Monday, June 11, 2007

Should You Believe An Editor's Feedback?

Well, yes and no.

First, let's differentiate between feedback offered as part of a rewrite request, and feedback offered in a rejection. Whatever else it does or doesn't do, the feedback in a rewrite request will help a writer publish their story in that publication. For that reason, if it doesn't violate the author's sense of the story, it's probably worth taking. What I'm thinking about in this post is feedback given in a rejection, offered simply to be helpful, without any invitation to resubmit the revised piece.

Now, back to that yes and no. First, what do editors do well? Editors have a strong sense of what's a good match for their publication. If an editor specifically says it isn't a fit for the publication, believe it.

Editors can usually detect quickly and accurately when a story flat-out doesn't work. (Yes, occasionally one hears of a future Pulitzer Prize winner that was rejected by 80 publishing houses. But those are rare exceptions.)

If an editor gives specific feedback about problems in your story, there is a good chance your story does have some problems, and there is a fair chance that the editor conveyed at least part of what needs to be looked at in his feedback. (The more fundamental the problems, the higher the odds of this.)

So, what don't editors do so well? I suspect when editors give feedback, the percentage of time we miss on the specifics of the story's problems is higher than we like to think. More seriously, however, the writer needs to take into account that rejection-note feedback is a simplification of what's going wrong with a story and the possible options available to the writer, and may suffer from any or all of the following shortcomings: (1) the incompleteness of generic feedback, (2) the editor's biases about how good fiction works, and (3) the tendency to overvalue plot and undervalue language in most rejection-note feedback.

Editors are in a hurry, going through many pieces, so there's a tendency to fall back on more generic feedback. And generic advice is, in important ways, going to be incomplete. Also, generic advice tends to imply certain rules. But one can't help notice, reading Chekhov say, that his stories don't always work according to current generic workshop rules. More than rules, the writer needs to think about his/her desired effect and the actual effect of his/her choices.

Also, some editors have specific beliefs about how a story works, and that means those editors' feedback will sometimes say more about their beliefs than about the internal logic of the story they're looking at. One magazine I've submitted to has strict beliefs about not withholding information that the POV character knows from the readers. Now, in general, I agree--I think "surprise" endings created by withholding key information is a cheat. However, I've had them complain that waiting to paragraph five to tell something, instead of stating it in the first paragraph, was an attempt to build false suspense. While I agree withholding info for the big reveal at the end is usually a cheap trick to try to generate false suspense, I don't mind a little storytelling license, where you hook people with a bit of mystery, and slowly let them in on the secret. In terms of my own editorial feedback, I know I went through a period when I regularly pointed out violations of the third person limited perspective to submitters. Now, in most of those cases, I still think those shifts out of third person limited made those particular stories weaker. However, these days, I would rephrase much of that advice, as I'm no longer as committed to the current norm for strict use of third person limited. I'd rather have the author think about the trade-offs involved with stepping outside that third person limited POV, instead of seeing it as breaking a rule.

Finally, editors tend to bias feedback towards plot problems--which an editor can sometimes help identify quickly--and not talk about problems with the prose, which isn't so easy to offer quick feedback on. As I'll talk about in a future post, language plays a bigger role than plot in selling short stories. (Some types of novels, and certainly movie scripts, can operate by different marketing rules.)

Publications that always offer feedback will tend to miss more often than ones who only offer the occasional piece of advice. I know from my own experience, when we used to have a policy of providing feedback on every submission, I fell back much more on generic suggestions. Not that the advice was wrong, but as mentioned, generic advice is incomplete. Generic advice carries unstated assumptions about the kind of story the writer should be working towards.

In Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer she talks about how she came to question much of the advice she had given over the years when teaching writing workshops. It's a good book to read if one is submitting, as it gives perspective both on the process of offering feedback, and on the breadth of possibility in good fiction.



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