Monday, May 07, 2007

The Feedback Hierarchy

For every story out there, there's bound to be somebody who conceives an opinion of it. This is the essence of critique: Sooner or later, regardless of circumstance or motivation, any author is likely to run into these conceived opinions centering around his or her work.

From there, it's up to the author as to whether or not these opinions should be taken seriously. Sometimes these external thoughts can be discarded and ultimately forgotten. Other times, however, the author will take them as significant pieces of advice, and will bear them in mind with regards to improving future stories. This, now, is the essence of feedback.

Feedback is a very open matter for most writers; The vast majority, after all, actively seek to hone their craft, correct their errors, and generally write much better stuff than the pieces they've produced in the past. Much of the question lies in exactly where they receive feedback from, and how they determine what they can use and what they can discard.

I figure that there's a hierarchy of sorts that's in place here, and it goes as follows:


Yes, that's not much of a chart. Darn it, Jim, I'm a writer, not a literary analyst.

Now, imagine that each of the four rungs on the feedback hierarchy above offers you a review of your stunning new work. In a sense, you get four reviews: One from your close friend, one from one of your readers, one from your editor/publisher, and one from an experienced literary critic. Which one do you take the most seriously?

The way I think the feedback hierarchy above works is that, the higher you go up the totem pole, the more seriously you're obligated to internalize reviews. Most writers will consider the opinions of a critic to be far more "legitimate" than the opinions of, say, an anonymous reader. That sounds reasonably logical, I suppose: Literary critics are assumed to have made thorough studies of the craft, to the point where they can provide far more qualified opinions than your publishing editor. Or an anonymous reader, mind you, who may be uninformed and ignorant of most literary requirements. Or of a good friend, who's likely to say something positive no matter how bad your story is.

But then again, not all writers listen to the hierarchy above. More than a few people, for example, follow the one below:


Yes, that's still not much of a chart. Were you expecting a 3D representation, or something?

Writers of this type obviously hold the opinions of readers in much higher regard, perhaps to the point where they may eclipse the weight of critics' reviews. The logic here is also relatively sound: Critics only represent a small segment of the literary audience, and thus do not necessarily represent the reactions of all readers. Moreover, critics may simply be out of touch with the reading habits of a more general population... which might explain why some books become commercial successes despite being critical failures.

But then again, I believe that there are even some writers who believe in the setup below:

Critics - Editors - Readers - Friends

Yes, that's still not much of an improvement. Maybe some good Samaritan out there will gift me with some nice graphics one day.

You're reading that chart right, by the way. Some writers won't care a single whit about who the people are, only that they're giving a clear and concise opinion on their work. These writers take everything with more or less exactly the same weight.

And that's where the hierarchy falls apart, I think. We can keep making any number of direct strikes against it: The fact that people can shuffle the rungs as they want, the fact that they can lay the pieces out in different combinations, the fact that they may even add or remove certain rungs at will... all that this little exercise just shows is that writers can get their feedback from any number of sources, and may either internalize it or otherwise in any number of measures.

What this also means is that we don't know where an author will concentrate his or her attentions. Yes, we're aware that most people will want to improve their own writing skills, but different people will have different ways of doing so. Some will only listen to what the critics say. Some will just as easily listen to the man-on-the-street who's had a passing glance at the work in question. And some, of course, might not even listen to anyone at all.

Surprisingly, this doesn't affect the process of critique much. People will still form opinions about certain works, whether the authors of those works are willing to listen to them or not. But what this implies -- and what leads us to our conclusion here -- is that there's a wealth of opinion out there just waiting to be used. All that we writers have to do is learn how to take advantage of it.

That, mind you, is why writers write for an audience. We give a little bit of ourselves to the others, we get a little bit of the others back, and we use that to improve ourselves for next time. It's a strange symbiotic relationship we have.

And no, I'm not going to try to represent that by means of a chart. We've had enough charts today.

Maybe next time I'll be able to get my hands on a nice graphics editor somewhere...


Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

"Darn it, Jim, I'm a writer, not a literary analyst."

-I haven't heard anyone use this McCoy catchphrase in ages. Heck, I don't think I know anyone aside from my sibs who even knows who McCoy is. :)

Do you think "fellow writers" should have a rung to themselves, or can they be lumped together with "critics"? Fellow writers tend to be more discerning than plain readers (since they know the craft), yet more forgiving than editors and critics (since they know how much more difficult the craft is than it appears to be). Hence, their feedback is often more constructive.

Sean said...

Ailee: I just happen to like pop culture references, that's all. I hardly even saw any episodes of Star Trek, come to think of it. :)

I was already half-asleep when I wrote this post, so I think I unconsciously left the Writers out. I'll go out on a limb, though, and say that they should be evenly distributable between "Critics" and "Readers", depending on how people view their level of skill. If I had given them their own rung in the first place (and I probably should), I honestly wouldn't have known where to place them. :)