Is feedback on writing similar to comments made by judges on the show “Chopped?” I’d say they’re strikingly similar, and writers can learn a lot about themselves by watching contestants react to criticism.
I thrive off feedback, good, bad, indifferent – I want to know what a reader thinks. Every decision I make when writing a story has an intended effect on the reader’s experience. Structure, syntax, dialogue patterns, the list goes on, and all of these elements are calculated choices. The fastest way to learning if I succeeded is to hear directly from a reader as to what their reaction was to the story, and then decide to whether I’m going to make adjustments in revision or not.
So when it comes to fiction, reader feedback is something I value quite highly with the best readers going over my work like they’re a stranger and telling me where they found themselves drifting or confused. In other words, where would they have put the book down. Why? Because if you waste the time of a random stranger who picks up your work, they’ll toss it aside and move on to someone else’s. The best chance you’ve got to capture and keep an audience is to figure out any flaws or missteps before they read it. Good readers provide you with a kind of pre-audience that’s kind enough to provide comments before you send the work out.
Look, we’re all very busy. And with free time in such short supply, I’ve come to treasure those who make the time to read my drafts, then follow up with feedback that’s both honest and specific about what’s working for them, what isn’t, and why.
In short, my best readers give me positive, negative, and ‘neutral’ positions in plain language without preamble. These relationships have taken years to cultivate, and the reason I receive feedback of this quality is because my readers know that I won’t mistake criticism of my writing as criticism of me.
If you think getting an informed, honest opinion is easy – you’re wrong. Many readers use silence as disapproval or simply smile and say everything was grand. But I can understand why some folks are reluctant to be honest – much less frank – given how writers can be complete babies about receiving feedback.
When I was attending workshops, I resented immature writers and their shitty, toxic attitudes because they undermined my chances of getting the straight dope. Those days are long gone, but the petulance of those who aim to be writers still irks me, and I wonder this: if people felt free to ‘think out loud’ about criticism, and then asked to reflect on their reactions, could you then have a constructive conversation on the topic?
I think so, and I’ve thought of a device for getting writers to speak their minds, and then discuss a common default mode to be defensive when critiqued. – The device is the TV show, “Chopped.”
This exercise would work well in a fiction-writing workshop. It’s easy enough to pull up an episode of “Chopped” on the Food Network website, and watch it during class. Because listening to viewer’s discussing their perception of the judges is an object lesson in how we, as a culture, come by our defensiveness and provide a way for professionals to consider their own reactions.
A nutshell explanation for anyone unfamiliar with the show: “Chopped” is a reality TV show featuring four chefs competing for a ten-thousand dollar prize. There are three rounds, appetizer, entrée, and dessert. Each competitor has to create each course by combining three to four key ingredients, none of which may be excluded from the dish. Now, here’s the catch, the contestants have no idea what the ingredients will be until they open their ‘mystery baskets.’ After twenty or thirty minutes, the buzzer sounds, and contestants must immediately step away from their stations.
Upon completion of the round, each chef presents their dish to a panel of three well-known chefs or restaurateur judges. After hearing the judge’s comments and answering questions, the contestants wait out of earshot as the judges deliberate. The contestants then return to hear which dish has been ‘chopped.’
The feedback given by judges often comes in the standard ‘sandwich’ format. And while the judges are preforming to add to the manufactured drama, their reasons for liking or disliking a dish are concrete and – if listened to – will help contestants reach the next round. Among other things, judges look at presentation, complexity of flavor, and the successful incorporation/synthesis of all ingredients into the prepared dish.
The opinions of a judge are just as subjective as anyone else. What a judge possesses is the ability to articulate opinions that are well-informed from training and experience.
The show is done with all the usual drama of reality TV, with overly-dramatic music and close-in camera shots of contestant’s faces as they listen to the judges critique their efforts. The positive comments either acknowledged with a nod or, ‘thank you’ while – as you might imagine – negative comments or recommendations are met with a wide variety of reactions.
Chefs often look hurt, shocked angered, or confused. There’s eye rolling, smirks, and often a forced grin which threatens to become bared teeth. –And, of course, the viewer sees approximately ten close-ups out of what’s likely to be hundreds the produces have to choose from when editing.
I would just add that the more professional chefs who compete are composed, polite, and therefore get less camera time until the final rounds. – They tend to win the contest more often as well.
Yes, I am aware this is Reality TV and I understand ‘the game’ of it. I have a larger point to make here.
Essentially, when the judges comment, you’re hearing what a diner might say if you could eavesdrop on their table. Only most diners wouldn’t be nearly as specific nor be able to articulate why/how something was ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Also, paying diners can and will say personal things if they are angry. (Just like a paying audience would say things about you or your book.)
So returning to my hypothetical classroom:
I’m a fan of “Chopped.” It’s kind of like the minor league version of “Iron Chef” with most the contestants going down in flames within one or two rounds. So I wouldn’t be feigning interest when picking the likely winner in the beginning, and then figuring out who will blow the round within the first few minutes. Of course, the producers tend to select one person they know the audience will despise, and someone else with a hardship story. And they throw in all kinds of curve balls to chefs who are usually quite specialized. (Ever notice that during the dessert round, there’s ALWAYS at least one contestant reaching for the mascarpone cheese? It’s like the duct tape of dessert making or something.) For me, half the fun of watching the show is watching it with people who are tuned into the narrative moves the producers make in casting and editing, then riff off them.
Once the dishes have been presented for judgement, the real sniping begins. I’d encourage students to criticize the ‘meanness’ of the judges by being outspoken and preforming just a bit myself. I’d get them to ‘buy into’ the narrative they were just so carefully deconstructing. It’s likely to work because many of us fall into the trap of not seeing other people’s reactions as a mirror of our own.
Shit I’ve heard people say while watching ‘Chopped”: ‘ You can just tell she hates female contestants’ – ‘That guy is always critical of spicing. He probably finds curry bland.’ – ‘Can you believe she didn’t have one single positive thing to say?’—‘I wonder how well he’d do if given spam and octopus to work with?’
Discussing these reactions and comments with writers directly after watching the shows would be effective as everyone’s gripes, mine included, would be ‘top of mind.’
Now, of course, some of observations may be true, and being human, I can’t say something similar hasn’t crossed my mind or come out of my mouth. That said, I think those of us who write are best served by working to stay open and receive feedback with the best face possible. If you’ve offered your work up to be scrutinized, then listen – I mean really listen – to what a reader has to say, and then process their perceptions like a professional. In other words, suck it up, take notes, be polite, then figure out if the reader’s opinion is worth acting on later.
If you genuinely wish to hear feedback to improve your work, the most valuable comments you can hope for are both honest and well-informed. Such comments should be acknowledged with grace or the best professional mask one can muster. Why? Because a listener’s negative reaction can shut the person talking down in a heartbeat. –And this warrants repeating: unless, someone makes a personal attack, they are not criticizing you as an artist but whatever they’ve been kind enough to read.
I regularly encourage those who read for me to scrutinize each piece like a complete stranger. Because a stranger will not cut me slack. They opened the book, there’s my story, and judgement begins on the first sentence they happen to read. If I fail with nine out of ten readers, then I’m wasting my time. But if I manage to delight, interest, and entertain them – chances are they’ll recommend my work to a friend.
Then and only then, will I have one less stranger and one more reader.