Philosophy of Writing – 21 – The Worst Kind of Feedback

Posted on September 16, 2013 by


Nebula by Boris Pelcer

Nebula | Mechanical Pencil & White Gel Ink on Bristol | 7 x 11 in.
Boris Pelcer |

I don’t ask for constructive criticism; I ask for honesty. It’s my prerogative and responsibility to sort the useful feedback from the rest. A bit of advice: if you expect a specific type of return, you’ll be disappointed.

But there’s feedback that makes me utterly wretched, you too — when it skips over useful and hurtful all at once into why would anyone ever say anything like that, ever. You begin to think of the person saying it as fundamentally alien; you feel uncomfortable, alone, philosophically untethered. The space between your brains becomes cosmic.

You are alone. There’s always a deep context shift between your reader and you. I’ll give you an example: I recently submitted an excerpt of experimental SFF fiction to a workshop filled with strangers of varying expertise. My piece uses no chapters, has limited punctuation, and tries to achieve edge conditions of language.

A workshop member wrote “no quote marks” on the first page and set about filling in every one. I think, uncomfortably, that had she known about my educational background she would have recontextualised her feedback from “correcting errors” to “not my preferred genre”.

I could have been miserable: is she stupid? a robot? am I being pretentious? etc. I felt nothing. It’s pointless, because emotions like these stem from a misunderstanding. Feedback aims to correct errors; if it instead highlights a shift in context, it’s not useful to you as an error-correcting tool.

Signs of a context shift:

  • A sudden clenching of the gut.
  • Irrational anger.
  • Careful, exhaustive examination of self-worth, talent, goals.
  • Musing on the concept of behaviourism, qualia, and philosophical zombies.
  • A rash of grammar Nazism.
  • Notes written furiously on top of other notes, in a different colour, pressing into the paper as if this were a way to correct the other note-maker’s mistaken presuppositions.
  • Circumlocutory ranting.
  • Frantic, abortive attempts to write beautiful prose in the preferred genre of the commenter, or frantic, abortive attempts to edit existing prose into the preferred genre of the commenter.
  • Comments are written in a language that looks exactly like English and has the vocabulary and grammar of English, but isn’t.

Call it shifted feedback. Notes that, were your piece the piece your reader thinks it is, or you the writer your reader thinks you are, would be useful. Your personal universes are misaligned, and as such the ball swishing into the basket would score a point if the ball, basket and scorekeeper were all at the same game.

Shifted feedback: both of you are right, neither of you is right. This piece of writing is good falls into true, false, and _____, where _____ is a symbol that doesn’t exist because it negates the true/false nature of this piece of writing is good.

A review on Amazon for “Lord of the Flies”:

I read this book for English, and I was looking forward to it. I am obsessed with Survivor, so I thought it would be fun. WRONG!!! It is incredibly boring and disgusting. I was very much disturbed when I found young children killing each other. I think that anyone with a conscience would agree with me. Please, only read if you must. Also, a note to English teachers: Please don’t force your students to read such foul writings!!!

Shifted feedback should not result in changes to your manuscript. Reassure yourself in terms of genre, potential readership, and style, and move on.