not match with the emotions normal/real people would have.
  4. Lack of consequences — Nothing in your story seems to have consequences. Actions can be performed and nobody really cares.
  5. Too many or (very) unrealistic consequences — Actions performed by your characters have too many or completely unrealistic consequences. While you might feel this serves your story, your reader will probably drop it at a certain point.
  6. Empty shells — Your characters do not really seem to be people. Their motivations and their longings seem shallow and random. They change emotions from one moment to another or do not change emotions at all. Reasons to do stuff or perform certain actions are hardly grounded in your characters. They act certain ways because you wrote it like that. Not because they had any internal motivation to do so.

Every writer started poorly

Any writer who claims to never have gone through a start of poor writing is simply lying.

All writers and artists started poorly, with stories that — on hind sight — had so many things go wrong that they are almost unreadable.

The myth of the prodigy

Even the prodigies started poorly at first. The difference is that they usually did this when they were a bit younger than you. And even the prodigy needed help from outside to boost their qualities to higher levels.

The problem of denial

We all go through several phases where we think we do not need any help from outside. Where we believe we are doing awesome and deny the option that more improvement might be needed or even necessary.

In most cases this denial is possible because (at that point in time) no real challenges are met and as a consequence you can get away with what you do and know at that point in time.

The problem of conflicting ambition

It is possible you think you should be awesome in something (writing) but feel you suck or will never reach that goal “everyone should meet”.

The main question here is: why are you doing the things you do? And: are your points of reference and the goals you set yourself actually yours?

Let’s say you are convinced that “everyone should be able to run 6 kilometers in 50 minutes” (notice the “everyone”) and for whatever reasons you never get past the 1 kilometer. Should you blame yourself? Or simply look at your goals and redefine them?

Maybe walking is more your thing. Or only running short distances. Or riding the bike. Who knows?

What new goal would make you happy?

What if your work is not perfect?

The first times I received feedback (over 20 years ago) it usually felt like somebody took my pillow and stabbed it with a knife, leaving me with this feeling of anger and denial (“this is horrible! How is this horror possible?”).

The fact that your writing is not or might not perfect is something to embrace. Something to look at with a feeling of tenderness and love if possible. The feelings of anger and denial I got were usually related to three things:

  1. Identification — In some part or my brain, the story was also associated to me myself. To criticize my story (and not loving me) you somehow criticized (and not love) me!
  2. Denial of flaws — In most cases, writing felt good. So how could the story be bad? Or not deliver? Or my characters not convince you? It worked in my head when I wrote it did it not?
  3. A terribly limited view on ‘failure’ — To not be awesome felt like failure. And failure was ‘wrong’.

It took some time to move past those concepts and approach it a bit more distant. Here are four ways I look at it now

  1. A story is all about transfer of ideas — If things are unclear or misunderstood, this is not your “fault” but simply something to clear up.
  2. It takes time and effort to become good — I assume by default that my work is still flawed, even after 3 or more revisions. Simply because there are over 100 things to take care of in one single story. (See this post on story basics)
  3. People who claim they are awesome (and that you/all others are not) are full of shit — Really. I have been there myself from time to time: all full of myself and telling others how they should do their work (my way). Walk away.
  4. “Failure” is a broken concept — Look at a toddler building things with blocks. The concept of “failure” is not (or hardly) there at all. What there is mostly, is play and an intense curiousity and drive to experiment and build something. Why not consider each story an experiment? Something to learn your craft even better?

What if?

What if you can percieve your work in a different way? Something that can always be improved? Something that is not a “failure” when people do not respond as you would have liked them to?

  1. You keep an open mind — For feedback. For improvement. To invite others to help you get even better than you were. To make steps forward in directions you would not be able to go alone.
  2. It helps you to move forward — Embracing the fact that your work is not perfect helps you to move forward. For instance: by asking for help.

What happens with feedback

It is not unusual to protect your own work and block any deeper feedback when given.

  1. It will feel uncomfortable — To recieve feedback on your own work will feel uncomfortable.
  2. It will stir emotions (you rather avoid) — It is hard to listen to another person telling you where you went wrong. That you “failed”. The first few times will feel horrible. Blood will drain from your face. Feelings of fear, anger, sadness, shock might flash through your body as you digest what has been said.
  3. Some things will feel unjustified — Some elements in the feedback might feel unjustified. Like the other person is wrong. Like he or she misunderstood you or your story or that specific element.
  4. Some will hurt you — Some feedback will really hurt you. To the point of crying.
  5. Sometimes it can be toxic — Some feedback can be toxic. Either deliberately or due to the way it has been formulated. The toxic nature lies in the effects it has on you on the long term: disencouraging you instead of stimulating you to go on and do even better.

This is all normal. Each writer who did this process went through these five things when receiving feedback.

What happens when you avoid feedback

Surely you can try and avoid feedback, keep your stories secret or dismiss anything and anyone who has a critical note to your work. The results are in most cases:

  1. Arrested development — You stop growing as a writer and/or artist. Because you avoid feedback or feedback of a specific type, you are not challenged to go outside your own comfort zone.
  2. Missed opportunities — Probably your story could have been better when you would have worked together with others. Because you did not go into a feedback process, your beginning, ending and everything in between remained stuck at a certain level that you could have easily surpassed.

Toxic feedback and toxic environments

Not all feedback is healthy feedback. And what feedback is good feedback and what feedback is toxic depends per writer and per person who receives that feedback.

Here are some checkpoints for you to see if feedback you get is toxic for you.

  1. It makes you feel deeply uncomfortable — Even long after you processed the feedback you steel have this creepy feelings about yourself and your writing.
  2. It discourages you from writing as a whole — For instance, because you are given this feeling from the feedback that there is no hope for you to get better. You might be even thinking about giving up writing as a whole.
  3. There is not one helpful thing in there — The feedback is all about what is wrong in your work (and even how much you suck compared to X, Y and Z), but does not give one single help how to improve things in your actual work.

Some people deliberately write toxic feedback because they simply do not like the fact that you write as well. They rather see you go. Whatever you do is seen as a threat and thus they will try to destroy your joy in writing.

Others simply are not aware of what they are doing. While they genuinly think they are helping you, their point of view is so harsh and brutal they end up hurting you instead of helping you forward.

In most toxic environments

  1. People talk mostly about themselves — How awesome they are. What they achieved. How awesome they are. What they have achieved. (You see a pattern?)
  2. Talk about other people is mainly negative — In these environments most other people suck, unless these other people hold some sort of power (and favors can be won or lost). Nobody of the other people (present or absent) can do anything good, did anything of any value and any credit ever given was undeserved or gained by fraud.
  3. You yourself are not seen as a person to be treated respectful — You are welcome, but within very limited parameters. Unless you have to offer something special, your social stature is that of garbage, where garbage at least was useful at some time. Only when you are rich, close to people with real or imaginary power or when you are attractive in physical manner, you might be receiving something mostly an imitation of respect.
  4. Things do not change — Whatever is started in such environments never really gets anywhere.

There is one simple way to deal with toxic environments: walk out. Nothing changes. Nothing will be given to you.

Sure there are small prizes to win, but whatever.

How to get the right type of feedback

The right kind of feedback is the type of feedback that helps you.

Consider:

  1. How much can you take? — At that point? Are you ready to have your story be torn apart? Or would you like some milder feedback to start with?
  2. What do you want to know? — For that story? Is there a specific thing you want to have your proofreader pay specific attention to? Are there things you would like to achieve, but not yet in this story?

For instance: it is possible you are aware of many things wrong in your own work, but at this point in time you just want to write a story that:

  1. Is engaging
  2. Is nice to read
  3. Has a solid ending and a strong beginning

You don’t mind yet that your work probably has a lot of other things going wrong as it is simply not time for that yet.

Formulate:

  1. Your intention with the story — What is it about? What do you want to achieve with it? What kind of response do you want to
  2. Where you think it stands now — Refer to one or two specific stories or writers your reader already knows (or can find online or in a book). Do you think it is of comparable quality? Better? Is it finished? A first draft?
  3. Your focus — What you think your reader should look at, pay attention to. Is it the characters? The development of the story? Things that feel illogical? How important are spelling-errors? Bad sentences? Be clear in this.
  4. The intensity of the feedback — Do you want your reader to be gentle? Or be completely brutal? Something in between?

For instance:

(My intention) The story is about a hitman in a future world. He falls in love and decides he does not want to murder a new target.

The story should bring you to the edge of your seat, giving you sweaty hands as you do not know what will happen next. The love between the two main characters should be really felt by you.

(Where it stands) I think the story is in the same line of a Dan Brown story. Exciting but not too intellectual.

(My focus) I want to know if you can feel for the characters and the love-story and if the story brings you to the edge of your seat or not. I noticed in earlier feedback that readers do not always find the developments in my story logical. If not: what do you think is missing?

Some things “seem to drop out of the sky”. I like to hear from you if that is the case here as well. And also what you would suggest to fix that.

(The intensity of the feedback) I like to have an honest feedback, but not too harsh. If I can improve things, please tell me.

What you have here is a random example.

In bold/italics are the concrete requests for feedback helping your proofreader to understand what is specifically relevant for you at that time.

The concrete reference to Dan Brown is helping to understand what reference your reader can take to compare your story to.

What you can expect

What you can expect from your proofreader(s) is completely random and depends enormously on who is reading and what view he or she has to the things he/she is reading.

Here are some examples.

I liked your story. Some parts I felt were really exciting and moved in fast pace. I liked the love story. I did not really understand why it would stop him from killing his next target.

This feedback gives you some information but is so non-specific that it is hardly telling you anything.

You are definitely not writing like Dan Brown. There are still a lot of errors in your work and Dan Brown (sorry to say) simply writes better.

I did not like the love-story and wondered why you put it in there. I also felt offended by the way you depicted the woman.

I kind of thought the world in which the story plays is cool and I liked the city you described. I did not really care about the ending.

Again very non-specific feedback. At least in this feedback the reader tells you whether you did or did not succeed in writing “in the same line as Dan Brown”. You yourself already know you might not be at the same level (as you are just beginning) but you rather would like to hear WHY it is not yet like that. What is missing, for instance?

It is 2132. A hitman is given a new assignment to kill a statesman in another country (France). However, she falls in love with a woman (living in Berlin) and as she prepares and waits for that moment to kill the statesman, her view on her own live and her own work changes. At the end she is morally no longer able to kill the statesman but does so anyway: avoiding to be killed herself.

What I miss in the relationship between the two woman is passion. Sure they go to bed and have sex, but what makes it that she really loves this woman? She could be anyone for me. There are no specific traits. She comes over like a nobody.

Another thing is that, even if she resents killing the statesman, I do not really feel the conflict you say she “is feeling” on page 12. You mention it, then you describe some emotions, but it is not really hitting me. Why is she not nervous? Or shaking? Or having sleepless nights? Or whatever? Is she really that non-caring? And if so, how real is that doubt your story seems to revolve around?

As for Dan Brown: I think you are getting there. The story has a good pace. It reads like a page turner. There were hardly any moments I really had to stop to understand what you were writing about. Sure it needs more editing, but let that wait until you have done the next version.

Send it to me once done.

The last review is more helpful. Five elements are useful here:

  1. Starting with a summary — It summarizes what the reader thinks that you wrote and what the reader thinks the story is about. With this summary alone you can see if the most relevant things you put in there really communicated.
  2. Highlighting parts of the story that stuck out — It highlights parts of the story the reader thought to be most relevant or requiring most of your attention. This highlighting is done by, again, providing a short summary of what the reader read, then followed by one or more remarks or questions.
  3. Questions instead of directions — Instead of telling you “what you should do” or “should change” it asks questions like: “What makes it that she really loves this woman?”
  4. Coming back on your questions — The reference to (and question about) Dan Brown is addressed and answered. This answer is done from a
  5. From a personal point of view — Instead of “people think” or “everyone knows” the feedback is written from a very personal point of view. “I think”, “I felt”, “I missed”
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