‘What do you think of this?’ (Mistake #18)

When you’re a writer – especially when you’re also a tutor or you offer advice or criticism to new and budding writers – you get a lot of people showing you their work. Some comes from acquaintances, or acquaintances of acquaintances, and some is from strangers.

Sometimes I’m happy and have time to help and usually I don’t mind being asked. But the key mistake so many writers make is sending work and asking ‘What do you think of this?’

I’ll be blunt. This is a frustrating question to be posed, because it unfairly puts the onus on the receiver to try to get inside the head of the writer and work out what they may really want to know and why they are asking for advice. Do they want praise? Do they want criticism? Do they want to be told where to send their writing? Do they want their spelling corrected? Do they want merely to be read by someone – anyone?

Make it easy for someone to give you feedback by telling them what feedback you are looking for. Don’t be shy. If you’ve been bold enough to make an approach, you may as well spit out what it is you’re after.

You don’t precisely know what it is you’re after? You say you just want some “general thoughts or comments”? Then I’m sorry but in that case you’ve not thought through what it is you are trying to achieve with your writing – where you’re ‘going’ with it, essentially.

Does the piece of writing have an aim, a destination? Is it an article for a magazine or paper, say? Is it a potential entry for a competition? Say so.

What advice or comment are you looking for? Do you want to know whether your grammar is up to scratch? Your article structure is logical? That your tone and ‘voice’ is right for your target market? Are you looking for reassurances of your writing strengths? For confirmation of your suspected weaknesses?

Think about these things. Think about what matters to you. Don’t ask dozens of questions: normally, just one or two is all that some generous, overworked scribing soul will be willing to answer (at least for free, anyway). Choose them carefully.

Being specific about your feedback requirements is more likely to earn you useful advice and pointers. You’ll also possibly get feedback on stuff you didn’t ask about.

Being vague and lazy will probably land you with little more than a “Yeah, that’s really good”, because that’s the easy, automatic response which doesn’t take much thought – and what use will that be to you?

Do ask your potential advisor to give it to you straight. Tell them you’re not afraid of criticism and can take it on the chin – even if this isn’t strictly true. Don’t, whatever you do, say “Go easy on me!” as those four words and light exclamation mark are likely to disarm them of any potent bullets of advice.

Don’t do it too much. Don’t forget to say please. Don’t beg. Be humble. Don’t send a reminder. Don’t stalk. Be very, very grateful for what you receive, even if it is only a tiny little bit. Don’t hate the writer if you’re ignored – because you are asking quite a big favour, especially if it’s of a stranger. Be very, very grateful for what you receive – did I already mention that?

Comments 4

  • Excellent advice (as always). I prefer only to give feedback to people I know, eg in my real-life or online writing groups. Because the groups have long-established history, and we all know what sort of feedback is required. You are right that if the requirements aren't specified, you'll just get a 'yeah, lovely, well done' comment, even if the writing's shite.

  • Thanks Della. I can imagine it must be much tougher to give (and possibly receive) feedback with fiction, but hadn't thought of the mutual benefits of forging long-standing relationships with peers with whom you can exchange feedback which becomes increasingly useful over time.

    Alex.

  • Um, I'm not Della! 😀 (But I do know her well – and she is one of the best people I know for giving constructive feedback on fiction.)

  • Whoops! Sorry, can't remember now why I thought your name was Della…

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