“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”Octavia E. Butler
“Many times, what people call ‘writer’s block’ is the confusion that happens when a writer has a great idea, but their writing skill is not up to the task of putting that idea down on paper. I think that learning the craft of writing is critical.”Pearl Cleage
In one week, I’ll be officially unemployed. Well, that’s misleading. My contract with the leading tech company I worked for since last summer will be over, as has my first year’s Teaching Assistantship contract. For the first time since 2011, (Wow!) I’m having what my roommate called “a teacher summer.” I choose to call it a Writer Summer.
No school, no job, a stable internet connection, a balcony facing the forest, enough tea, candles, incense, and herbs to make me literally levitate. I have as my only companion during the shelter-in-place order, an introvert, who loves books as much as I do and texts me even when we’re only separated by a glass door. No, this is a Writer Paradise.
I’m currently writing a novel. It’s a project I’ve been nursing in my head for many years. Most of my official writing thus far has been in nonfiction, given my two bachelors are in Political Science and Writing and Rhetoric. But starting January of this year, I took two six-week fiction writing courses at a local woman-owned writing school, Redbud Writing, led by two MFA graduates. Writing is a transferable skill, so it wasn’t like I was starting from scratch, but there was so much I didn’t know or stubbornly resisted! The primary lesson, and the only one I would share if I was restricted to just one, is centered around the dreaded word Feedback.
Insecurity: The Root of Fear of Feedback
This week’s 99 Percent Anomaly Podcast episode discussed dealing with insecurities. To my benign annoyance, when I brought up the fact that one of my deepest insecurities surrounded my writing, they shouted me down. Being fans of my writing, I know my co-hosts meant well, yet the sentiment I was expressing is valid, one shared by many artists, amateurs and even some professionals, not simply a ploy for compliments or a display of false humility.
Confidence about one’s art is not something that compliments or accolades can provide to an artist. Building conviction in what you create is a work from deep within, a labor of love. It might just save your life. Gaining trust in your work, however, requires an inevitable step, the most painful of all, more than the brainstorm, more than the outline, more than the craft of the prose. Becoming confident in your writing, shedding your insecurities, require that you share your art, seek, and provide feedback.
“Confidence about one’s art is not something that compliments or accolades can provide to an artist.“
As I work on my novel, one of the first things I realized and knew I had to do differently from the other manuscripts I’ve snuffed over the years, was to get eyes on it. Before I even submitted Chapter One as one of the requirements of the second fiction class, I’d already solicited the gaze of a couple of friends who enjoy the genre in which I’m telling the story. Now every week, sending that “Chapter X is sent!” text message does not fill me with dread, it confirms that I’m taking myself seriously, that I’m working on my craft.
Craft Requires Feedback
Roxane Gay says, “I treat my writing like a job, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean I give it the respect of a professional endeavor, not a hobby. Even when it was a hobby, I treated it like a job. It is important to do that because craft takes time and demands respect.” I understand exactly what she means now. And more than that, I’m having SO MUCH fun with it. I’ve never felt so energized to keep writing.
As soon as you start doing the actual work, you realize that storytelling is a complicated endeavor that shapes you as much as you shape the lines on the page.
Developing a better relationship with feedback means working on killing your ego, this idea that you can just birth your ideas as they appear in your mind, that good writing can be readymade. As soon as you start doing the actual work, you realize that storytelling is a complicated endeavor that shapes you as much as you shape the lines on the page. And as long as you keep doing so, the shapes will align and meld. Which means accountability. For someone like me, who wants so much to be free to my whims on any given day, writing every day used to sound like a nightmare. Having my friend text me, “how’s the chapter going?” is welcomed. Me? I used to think I would never be this person.
Yet that’s exactly who I needed to become in order to end the gestation period, and dive head first into the painful, dangerous labor of giving life to the characters and stories haunting me.
Get Yourself a Writing Buddy
In a video from the software Eli Review, a set of tools helping instructors run feedback-centric classrooms, Bill Hart-Davidson, an Associate Professor at Michigan State University states, “the most effective way that people learn as writers is from other writers.” I couldn’t agree more. One of the biggest benefits to taking the fiction writing courses I did was getting a Writing Buddy out of it. Finding the proper readers and writing buddies is hard, and is its own process.
Luckily, my Writing Buddy loves the kind of story that I’m writing, which is something I would advise you to add to your list of criteria. I love her story too, as well as her own writing style (Criteria 2), so when I emailed her and offered to continue to swap stories or chapters weekly for review and critique, it just worked out.
Now, week after week, I get to engage in activities that are improving my writing, which I can clearly see with every new chapter. Not only do the things that she points out help me calibrate my attention better, but the aspects I’m pointing out in her writing (appreciatively or constructively) are helping me learn about what I would like to steal or kill in my own writing. In addition to all of this, I’m improving my own communication skills in the art of seeking and providing feedback.
Giving Feedback is a Skill
Seeking and providing feedback are not skills one is born knowing. They are skills I’ve adopted from my professional and academic field, Technical Communication. For example, in the Fall, I’ll be the instructor for Communication for Business and Management for two sessions full of juniors and seniors in the Business School. The University makes taking a Professional Writing class a requirement, given the workplace’s dire need of professionals who can write effectively.
After years working in creative Technical Content Creation, User Experience, and Project Management for major organizations, I’ve learned how crucial being able to effectively utilize a feedback loop is to my success. When you work for people who don’t write or design, often, your clients only know what they don’t want, not what they actually want. With enough practice and frustrations, you become Hercule Poirot, a great detective, knowing exactly which questions to ask to pinpoint the feel or vibe they’re trying to convey before you start tracing and drafting.
When you work for people who don’t write or design, often, your clients only know what they don’t want, not what they actually want.
For that reason, I’m making feedback a cornerstone of the course; several of the assignments I’ve designed have built-in time set aside for peer review and feedback, which itself will count for a percentage of the grade. But instead of just throwing them in, telling them to review and revise each other’s work, I’m planning to teach them how to get the best out of a feedback loop, utilizing the principles of the software Eli Review and my version of the methods employed by one of my Usability Studies professors.
The Describe-Evaluate-Suggest Method
In the Fall, my professor jntroduced me to the Describe-Evaluate-Suggest (DES) method, which I now swear by. Bill Hart-Davidson presents it as the “virtuous cycle” he uses with his students, which frankly I believe one can apply to just about any circumstance requiring feedback, including and especially life.
One of the key things about giving and receiving feedback is the social and emotional aspect of it. This is why I began this blog discussing insecurities, and really recommend that you listen to the podcast episode I referenced earlier. Not only is feedback necessary, it’s intimately useful, especially for revision. Even if you’re self-publishing, do you really want the first eyes to read and pick apart your novel and other writings to be those readers that you’re trying to court for a lifetime? That’s a lot of pressure!
Using the Describe-Evaluate-Suggest heuristic is helping me build a fruitful relationship with my Writing Buddy as well as other writerly friends with whom I share resources and discuss writer-related trouble. A lot of times, as humans, we know that it’s not about what we say, it’s the how of it all. The DES method not only helps us improve on how to provide feedback to others, it also helps us cover all the bases for how we would want feedback provided to us. Therefore, if this is your first introduction to this framework, when you do go out to seek feedback from people, don’t hesitate to share it with them. As writers, people sometimes do want to give us feedback, they simply don’t know how to not offend us. Giving them a blueprint helps them help you.
Step 1: Describe
The first step of the heuristic is to describe what you’re reading. What do you think your Writing Buddy is conveying here? Before you start telling them what they could do better or whether what they did was good or bad, make sure that you establish a basis of understanding so you don’t go off based on some confusion. Not only does starting with this step give you cover, it also gives your Writing Buddy an inside look into what could go on in her reader’s mind as well as potential brainstorm elements.
I cannot tell you how many times my own Writing Buddy has said “I’m thinking here this is what you’re trying to say”. And here’s me thinking “No, it’s not, but while you mention that…” and running to jot down a few ideas. And if it is the idea I was trying to convey, then perfect, mission accomplished! Now we can move to the second step, the question of how well I executed it.
Step 2: Evaluate
Using the Describe step as a basis, you don’t start to evaluate just yet, meaning pointing out what was great and not so good. First, you establish a criteria for your evaluation. This way, you’re not judging their ability to write, you’re judging this piece of their writing on the basis of its humor, or in terms of structure or any other criteria. You name your criteria in your response,
“I see how when Joe said that, Mimi wanted to have a witty response (Describe), but in terms of the humor (Criteria), I think it’s a little too dark for the personality that you’ve described so far for Mimi’s character (Evaluation).
This way, you’re helping your Writing Buddy with more than, “that wasn’t funny” or “you’re not that funny”. You’re not only telling them what you see, giving them space to tell you whether or not your assumption is correct, you’re narrowing your comment to a specific area of concern, and you’re giving them a direction to go in. By saying “a little too dark”, you’re telling them, yes, keep being funny, but maybe go lighter. And this brings us to the third point.
Step 3: Suggest / Advise
As a Writing Buddy, you don’t want to be the guy who knows what you don’t want but has no idea what you want. The best part of feedback is a potential answer to “So, what do I do about it?” The beauty of this heuristic lies in focusing your attention to detail so that you do have a suggestion at the end.
In my example above, the next logical point from “this kind of humor is too dark for this character” is “go lighter on the humor”. This way you’re a gem to your Writing Buddy because not only are you helping them confirm and brainstorm what they want to convey, letting them know how well they accomplished that effort, you are also able to point them into the direction of what they could do to improve.
And as Hart-Davidson pointed out, you can provide suggestions even if your evaluation is positive. You get to tell your writing buddy, “yo, I loved this, keep doing it!” Honestly, those types of comments are very helpful. Sometimes as reviewers we feel we always have to find something constructive to say. But a “girl, you did that!” once in a while is infinitely impactful.
Additionally, I would add to be careful not to be too prescriptive in your suggestions. Meaning, at the end of the day, this is the person’s story. Understand that this is a suggestion, and present it as such. I particularly am a fan of providing multiple suggestions, letting my Writing Buddy pick one or a mix of all of them, this way I participate in a little brainstorming exercise with them, as well as with myself. I get a lot of good ideas this way that I can work on later.
When my professor introduced me to the DES method, I was so excited. He also made us practice it in class, which I intend to do for the courses I’ll teach. As I hope I demonstrated here, not only does seeking and providing insightful feedback help you become a better writer (or better human), it also helps you with self-revision and self-editing. You can use the DES method even in your reading, when you read as a writer, trying to learn from the GOAT that you want to emulate. When you reach a moment in a book that you like, you can take the time to:
- Describe what the author did in terms that are replicable like: “Author made me think it was going to be this character but instead it was this other character by leaving the hint in plain sight but directing my attention to this other thing.”
- Evaluate how well the author executed it, “in terms of satisfaction, am I really satisfied that the hint was there all along and now I can make the connection, or do I think it was just a cheap ploy and now I don’t trust Author?”
- Suggest potential ways that you would do it differently if you think the author did not do a good job, or ways you would want to utilize the same techniques by adding your own style.
Once you truly understand why you want to become a writer, you’ll understand that there are no shortcuts and the craft takes grit, persistence, and community. Professional Writing is always coordinated and collaborative. Becoming a writer, becoming anything that you feel you must become for fear of transforming into a living dead, requires that you begin and maintain a new relationship to yourself. Like any relationship, the strength comes in the nurturing, the courting, and the inexhaustible attempts to understand, heal, protect, and grow.
Thriftbooks Gift Card Giveaway!
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For the rules and to sign up, head over to my Instagram account @anraje.
Any reading or related plans this summer? Looking for a writing buddy? You should hit me up on Social Media, @anraje!