Sketchy Writing Advice: 5 ways to make receiving feedback less painful

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

A Common Feedback Narrative

As a writer looking for ways to improve your skills, you may have heard or read this trite advice: writers must develop a thick skin. Don’t take feedback so personally. Blah blah blah. In reality, everything you write seems personal to you. At first. Maybe forever. You haven’t put many words out there, not enough to take the hits like a thick shield around you. Not yet. On top of that, you didn’t start writing because you’re insensitive. Writers happen to be among the most sensitive artist types out there. How else can you tune in to the human condition enough to translate that on-page for your readers to feel? To you, every bit of commentary on your work feels personal.

So, right now, and maybe for a long time, feedback has hurt you. Your words represent you, your skill, your thoughts and feelings, your convictions. You have tied your worth and value to them. Even though feedback feels like a personal attack, you know you have to receive critique in order to get better. I’m not telling you to develop a thick skin, because you may never manage that. But I am telling you to be brave. And most of all, clever.

As in the casting of any magic spell, set your intentions before you begin, keeping these elements in mind.

How to Handle Feedback

Know what you want feedback on. Tell your reader so beforehand. Very often, readers will focus in too much on an aspect of the passage that you don’t view as a problem, or that you are not ready to tackle just yet. Then, what you really wanted help on falls to the wayside, wasting everyone’s time. Having an idea of what needs scrutiny and pointing your reader’s critique at that specific problem will help you the most in the long run. And I don’t mean, “Here, help me with this paragraph.” I mean specific specific, as in, “I want the relationship between the characters in this scene to come off as tender but it seems flat. How can I fix it?” In addition, try to have the passage you want help with as polished up as you can make it. Glaring problems with punctuation, grammar, tense, voice, et cetera will serve to distract your reader from the main issue. They may even have a hard time gleaning a solution for you if your passage is an indecipherable mess.

Don’t argue with critique. Just write down your reader’s feedback and say, “Okay, thank you.” Arguing with suggestions for improvement, after you asked for help, leaves your reader feeling like you don’t want to improve your work, you just want things to stay the same, and you wasted their time. This behavior also sets you up for bad relations with your future editors. Not arguing about suggestions and feedback allows you to consider the advice in private.

In the end, you get to decide whether you should take the advice or discard it. Your conclusions aren’t always right, so keep an open mind, but their conclusions aren’t always right either, so have faith in yourself. Don’t go back and tell your reader your decision about their advice either way. This keeps relations between you and your reader good and leaves open avenues for future help with critique. But most of all, keeping a cool head in the moment of receiving feedback, and recognizing that you get to decide whether to keep or discard the advice, gives you all the power to avoid letting critique hurt you.

Request feedback from readers/writers of your genre/style. If you can. This will make the feedback you receive more relevant to your work. As a gross oversimplification for an example, if you write hard sci-fi and ask a romance writer for feedback, they may focus on trying to get your characters to kiss. And if you write romance but ask for help from a fantasy writer, they may focus on trying to get your couple to go on an epic quest together. But if you write horror and ask for help from another horror writer, they stand a better chance of helping you turn the fright up when that’s the problem you can’t fix yourself.

If you need to ask a non-writer for help, you would do best to approach a reader of your genre over someone who enjoys something else or who does not read at all.

Decide you want critique. This point leads into the next point, but first, a word. If you have been brave enough to seek out feedback, you should remind yourself that whatever form of feedback you receive, this information will help you. That feedback may challenge your views, it may ask of you more than you have the skills yet to give, it may attempt to silence you or demand you speak up, it may even seem vague and wasteful of your time. As long as you remain aware that you always have room to improve, you will come to view critique as a tool in that aim. You just sometimes have to work to dig out the helpful bits from the tone or the content of the feedback. Ready your scalpel.

Figure out whether you want criticism or praise. Too often, we writers hand our piece to someone we trust and say, “What do you think?” If inside you catch yourself hoping something like, please be good, please be good, please be good, you did not want criticism from that interaction. So when your reader dutifully points out something you could improve, you will feel disappointment. You instead wanted praise.

And that’s okay! Oftentimes, you won’t even know you have your fingers crossed for praise. But before you hand your piece over to someone, figure out what you want from the exchange and set expectations accordingly. So if you realize you just need a little hit of the serotonin that comes with praise, maybe include a caveat like, “I don’t want critique; I just want you to read this and tell me what you like.” There’s nothing wrong with asking for this kind of feedback. But you must remain aware and in control of your desires when requesting another’s thoughts.

How I Learned These Skills

In giving feedback to others, I went through a time of feeling guilty when the feedback other writers received from me clearly hurt them. I struggled to balance a genuine desire to help them improve with not hurting them by softening my tone, rounding the corners of my content, and couching criticisms inside praise. That doesn’t always work, but at that point, I can say I tried my best. I also found that writers would argue with my feedback, making me feel like all the effort I put in to picking out the issues causing the writer problems and suggesting solutions was a massive waste. I learned to walk away from those arguments, because they came from someplace personal within the writer that I could never hope to reach. You can only control so much.

In receiving feedback from others, I spent a long time yearning for actual help, instead of the vague, unhelpful phrase: “It’s good.” Whether I am being too hard on my work or not doesn’t matter – there’s always a way to improve my writing and it bothered me when someone did not point out any issues they found. In this way, through trial and error, I found more useful methods for requesting critique, such as finding writers in my genre and specifying where I wanted the critique focused.

Ultimately, requesting and receiving feedback comes down to a sticky social interaction. We have all seen feedback, reviews, and commentary devolve into a nasty mess. Some guiding principles, on both sides, should help we writers to navigate through this necessary evil and come out unscathed on the other side. Experience will lead to that thicker skin one way or another, but until then, may these tips help you dodge some of those scary flying knives.

Got any questions about dealing with painful feedback? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for receiving feedback, I want to hear them!


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Sketchy Writing Advice – The Time and Place for Passive Voice

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

The Passive Voice Narrative

How to talk about passive voice as a useful thing? An okay thing? An allowed thing? So many of us as writers have received the advice that we need to change the passive voice in our work to active voice. This is good and important advice. You should do that. I even explain how to change passive voice to active voice in another post, because I live in the camp of advocates for active writing. Especially after having just read a book with the most passive writing I have ever witnessed in traditional publishing. An actual slog to get through.

Reading too much passive voice is unpleasant and boring. But, contrary to what short, insightful, and thought provoking nuggets of wisdom like write in active voice would have you think, passive voice has a place in your prose. Albeit, a sparing one.

A quick note.

First and foremost, always consider ways to change the passive phrase you think you need to use into an active one. You may not need that passive phrase as much as you think. But after you have exhausted your options in active voice and found no alternatives, you may use passive voice. That’s how you break the rules like an artist.

What’s the big deal?

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, let us recap the definitions and differences between what makes passive and active voice.

Being verbs: A ThoughtCo.com article states that “a verb that does not show action instead indicates a state of being. …[I]n English most being verbs are forms of to be (am, are, is, was, were, will be, being, been, etc.).”

Adverbs: Any word that ends in -ly (quickly, oily, chilly, moodily, etc.).

Action verbs: Any verb not one of the two above (run, slam, kiss, hold, breathe, help, etc.).

Being verbs and adverbs make up passive voice, while the leftover action verbs make up active voice.

When to Use Passive Voice

Everyone told you to get rid of your being verbs and your -ly adverbs, but… hey, that published writer used several being verbs in that paragraph! And some adverbs over there! Why do they get to use passive voice and I don’t?!

I understand your frustration.

Some exceptions to this rule exist, but it takes getting good at writing in active voice to begin noticing them. I cannot stress enough that you should understand and execute active voice in your writing before you start toying with these exceptions. You must use your own judgement on when your unique words merit some passive voice, but below, I have put together a list of when I have noticed that passive voice works.

When writing a rough draft

While I recommend learning to write in active voice in the first place to train those brain muscles, writing your rough draft in passive voice is not the shameful act some feedback would have you think. Using being verbs and -ly adverbs helps you get your thoughts down on the page. Those first thoughts act as a road map to tell later you, editor you, what you meant by this. Just make sure you edit out your passive voice before you take new pieces to your next writing group meeting or post them up on your blog.

When an object is at rest

Rarely does this exception occur, but it has a lot to do with an object’s potential for movement. Some examples:

Active voice: He stood next to the door.
Passive voice: He was standing next to the door.

The first example in active voice implies your character just now stood next to the door. He moved there, stopped there, or got to his feet there, and thus, he stood. The second example in passive voice implies your character may have stood next to the door for some length of time. Less an action and more a continuation of a previous act. So you have the option to portray how long your character has done or has been doing something through your choice of active or passive voice.

Another example:

Active voice: A comet flew across the sky.
Passive voice: A comet was flying across the sky.

In the first example, the use of the active verb flew indicates the comet performed this action before any description to follow took place. Zzzip, gone! A mighty quick comet. The second example using the passive phrase was flying indicates that the comet continues to fly across the sky as the descriptions that follow take place. This object’s action becomes a backdrop to whatever else happens until the writer describes that said passive action has ceased or the scene has ended.

When a character’s thoughts shift to the theoretical

In my observations of when a character’s thoughts occur in passive voice, I have noticed that this works best not in the paragraph’s first line or its last, but somewhere in the middle. An active first line draws readers into the paragraph, where they feel more willing to read some passive thinking sorts of sentences. Then, an active last couple of lines draws the reader back out of that state of passivity and keeps them interested in reading the next paragraph.

Example, with active in bold and passive in italics:

I struck out across the river, struggling to swim against the current. Trying not to think scary water thoughts. How deep was the water? Were there alligators here? Fear chased me across the river. I almost cried when my fingers touched the muddy bank on the other side.

This example of passive voice could still function better as active voice. But I would stick to passive voice here if I wanted to get these thoughts across while not lingering over them too much. Plus, passive voice in the middle of a paragraph can allow your readers a small brain break before getting them back to the action.

When indicating emphatic truth

Using passive voice sparingly lends power to your occasional use of being verbs. As such, you can use them to make true statements that carry much more weight when you pull them out.

Examples:

Too much passive voice: She was a straight A student and she had never even been in trouble! They were accusing her of murder, but she was no killer.
Just enough passive voice: She crushed her grades every year and kept herself out of trouble. They had accused her of murder, but she was no killer.

Compare all the being verbs in the first example to the number of these in the second. So many claims of truth in the first stole the impact of the final claim. But in the second example, one moment of passive voice surrounded by so many active verbs made that statement stand out and shine. Every active verb indicates an action that took place once, so that the one passive verb indicates a state of true and continuous being as not a killer.

When replacements for adverbs make the prose too wordy

I am guilty of this myself. Complete aversion to the use of passive voice can cause you to stuff in more words than necessary just to avoid adverbs. Yet sometimes I relax a little. Above, I used an adverb in the sentence that begins, “Using passive voice sparingly…” I allowed myself this bit of passivity because the alternative for that adverb sparingly would have come out as: “Using passive voice once in a while…” That adds a solid four words and would not get the point across as well as the adverb did.

Use your judgement here.

My personal guiding principle on adverbs decrees that I can use one adverb in a paragraph at most, so I must make it count. That means I cannot waste the adverb on a gerund + adverb [-ing verb + –ly adverb] phrase such as “walking quickly.” I also should not waste it on the next step up in passive voice, qualitative adverbs, such as necessarily, only, eventually, occasionally, or especially. Use your adverbs where they will have the most impact and will weaken your prose the least, if you must use them at all.

Takeaways

  1. Passive voice includes any ‘being verbs’ (be, was, been, is, were, am, are) and –ly adverbs
  2. Active verbs are any other verbs besides being verbs and adverbs
  3. While not very often, passive voice has its place
    • When writing a rough draft
    • When an object is at rest
    • When a character’s thoughts shift to the theoretical
    • When indicating emphatic truth
    • When replacements for adverbs make the prose too wordy
  4. You should learn to write in active voice a majority of the time
  5. You must use your judgement on when passive voice will have the most impact

How I learned this skill.

Long ago, I resolved to write just in active voice and avoid all being verbs and adverbs. This forced me to learn how to change passive voice into active voice. But as I developed a standard for writing within certain word count limits or for tightening up my prose by X percentage, I found that, at times, an adverb would serve better than a bunch of other words. Or a being verb would make a point pop better. I did make sure to set myself some guidelines, as above, to avoid overusing passive voice to the point of lazy writing.

My journey to a certain, qualitative acceptance of passive voice began during a conversation with my high school writing mentor, Jennifer Archer. I had mentioned my revelations about the importance of active voice during a school project and how a session with a local writing group had put into words the lessons learned in that project. Active voice. Voíla. It had a name.

Jenny then told me that her editor had once changed an instance of active voice in her prose into passive voice. Indeed, the very example used above in, “He was standing next to the door.” That one conversation led me to wonder, when else can I use passive voice?

Got any questions about using passive voice? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for writing in passive voice, I want to hear them!


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Word Nerd Scribbles: How and Why I Started Blogging

Way back when WordPress was barely WordPress but just after the (not so great) app had arrived, I started blogging primarily to remind the world that I was alive. Being in college forces you to think and make mental connections so much more than day-to-day life does, so at the time, I was filled with Thoughts and Feelings that I wanted to get out. But college also takes up far more of your time than does your average post-graduation life, so while I managed to type up a handful of blog posts about my Thoughts and Feelings, they soon languished in the wake of a stack of books half as tall as me for my English degree.

Maybe not half as tall, but these were for one semester. Yike.

Actually, I started blogging in high school. The now defunct Nerd Girl Scribbles, located at blogger.com at the time. But I was small-ish and had nothing to say, so rebranding happened sometime after.

Because of some nebulous cultural expectation and perhaps as a lingering habit from my days of writing argumentative papers about literature, I began feeling the uneasy need to review the books I read. After graduation, I had lost the classroom environment that encouraged discussion about assigned reading. I wanted to talk about the little narrative things I had noticed. You might say, well why didn’t you join a book club? I did, in fact. But they read books I didn’t enjoy so I ghosted. Instead, I began writing book reviews after closing the pages of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I loved it so much, had such a many things to say about it, and wanted the world to know about this book. (The world already knew about this book. I was late to the game.) After that, I kept up the book reviews and readers started following me for my thoughts about the random things I read. Wild.

The Friday before I was to take a one-week vacation, I was using my phone at work when I wasn’t supposed to, scrolling through Facebook. I came across the original post shown above, which asks the reader to describe them the way an author would in a book. As I went to repost, I knew no one would go along with the request, because effort. But people love to hear about themselves and I like to observe others, so. The offer to write character descriptions about the people who commented was born.

I wrote _thirty_ character descriptions. And surprise, surprise, people wrote some about me in return. I spent my whole vacation on this and it was a wonderful exercise in metaphor, finding my voice, and learning to tell a story in a few paragraphs. I also realized later, after hearing from my friends and family on why they decided not to participate, that I may have by accident revealed a little more about people than is usual. Shrug. Sometimes you just know a person. Sometimes you don’t know what’s a secret.

I wanted to keep all the character descriptions, not lose them to the vagaries of Facebook timelines. And hey, I already had a blog. One dedicated to a love of words. So each description got copied over and I had about half a year’s worth of content scheduled out.

Those were the good old days.

When those posts began to run out, I knew I wanted to keep posting weekly stories to keep my writing in front of the eyes of readers. My favorite show of all time is Mushishi, a serial story about a man who can see strange organisms not visible to everyone, phenomena closer to the source of life than anything else, and he makes his living by traveling across the country to help people troubled by these creatures. He’s gentle, patient, and kind, more willing to find a way around killing. I also at some point had started a (second or third or fifth) Deviantart profile. When I worked at Barnes & Noble, Mumford & Sons songs played on the overhead far more often than I would have liked, but one line always stuck out to me. “I’m a hopeless wanderer.” I tried to use that phrase, hopeless wanderer, as my username. It was, of course, already taken. So I twisted it into hopeful wanderer. Because as Brave Saint Saturn said, the bravest thing of all is always hope.

Those of you who follow my blog probably know where this went. I wanted to write a story about a person who never settled down, who was kind in their encounters with strange things, and I wanted very much to write about encounters with strange things. I had at the time begun toying with the idea of a neutral reader experience, that a lack of details about a main character viewed through first person could remove the lens of the author between the reader and the experience. Allow them to fall into the story themselves.

I suffer from depression. Or maybe I struggle with depression, because I fight the void every time it comes creeping back up. When one day I got my head above the briny waves of a depressive episode yet again, all these elements came together to create the first Hopeful Wanderer flash fic, A Barren Heart, which is about surviving depression again and again. For the last two years, I have written a Hopeful Wanderer tale (almost) every week. At the time of writing this article, we are ten episodes away from a total of one hundred!

Beyond the work of getting my words connected to readers – of newsletters and likes and follower counts and asking for patrons – the best part has always been the continued creation of this character and this world, of never knowing week to week what the Wanderer may see or do or learn. Sometimes, whatever life thing I’m grappling with slips into the subtext. Sometimes that thing gets noticed by readers, who find resonance with that subtext in themselves. The best part has been the connection. Of knowing that I am indeed alive, and that other people know that fact, too.

Thanks for reading!

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