Learn who to ask for help, what to ask for, and how to use the feedback

Sage CohenProductive writingLeave a Comment

An interesting series of questions at my Wordstock workshop on Sunday got me thinking about how asking for help—and making that help useful—is an art unto itself in the writing life. I’d like to offer some guidelines that I hope will invite the best possible support for your work and your process.

Pay attention to the feedback and support that are most useful

Let’s say you’re in a writing group, and you’re getting conflicting feedback from various members of the group. Your job is to start recognizing whose suggestions work best for you. Of all the contrasting feedback, what feels right? Who in the group seems to understand what you’re trying to accomplish? When you experiment with adapting feedback in your work, what is most useful? When you log these insights over time, you start to understand who your true brain trust is, so you can really focus on how their insights help you grow.

Be specific when you ask for help or feedback

Maybe your mom tells you everything you write is great and your wife points out only the flaws. Or, everyone in your writing group is being too “nice” and you’d like them to be more “critical.” Or vice-versa. If what’s happening today isn’t working for you, experiment with telling your readers / editors / collaborators exactly what you want from them. “Mom, I’d like you to point out three examples of scenes that could be better developed,” or “Writing group, it would be great if we could start by focusing on what is most successful in this piece of writing.” If you find that the people or groups you turn to for feedback are not able to provide the kind of support you’d prefer, you can always keep exploring other readers or groups until you find the right fit.

Don’t rush to show your work; wait until you feel ready

One of the most common mistakes I see writers make is sharing their work and inviting critical commentary before they are truly ready. Feedback can be most painful and confusing when we’ve not yet grounded ourselves in our own writing practice and our own sense of ourselves as writers. I wrote poems for a decade before sharing my writing. Even then, it was difficult to engage in dialogue about them. It took probably another decade of engaging in critique of my work that I started to really get a feel for how to best use that feedback. There’s no hurry to get your work in front of people. If you try it and it doesn’t feel like it’s serving your work, take some time before you try it again.

If it sounds wrong or feels wrong, or simply doesn’t work for you, it probably is wrong

No matter who the “expert” is, or how smart their suggestions may seem, if they don’t work for you, move on. It’s easy to get tangled up in advice that isn’t suited for who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. If at first you don’t succeed, simply move on and try another way.

It’s ok not to know

Maybe you don’t know what you want or need from your writing community or teachers. No problem. That’s the place where we all start. Just pay attention to what moves you forward and what holds you back as you go. When someone challenges an image you’ve crafted, does it compel you to write it better, or does it make you want to hide under your desk for a week? There is no right or wrong way in the writing life—there is only your way. And your job as a writer is to find out what that is and cultivate it to the best of your ability. You’re likely to go through different phases where your needs change. If you’re listening for what works, not-knowing can lead you to your most fertile insights and truths.

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P.S. The Oregonian News Network just featured an interview with me that discusses blogging, Wordstock, an audience of one, and why I think Portland is the best writing community on earth!

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