Sunday, September 27, 2009

Editorial Feedback

So one of the non-MFA writers that MFA/MFYou has published mentioned that he doesn’t feel he’s missed out on anything by not getting a formal creative writing education – he gets essentially the same (or one could argue more valuable) feedback that you get in workshop from editors when he submits his work. This is very true. Although not all editors give feedback on rejected submissions, it’s not uncommon for editors to give personal feedback on the submissions that came really close to getting accepted or even that they liked enough to bother spending the extra few minutes writing a real rejection and not just sending out the form response.

This past week I got a rejection that caused me to go back and revise a story – and the story, I feel, has greatly improved as a result. What happened was that the editor gave me a reason for the rejection that happened to be the exact same reason that another editor had given me a few months ago. The problem that these editors pointed to had to do with the amount of exposition that fell at the beginning of the story. The first time an editor told me this, I recognized that this was true of the story but I felt that it was alright – that it was still well written and engaging and I shouldn’t feel the need to change it just because the current standard is that we don’t like it when stories have a lot of exposition.

But when the second editor cited the exposition as the reason for rejection, I decided I would be wise to go back and revisit the story with that concern in mind. I opened up a new document and wrote a new beginning, working to address the problem these editors had with the story, but I kept the thought in the back of my mind that if I didn’t like the end result, I would chuck the revision and keep the story as it was. But I did like the end result and I think that the story is immensely stronger now.

This is similar to the experience MFAers sometimes have in workshop. You might cringe at some of the workshop feedback, but when several people agree that something is a problem you’ve got to be kind of arrogant to not seriously consider their concerns. The difference here is that I think in some ways the feedback you receive from editors should carry more weight. If more than one editor – having no knowledge of what other editors have said – agree that something isn’t working in your piece, you’d be wise to really think hard about whether they might be right.

I had another editorial feedback episode yesterday, this time for a story that has been accepted for publication (from a market that is both paying and international – woo-hoo!). The editor sent me some feedback and would like me to revise the story and get it back to her in a week. Much of her feedback was similar to the margin notes you receive in workshop. Not the major stuff that gets discussed out loud in class – no, if there had been major problems I doubt that the story would have been accepted at all. This is the sentence level stuff that gets marked on the individual copies of a piece: this sentence is a bit awkward, this bit of dialogue seems out of character, this is perhaps a bit of a cliché. That sort of thing. And it’s all (with the exception of one sentence that I plan to talk to the editor about – see if I can convince her why this is okay) stuff that I agree wholeheartedly about.

I feel like my workshop experiences were at least partially preparing me for the feedback I would later receive from editors, but I also think that you could skip the workshop environment altogether and, as long as you’re a mature enough writer (and human being) to be able to listen open-mindedly to criticism, you’ll be able to improve using the editorial feedback that will inevitably come your way. You may not always like it, and you certainly won’t always agree with it, but you should be happy to get it whenever you can. None of us can do this entirely on our own.


Justus said...

I think there's still a big advantage to workshops as far as feedback goes, and that's in quantity. If a writer workshops a story, she can get a dozen people's perspectives at once, and many will include detailed margin notes. While most of the critique will be useless, some will click and inspire revision. Outside of official classes, a writer can of course submit a piece to a dozen separate magazines, and maybe one reader out of those dozen will jot down a single note. It's possible to get critique from editors (or more likely lower level readers), but the amount will be far less than from a single workshop. Plus, in order to actually receive feedback instead of form rejections, a writer needs to already be at a fairly high ability level, to have already honed her skills. A workshop isn't the only way to do that, but it's a good way to guarantee at least some feedback when a writer is still developing.

Ashley Cowger said...

That's definitely true. I think until you get to a certain level you pretty much just get form rejections, and even if your work is at that level you might still get form rejections a good deal of the time. There are some journals that make it a rule to always give feedback, but even then it's not always extremely detailed. But workshop is definitely a great way to get a lot of feedback from a wide variety of readers.