I don’t know what I was expecting when I opened that email. I had worked so hard and for so long, I just wanted a chance to prove myself and show that I am a good writer. I have no doubt this is what all wannabes want, and I wanted it bad. It took me months to write that piece, I threw myself into it completely, my heart was fully in it and I thought I had done my very best work.
But I was wrong. And as I opened that heartbreaking email I felt all those months of work and research dissolve into a few gut-wrenching words: “disappointing”, “disjointed”, “gruelling” and worse of all “waste of talent”.
I felt silly and conceited just for thinking that piece of writing was good, that it had been my best work. It was my fault, of course, I had obviously gone about it the wrong way, somehow. But the more I read that feedback, from an editor and publication I will keep anonymous, I realised there was nothing there about how to improve my writing.
It was just, plainly, a paragraph of how bad my piece was. But what was so bad about it? What could I have done better? Why was it disappointing? Where was it disjointed? What bits had been a waste of my talent (I suppose the only good thing was that at least the editor admitted I am talented)? There were no answers, just spirit-breaking words that dug deep into my thoughts for days.
It did make me think two things, however. One: my piece could not have been that bad if the editor could not point anything specific out to me. Maybe the case was that simply, he did not enjoy reading it or expected something else from it. How could I make that piece more enjoyable? What structures could I change? And so, I decided to look for flaws and change the story myself, ignoring all the useless, spirit-breaking criticism and focusing on making the story better.
Two: how is feedback actually written up? Are editors afraid of saying harsh things that will break someone’s spirits? Should they be? If not, why not? Aren’t we the generation that will (hopefully) succeed them? So I asked around and here are the results:
Laura Davis, Independent Voices Deputy Editor (former Blogs Editor)
Laura says she asks the following questions to the writer when giving them feedback: “Is the article making a new argument/point? And is it making the point in a clear and engaging way?”
As an Independent Blogs writer myself, I have gotten some feedback from Laura with exactly those points. What is new about your piece and how are you making that obvious? This is not an unfair thing to ask of a writer, as journalism is about new things.
Then, I asked her my pressing question: was she ever afraid of breaking a writer’s spirit with her criticisms?
“Yes! I’ll always try and work on the piece as opposed to refusing to take it as they’ve spent time writing it, usually writers are open to suggestions for changes. Any criticism should always be constructive to improve the piece, and how it will be received by readers.”
Although she says giving writers compliments depends on whether they’ve asked for feedback, Laura seems to like encouraging her writers as well as giving them constructive criticisms, which I am sure is paramount to cultivating a good team of reporters.
“I’ll always comment when the piece is good – otherwise we wouldn’t take it! I also try to let writers know if their piece has done particularly well on views as this is naturally a boost, and they can use the info on future applications if they want to.”
Sam Walby, NOW THEN Editor
Sam always focuses on the positive points of the piece before telling writers what is wrong with it.
“First off, I tell them what I think is positive about their piece – what is the main ‘pull’, parts that are well written. Then I give some suggestions about changes they could make to content or style to improve the piece, or highlight bits that I think are problematic. In the case of music reviews, for example, I am forever telling writers to write more descriptively about the music itself, rather than talking about how a band looks, their album history etc.”
Even if the piece is not good, he tries to stay positive as he was once a writer and recognises how difficult it could be.
“I try to be as constructive as possible, but obviously if I think a piece isn’t close to being publishable, I try to be realistic with people i.e. I ask them to make changes if I think the piece is workable, but tell them their submission hasn’t been successful if not. Of course I worry about upsetting people or putting them off writing.
“Especially since we are a citizen journalism publication, it is really important to help out potential future writers – I was one myself once! That’s why it’s important to be constructive and realistic at the same time.”
“I think a large part of writing is accepting that your articles/reviews will be subject to changes. There is no point in sheltering writers from this. As it stands, I usually only give in-depth feedback when a writer asks for it.”
David Nash, Xinfu.com
David is responsible for bringing in content for the launch of the Xinfu website. He has to deal with a large amount of freelancers every day, giving them feedback on how to improve their piece. But mostly he seems to prefer to make the changes himself. Is no feedback any better than vague feedback?
“Broadly I find it very difficult when poor stuff comes in, particularly when writer has obviously tried hard, and usually end up rewriting it, which my friend pointed out the other day is probably the worst way to do it as the writer doesn’t learn from it.
“He drew the parallel to marking at university, and how things are circled with the word ‘no structure!’ written next to them. Personally I’m not sure if I just circled low quality bits they would come back much better… Also think one issue I’m having is in the beginning profiles were good and I was complimentary. I’m wondering if those compliments have driven some writers to be a little complacent and as a result quality of profiles is now suffering.”
How have you found receiving feedback from publications? Have you had situations where feedback has been particularly helpful? Let us know via the comments, or tweet us @wannabehacks.
Image on the homepage by TheCreativePenn
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look