The trouble with … giving feedback

from Leser’s Skriptorium oder in einer BibliothekOne of the things that people ask me quite often in workshops is Why don’t editors give feedback (more often)? And it’s a peril of editing that I feel inclined to waffle about today. But first, a quote to put us all in the right frame of mind:

The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.
– Oscar Wilde

I derived a huge benefit from the generosity of editors when I was first starting out as a writer. Very often, submitting your work can feel like blowing kisses into the abyss – no idea if there’s any point, or if anything is being received, or if the whole enterprise is a waste of time. (Yes, I know “howling into the abyss” is the more usual phrase. I’m trying to keep things a bit more upbeat.) (For the moment, anyway.) When you get the seemingly inevitable little printed slip with its particular variation on the theme of Thank you, but no, you have no way of gauging why it was that the poems you sent were not accepted. Did the editor not like them? Do they not fit the style/tone/subject/format/theme of the particular issue? Is it just bad luck, because yours is the eighth poem the editor has seen on the subject, and they’ve already accepted three others? Or is your work not well enough written? Or (and I know this is a popular suspicion), is the editor jealous of your undeniable talent and therefore bent on joining the Conspiracy To Keep You Invisible?

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.
– Winston Churchill

I used to make a point of including a request for feedback in all my submissions – I think it was generally along the lines of “I would welcome any feedback you cared to offer, although I realise your time is both scarce and valuable” – the idea being to let said editor know that I genuinely did want to know what they thought, and why. And a number of editors did write back – usually a pen or pencil addition to the rejection note. Sometimes it was something like I liked poem X, but not quite enough or I enjoyed Y but we don’t really publish Z poems. Or I really liked the imagery in W, but there wasn’t enough emotion at stake in the poem.  I love those editors. Even when I was stung by their comments (and some were – unintentionally, I’m sure – quite withering), I was aware that they had, at least, taken the time to say something more.

I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.
– Noel Coward

b from Leser’s Skriptorium oder in einer BibliothekThere were times when the comments made it clear that the editor had completely not got the poem – it happens. Editors are human. And everyone has their own set of buttons that provoke a disproportionate (or seemingly so) response – maybe it’s poems about war that don’t explicitly say War Is Bad! Or poems that seem to glorify sexism. Or that suggest something racially insensitive (even if the suggestion is only in the mind of the editor). It’s something that comes up when I’m editing, or judging a competition, or even just listening to the drafts of poems that get written in class. I try to consciously balance my initial response to a poem against what I know to be my own foibles (and there are many), and evaluate the piece on its own merits. (But then again, what the poem says is one of its merits. Or demerits.) I’ve been on the receiving end of this sort of thing too, more than once. But all you can do there is shrug, make a mental note to not send poems that operate in that space to that person in future, and move on.

Advice is like snow – the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into, the mind.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge

So far, so many reasons why editors should offer feedback. So why wouldn’t we?

For myself, it comes down to a combination of reasons, some of which may well be influenced by the position of the planets and the presence or absence of solar flares. But here are the two main reasons why I might not comment on a submission.

1. Time.
It takes time to go over a poem and compose a response. I spend in excess of twenty hours every two months or so, processing the submissions that come in to takahē. That’s essential one whole week, just for takahē submissions. A lot of submissions are just not well enough written to make it out of the No pile. I usually try to find the poem that comes closest to being acceptable, and make a few notes about where it goes wrong. But then I have to type the comments up (into an email or into a letter – trust me, you don’t want my comments handwritten), and make sure I phrase things as helpfully as possible. And there are times when there really isn’t anything much I can say – some submissions are really bad. And others might be fine from a technical point of view, but just not appealing. (There are more of these than you might think.) All of this takes time, and quite a bit of effort. (I’ve toyed with the idea of having a form with a series of checkboxes for common reasons for rejection so I can just tick the ones that apply to each rejected submission, but somehow I don’t think it would be well received …) I run out of time and energy and imagination and enthusiasm, so inevitably there will be times when I cannot muster the resources to do more than say Sorry, no. So don’t take it personally.

c from Leser’s Skriptorium oder in einer Bibliothek2. Reactions.
I’ve had quite a few attempts to find a tactful way of phrasing this reason, but I think there probably isn’t one. So here goes. Some people really don’t want to be told. There are writers whose stature and experience makes it something of an impertinence for me to say much more than Yes or No or Did you mean to put that comma there? But … sometimes I need to ask questions about linebreaks, or capitalisation, or something that doesn’t seem to be right. So I have to ask. (For the record: none of the Large Cheeses of NZ Poetry that I’ve corresponded with have ever been anything other than delightfully professional and welcoming. But it’s still a bit nerve-wracking.)

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.
– Frank A. Clark

But then there are the people who Really Don’t Like To Be Told. Not just who feel a bit miffed, or a bit cross, or who think I’ve been unfair. I’m talking about the ones who are genuinely angered by it.

Most of us understand that our responses to editorial decisions, however justified we feel our responses are, are not sensible things to make public. We might bitch about it to our friends, maybe even to our classmates. But because we want to be treated professionally, we behave professionally. We grumble, but then we move on. Most of us do. But not everyone.

Two responses stand out for me. One person informed me that it was “not the done thing to critique submitted poems, and that everyone knew that.” Which annoyed me and amused me somewhat – my comments to this person were very brief, and merely indicated what it was about the best poem that I felt wasn’t working so well. It would have been no more than two or three sentences, maximum. (If three sentences constitutes a critique, then I need to charge way more for my editing services!) There was nothing really that I could say in response, other than to thank them for their comment and make a note beside their name not to offer feedback in future.

That person was, at least, not actively rude. Unlike my other shining light. This person sent in a group of three-line poems which they called haiku. The poems were not good. And they certainly weren’t haiku. (It is an area where I’m quite knowledgeable.) So I found the poem that seemed closest, and explained why it didn’t work as a haiku, and what sort of thing they would need to do differently if they wanted it to work in that form. I finished with a suggestion of a few other resources they might like to track down if they wanted to learn more about haiku, and finished by saying it was a difficult thing to master, but very rewarding, and wishing them well.

d from Leser’s Skriptorium oder in einer BibliothekThe response came back within five minutes, and consisted of two words, which I shall reproduce in all their glory:

Get stuffed.

I oscillated between being angry and laughing my arse off. On the one hand, get stuffed is quite a mild bit of swearing. Almost endearing in its old-fashionedness. On the other hand, this person had enough self-possession not to send me an expletive-filled rant, but still thought it was ok to respond offensively. I did wonder if they would perhaps come to their senses and send an apology later on in the day, but no. Deary deary me.

For the record, and in case there is any confusion on this point: telling an editor to get stuffed is not a good thing to do. Although it will definitely result in you being remembered.

I have no way of knowing whether the person I’m responding to is an adult, or a complete lunatic. Whether my attempts to suggest things that could help them will hit the mark, or result in them hitting the roof. (And – potentially – me.) I don’t get paid to edit takahē. I certainly don’t get paid to take abuse. And while examples like these two are very much in the minority, there is always that concern lurking in the shadows. Not saying anything at all is very much easier. And probably safer.

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.
– Norman Vincent Peale

So there we have it. A couple of things to keep in mind next time you sit down to send in a submission. Takahē has a policy of offering feedback where possible, so I will, as far as I am able, continue to do so where I think it’s appropriate.

I’ve actually started to think that it should be a requirement for everyone who wants to be published to do a stint as an editor’s assistant, so they can see for themselves how much work goes into it, and how few of us sit there, slavering, oozing the bile of jealousy, red pens poised and ready to plunge repeatedly into the hearts and assorted organs of any and all other writers …

If you want to sacrifice the admiration of many men for the criticism of one, go ahead, get married.
– Katharine Hepburn

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