Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Ali Luke from Aliventures.
When you’re working on a project, you can have a big picture overview, or you can home right in on details. On Day One, you’re zoomed out: with a high-level idea – perhaps a fuzzy one – of what you want to accomplish.
As you dig deeper into your project, you zoom closer. A title becomes an outline. An outline becomes a set of notes. Your notes become a draft.
But after you’ve been in the thick of the details, you need to zoom back out again. You need to check that all the pieces are fitting together, that your structure is solid and sturdy, your parts all relevant and coherent.
A couple of weeks ago, I launched straight into the third draft of my novel, started rewriting scenes, adding a bit more conflict, fixing inconsistencies, snappifying the dialogue and so on.
It wasn’t going well. I was struggling to get going each day, pushing myself through the writing, and feeling discouraged.
I was at the wrong level of zoom. I was trying to pretty up the paintwork, when I need to rip out a few walls instead.
If you’re getting stuck on a current project – if you’re trying to work on it but you keep stalling, then you may need to take a big step back.
Here’s how to do that.
Get Some Distance
You can’t zoom out when you’ve got your nose pressed right up against your project.
Getting some distance means taking some time. Put aside everything you’ve done – the web copy you’ve written, the draft you’ve completed, the wireframe of the website, whatever it is – and just leave it. Let your project rest for as long as you can bear. A few weeks is great. A few days is enough, in a pinch.
Use or read or view your creation as your audience would. If you’ve written a book, read it through. If you’ve made a film, watch it from start to end.
You’ll find that some parts which seemed just fine in the heat of the forge now look a bit wonky. Maybe that chapter really doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. Perhaps the feature you thought was really cool isn’t right for this project.
Don’t despair. Anything and everything can be changed and fixed and remoulded. Don’t dive straight into to start ripping your project apart, either. Write down some notes and ideas. Brainstorm a little. And then…
Get Some Feedback
Your project isn’t perfect. By now, you might not even think it’s good. But it’s coherent. It’s ready enough to show to people (however scared that makes you feel).
Find yourself a willing volunteer – or three or four, if you can. Give them your book. Watch them use your website. Show them your film. Resist the urge to explain, to apologise, to correct them when they get it all wrong.
Ask for their honest opinion. Let them talk, and ask questions. Don’t interrupt. Take notes, write down what they say – even if you think they’re wrong.
I know it can be painful to listen to feedback. There are times when I’ve written something which I thought was pretty good, only to be told that it needed serious work. My favourite lines are the ones which readers don’t like. The character who I think is amusing and sympathetic comes across as irritating.
If you find it hard to take the feedback on board, let that sit for a few days, until it’s not so raw. Go back to the notes you made. Figure out what’s working – what you could do more of – and what isn’t.
Trust Your Judgement
When I’m working on a project, I want to keep moving it towards finished. I don’t want to have to scrap work and start over with whole sections of it. I don’t like having to re-examine my ideas and restructure my plans.
It feels more productive to keep ploughing forwards: to write more words (or take more photos, paint more pictures, code more features). But all of this is ultimately incredibly un-productive if the project as a whole has fundamental problems.
Trust your own judgement. If you get that nagging sense that something’s wrong, don’t stay zoomed in trying to tidy up the details. Pull your focus back out. Give yourself the time and the space you need – and at a wide zoom, this can be a lot. This isn’t something to rush, because an extra hour spent at this level can save you from wasting hours of detailed work further down the line.
However tempting it is to press onwards, spend some time zoomed out.
Ask questions like:
- Have I started this in the right place?
- Are there sections which were meaningful to me, but not to my audience?
- Which parts of this are “notes to self” which helped in the production, but which need to come out now?
- Where does this become saggy or incoherent?
- What doesn’t belong here? (It may well be possible to salvage it for another project.)
Above all, don’t feel heartbroken if you find that there’s still high-level work to be done. It’s a good sign. When you can see the flaws in your own work – including the big cracks and the wonky walls – then you’re growing as an artist.
Take a deep breath. Pull right back for an overview. Decide whether what you’ve ended up with is coherent and whole. Figure out what needs to be done.
It is hard. There is a price to pay, in time and energy. There’ll be good work which has to be cut out.
The reward, though, is a project that you’re genuinely proud of. The reward is a shining example of your greatest work…
… so far.
Because, above all, the reward is what you’ve learnt in the process, the step up that you’ve taken, the growth that you’ll one day be able to see from the perspective of the future.
Thursday Bram says
Getting feedback ”” without trying to explain my projects ”” is something I’ve especially struggled with for years. It’s important, I know, but it’s tough. I just work on reminding myself over and over again that when I finish everything, I’m not going to be standing next to each of my projects to explain just what I meant. Everything has to be able to stand on its own.
Ali Hale says
We have a rule in our creative writing workshops that the author stays silent while we’re discussing their work. People find this *really* hard!
But it’s useful, too, because readers come up with new angles and ideas that might otherwise get stifled by the author saying, “No no, you’ve misunderstood…”
I loved this post, Ali, and I wanted to pipe about the feedback bit especially since Jonathan and I are in that awkward period between sharing and feedback with the Dojo.
The beauty of writing in internet spaces is that it’s almost impossible to interrupt the feedback. By the time you get it, you get the full thing.
Of course, the challenge is the time you have to wait. When someone’s reading your stuff in front of you, you can see what’s registering. I much prefer live teaching because of that – the people you’re talking to will nod, smile, frown, or have a Eureka right in front of you in and you can register that.
The insight in your post that I wanted to highlight is that feedback almost always makes your creative thing better. The “almost” bit is when you’re creating something for yourself, because then that “irritating” character that you love is serving his purpose – he’s entertaining you.
Ali Hale says
Thanks, Charlie. And interesting points there on feedback. I’ve got some part-way feedback from one of my novel readers, and it was interesting that he’d picked up on where things were going between two of the characters already. (I think I hammer things down readers throats at times, so I now know I can be a bit more subtle!)
With the novel, I’m creating because I love to — but also because I have stuff to say and a story to tell. The feedback is invariably useful, even when it’s hard to process. I’ve been struggling through a stuck point, but now I’m rolling again, I can see that the feedback has helped make the structure and the writing stronger.
Cath Duncan says
Thanks for the reminder, Ali! As an artist, I always knew that sometimes it was best to leave the painting and go and do something totally different to freshen my perspective when I got stuck. And then when I return to it, I see something different and often know where to go next.
Its like when you’ve been smelling lots of different perfumes, they all start to smell the same. And then you need to sniff coffee beans to clear your head and be able to appreciate the fine differences in smell again. I think of a few of my friends as my “coffee beans.” By sharing with them I get to sniff something different and clear my head – their feedback always helps massively, even if it is quite scary to share partly finished work.
Jennifer Louden says
there is a true art to revising, reworking, and it does require a tremendous amount of listening, of care, of self-trust. Not always easy to come by, especially when you have the desire to GET IT DONE. Good luck writing the novel Charlie and happy to be one of your volunteers!
Jennifer Louden says
Wait, it’s not Charlie’s novel, it’s Ali’s. Doh. I wondered – charlie writes fiction too?
Not yet, Jen. It’s on the board, though. ;p
Archan Mehta says
If you’ll excuse me for just a moment, I want to take this opportunity to thank Charlie for inviting excellent guest posters to contribute to this blog.
I know this was not the case during the early stages, but taking this calculated risk has yielded rich dividends.
As a reader, I sure enjoy reading guest posts from a variety of intelligent and talented people. The experiment is a success and kindly keep up the great work.
Having said that, you are right on mark, as usual. Your ideas are thought-provoking.
Receiving feedback on your work is great, provided you are able to get your ego out of the way.
Artists are sensitive people and sometimes take the criticism personally.
To receive feedback from your critics “objectively” is easier said than done.
And this is especially the case when you are in mixed company with people who are good at their craft but perfect strangers.
This happens time and again at numerous writing workshops and seminars as well. It can also lead to interpersonal conflicts.
Artists can be an eccentric lot, and don’t always appreciate the feedback, however well-intentioned. In quite a few cases–as I am sure you are aware–things can turn sour.
Throughout history, many of our most creative people have been involved in slanging matches, personality clashes,
finger pointing and playing the blame game. Yes, it can turn ugly too.
So, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? Now, that demands an even temper and a mature outlook. In that sense, me thinks, some of our most creative minds have been surprisingly childish.
On the other hand, you would find it very difficult to improve and make progress without constructive criticism.
Every critic can provide an opportunity for you to improve your craft. So, it is a delicate balancing act and you are the trapeze artist. Pray, don’t fall. Cheers!
Ali Hale says
Very good points here, which (thankfully) don’t echo *most* of my experience of feedback!
With creative projects, I think you need people who know you and like you well enough that you’re comfortable together … but who aren’t your spouse/dad/sister/best friend.
Yes, artists can be a bit eccentric. (I personally suspect that some people use that as an excuse for bad behaviour, though.)
In terms of separating the wheat from the chaff, I look for:
– Points where the feedback agrees (e.g. everyone thinks I should cut a particular sentence)
– Points where the feedback disagrees but centres on the same issue (e.g. one person thinks I should make more of the relationship between two characters; another person thinks the relationship should be ditched … there’s clearly an issue with that relationship)
I gently filter out anything which seems to come from a person’s own particular concerns. I nod, smile, write it down, but I don’t generally use it.
As someone who is often asked to provide feedback I would like to add one thing to Ali’s excellent post.
Ask for the specific level of feedback you want. State what stage the project is at, and what you are hoping to achieve from the feedback. Ali’s concept of levels of zoom may help with this: “I’m looking for high-level feedback”, “I want you to go over it with a fine-tooth comb”.
You will get more value from the feedback and be less resistant to the advice if it’s the fits the area you are trying to address.
1. A friend recently sent me the very first draft – just out of outline stage of her novel. There were typos, voice changes and looooong paragraphs all over the place, which as an editor I itched to attack with a red pen. BUT, this was her first draft, and I was one of a priveleged 2 people who’d been asked to look at it, so my feedback was pitched at a much higher level – related to which bits worked as plot hooks, how I’d reacted to the main characters, a section that seemed to be in the wrong spot for the chapter and recommendation to change the focus of a key scene. The other person provided corrections to the typos. I was told my feedback was helpful and needed, typos correcting wasn’t – yet, that would be for a much later draft.
2. My boyfriend is just starting out on his art career, a precious dream he’s had for most of his life. He’s good, but he sees that he has room to improve his art, to deepen it. As Archan pointed out, artists can be a sensitive bunch. He tells me that my feedback helps him, as it focusses on what is working in the image and I speak in terms of what I like. He doesn’t (yet) want deep criticism of his work. In providing feedback at the level he currently needs he’s (for possibly the first time) not resisting it and not hiding from it, but gaining depth and confidence from talking about his work.
As people who are asked to give feedback we have a precious task – to support the creation and the creator; to be honest, but fair; and to understand what will help at this stage of a project and what is extraneous detail. If there’s other aspects you think need addressing, then mention VERY breoadly what you noticed and graciously offer to help with the next round of feedback “when you’re ready for it.”
Ali Hale says
Hey Karinne, nice to see you over here! 🙂
(Hey Charlie, me and Karinne sing your praises at the London Third Tribe meetups. We were raving about the Productivity Heatmap last time.)
Thanks for adding that, because it’s a crucial point and one I didn’t even think to include here.
I’m totally with you on (1). I’m constantly telling people “This is a very rough first draft, I’m happy to scrap the whole scene, don’t worry about typos and clunky sentences for now.”
The thing is, it’s actually easier to give feedback on the typo-level than the this-character-isn’t-working level. I’m really impressed with what you managed to do and, if your friend’s drafting process is anything like mine, it’ll have been incredibly helpful to her.
Interesting point in (2), and one I’d not really thought about, so thanks for bring that up. I tend to advise people *not* to rely on loved ones for feedback (see my comment higher up), but in your case it sounds exactly right. Sometimes criticism is going to be incredibly damaging and discouraging, and what you need is a cheerleader, someone focusing on the positives.
(Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is great for that.)
I’m just starting to learn the guitar, and I’m rubbish and I know it! My fiancÃ© can tell me that I’m getting better (which I am, slowly!) and encourage me to persevere, and that’s all the feedback I want at this stage.
Best of luck to you, and to your boyfriend. Hope to hear how it’s going at the next meetup. 🙂
“I tend to advise people *not* to rely on loved ones for feedback”
Absolutely! It’s why I am very careful what I say and listen for what he’s after. I don’t expect to ever be a critical reviewer for his work, and wouldn’t want to be. At the moment he needs a cheerleader (or 7), later he’ll need polishing and pushing.
“Hope to hear how it’s going at the next meetup.”
Should have a website to promote by then, I’ve got a few more things to install and then we’re ready.
(Charlie: we totally discussed you at the thirdtribe London meetup, I love your heatmap idea, and sent your weirdo syndrome article to aforementioned bf when he was wrestling with his path in life. It really resonated with him, and helped him to embrace who he is, rather than slogging in a horrible corporate job. Thanks!)