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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Sunshine Blogger Award

Thank you to Words on Key for nominating me for the Sunshine Blogger Award. You are too kind for including me in your list of nominees. Everyone should go check out their work; the aim of their blog is to write and share their work with other word nerds (like me and you!). Feel free to check out and follow their page on Pinterest @ikwords K.

Rules I Received

• Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to their blog so others can find them.
• Answer the 11 questions asked by the blogger who nominated you.
• Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
• Notify the nominees about it by commenting on one of their blog posts.
• List the rules and display a Sunshine Blogger Award logo on your post and/or your blog site.

Questions Asked of Me

Why do you blog?

I love entertaining an audience. Even outside of blogging, I post on Facebook funny stories about my life and observations. If I didn’t blog, I would create Twitter threads or write a whole lot more fanfiction. Maybe I would practice telling stories at gatherings more. Who knows? But blogging allows me my fill of positive responses. Here, I get tangible proof that my stories, my voice, my jokes entertain others. Not always very many, but then, there’s always next week’s post to try again.

What makes a book good?

A rich examination of the human condition. Not everyone will agree, though, and I understand. But for a home schooled, introverted kid like me, stories which delved into questions of humanity, of relationships with others, and of conscience were my version of growing up on the playground. I gained wisdom and a form of experience from these stories that I would otherwise have missed, so that when I showed up to public school for the last two years of my education, I at least was not an emotionally shriveled shut-in.

Whatever your blog is about, when and why did you get interested in that topic?

Fiction: I have ever relished the mindful, thoughtful, peaceful stories I have consumed in books and on television. Those full of magic, nature, kindness, and strangeness, the ones not scary, but a little creepy. I never found many of these out in the wild. So at some point, I began to incorporate these aspects into my own writing, just so I could read them later. Over time, this congealed into my stories about The Hopeful Wanderer, the weekly fiction installment of my blog. I keep writing these stories because I can put into them everything my heart loves to read. But given the blog’s current following, it turns out other readers were looking for the exact same thing.

Book reviews: Who am I to think I have an opinion worth giving about a book? An egotist, that’s who. One confident enough in my own deep and thoughtful perspective to have the audacity to write my insights down for others to read. Probably, this came from studying for an English degree, where every class is an exercise in forcing students to give their thoughts and opinions in agonized mumbles. I love to be right and to answer questions correctly, so I got good at forming opinions of what I read. You never know when someone will call on you for your thoughts on the reading.

Writing advice: Every writer gives writing advice. Because of this cliché, I resisted doling out advice for a long time. (I didn’t know much myself anyway; what could I even pass on?) But I, of course, have received advice myself from good writers, both in person and through advice posts online. I put much of it into practice as I wrote and got feedback, wrote more and got more feedback, discarding some and keeping others. Recently, I joined a fantasy writing group on Facebook, a wonderful group full of seasoned writers willing to help newbies with all their questions and requests for feedback. I found myself among those willing to help. But I also caught myself repeating to one writer the same advice given to another. This made me realize two things: 1) I am a seasoned enough writer now that I do, in fact, have wisdom to pass on; and 2) writing up the tips and tricks I have learned from hard-earned experience gives new writers a chance to find the answers they seek, all in one place.

Tell me your favorite poem and quote the lines you found beautiful.

From Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie by Maggie Stiefvater:

He does not bite so much as nibble, my friend Death

Wearing me down to the size of a child

Soon I am small enough to nestle in his hand

Gone in one swallow, behind his gentle smile.

I appreciate the final line the most. How sinister. How beautiful. Death poetry speaks to my heart, because aren’t we all always dying?

What “genre(s)” of your niche do you like best? For example, for a cooking blog — desserts, meat, soups, etc. or for a writing blog (this one’s kind of obvious) — fantasy, short stories, horror, poetry, etc.

My writing interests lie somewhere within the intersection of fantasy, soft-apocalypse, and soft-horror. The magical, the encroaching disaster, and the creepy. I enjoy the soft and the strange, the reprogramming of the mind’s capacity for acceptance when the unnatural happens to be not that far off from the natural. I find I work better with short-stories. I have always struggled with getting my stories to the end, so I have less practice writing endings than beginnings. (Yes, I know, “write the end first.” Yet here I am.) But writing short stories and flash fiction forces me to the end almost at once, so that I get the chance to experiment with conclusions. Though I have worked on several novels, I may always be a writer of anthologies and novellas, and that’s fine with me.

Where do you get inspiration for your hobbies/interests/talents?

Spite.

Others say, “Don’t do X in your writing.” I think, I believe I will do X thing.

Or I look at what someone has done and think, I could do better.

Then I go write something.

Besides whatever your blog is about, what is your hobby/interest/talent?

I love to play Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games. Acting out an imaginary scene with my friends activates the creativity in me and allows me to explore the reaches of story in a collaborative setting. One of my writing weaknesses has been creating characters too similar to each other, but playing with other people who dream up wildly different goals, attachments, and personalities for their characters has taught me a thing or two about building in diversity. I also homebrewed (meaning: made up my own) and ran a mini-campaign myself, which forced me to face and overcome my weaknesses in building interesting plot and conflict for my players to experience.

Which of your posts has been the most popular? Reflect on this… why, do you think? Do you agree, or are you annoyed by it? Is it really your best work or is it just what seems like would appeal to readers (in your opinion)?

My most popular post was a fluke. It happened on October 21, 2017, when I posted my review of Maggie Stiefvater’s newest book All the Crooked Saints. Somehow, my tweet about the review got to her and she retweeted, saying she liked the review because it had turned out less of a review of the book and more of a review of her views. (I found out later I had gotten the main reason for the book wrong, but I still stand by my perceived insights of the time.) Because she retweeted the review and said she liked it, over 600 of her followers viewed my post. I will never again receive that many views, so that date will stick out on my insights stats. Forever.

What motivates you in life? (This is a broad question – answer however you interpret it)

Once again, spite. Anything I do, I want to do it better. Do it best. Especially better than my last effort. I’m very competitive toward myself. I also suffer from depression. When life grows dark and I feel no motivation, I keep dragging myself forward, because I despise depression and the effect it has on my life. So I’m out every day to prove that pit of negative feelings wrong.

Is this the first time you’ve gotten one of these awards?

I have received two blogger awards before this one. Although I will admit, I did not feel my, at the time, lackluster blog merited the first award, so I did nothing with it.

Do you ever feel nervous before publishing a blog post?

Sometimes I think, well this is a dud. But I don’t have time to make adjustments. Or my brain feels so devoid of ideas that this story was all I could extract from those wrinkles. Or the depression has me looking at the world through a dull and dirty lens. So I know I have given my best and I post it anyway. Oftentimes, it turns out my audience didn’t feel the same way I did, which is nice.

Mostly, I feel excited. More than doing the work, I love having work done.

My Dear Nominees

Featuring beautiful blogs about books and words. Check them out; each has uniquely wonderful content to offer.

  1. McGee Travel Tales Exploring the Places No One is Talking About
  2. the dark netizenshort stories – mostly dark ones!
  3. Elaine Howlin to inspire creativity, expression and exploration
  4. Sirius Editorial a writing service and online literary journal 
  5. Casey Carlisle musings, anecdotes, and excerpts…
  6. Ephemeral Elegies the poetry of emotion
  7. To the Salt of the Sea fragments of my days or little pieces of fiction
  8. Leigh Hecking Writer. Blogger. Reader. Dreamer.
  9. One Round Cornerwhere my fairy tales, poems, and images collect
  10. fantasynovel1fiction, fantasy, supernatural, random
  11. Ashaa cat, a book, and a cup of tea

My Questions

For you, my dear nominees, are these questions to answer on your own blog.

  1. What quote inspires you the most?
  2. What story has most impacted your life?
  3. How has your blogging fared during the effects of the pandemic?
  4. When did you become interested in the topic(s) of your blog?
  5. What do you hope to achieve with your writing?
  6. Who do you get most excited to imagine reading your work?
  7. What to you daydream about over and over?
  8. Where was the best place you have ever visited?
  9. Why do you keep blogging?
  10. How do you envision the content of your blog looking in the future?
  11. What do you lie about when you cannot tell the truth?

You may pick and choose the rules you wish to follow. Eleven questions took ages to answer, so five might be better.

That’s That

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