Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Managing Feedback that Hurts

(Or, Extra-Snarky Review? Bygones.)

In 1997, I had a favorite show, Ally McBeal. It was one of those lawyer/trial shows meets Sex in the City meets an adult version of Glee. Both ridiculous and serious. Loved. It. Unisex bathroom and all. Anywho, one of the partners of the law firm, Richard Fish, went around verbally cutting down his subordinates at every conceivable juncture. But the only apology from him was one word: Bygones. And it was rendered right after the verbal slaying.

When I worked in the Corporately World, I dealt with about a hundred e-mails a day. *cue the shuddering* I worked in a global company and because of the differences in time zones, e-mails were the only way to communicate efficiently, and these messages served as black-and-white proof of "conversations/agreements." Sometimes, though, in the fast-paced, get-it-done environment, I had to deal with some pretty snarky messages. In fact, they smarted enough for me to wince at times, especially when the snarkiness centered around something I'd done, that I put my name on and took pride in.

These emails left me with a What Do You Mean You Hate It Are You Stoopit reaction. I wasn't alone. My co-workers also received like-worded emails, and we'd collectively commiserate on the misfortune of working with Corporately Stoopitness. However, snarky emails flew like autumnal flocks, and after a while I came up with a strategy.

  1. Never respond to a snarky email right after reading it. Have a cup of (*insert favorite work beverage here, diet coke works for me*). Or wait until after lunch. Sleep on it if necessary (though not during work hours). But here's the magic I'd discovered: the email doesn't sting quite so much after giving it some time to settle.
  2. After an appropriate amount of time has passed, re-read the message while imagining a non-snarky tone. Use Elmo's voice if necessary. Consider whether Stoopit had just been careless on the delivery, and didn't really mean to snark all over your day. Sometimes the snark turned out to be a self-inflicted figment of my imagination.
  3. Go back and do some investigation. Maybe my work was not as perfect as I thought I was, or maybe my initial conversation/email was abrupt. If whatever I'd done had been at all unclear, incomplete, or otherwise misunderstandable, then I'd fix it. Pure and simple. Boom.
  4. If there was something in the snarky email that was unclear, that perhaps could go snarky or not, I'd follow up (taking care not to set off an email war). To do this, I used questions. Do you mean this or that?
  5. Sometimes, the person was being snarky just to be snarky. But maybe she had a bad day. Perhaps she hated me. Or. Maybe I'd just pick up the phone and talk it out. (I actually made more career-long comrades this way than I can count. Usually, the person was having a hellish moment and lashed out, and she needed someone, AKA me, to talk to about it.*)
  6. Rarely, when no reasonable resolution to the issue could be found, I had to accept Snarky Emailer as my arch rival and try to avoid her in future corporately dealings. Bygones.
Receiving a snarky critique on my writing, I must admit, stings thrice as badly as an average, snarky corporately email. Sure, I want feedback and I'd like to improve and all, but I don't want to feel Stoopit. Or sad. Or like I'm wasting my time on writerly efforts. It can hit my Achilles heel more acutely when it's on a public forum. Because now? Every can see that Snarky Reviewer thinks I'm stoopit, and how-o-how does one recover from such humiliation? Well, everyone has their own way of dealing with things, but taking from my corporately experience (I just knew it would come in handy—erm—eventually), here's a few ideas.

  1. Don't respond to it right away. It's always nice to get back to the critiquer and thank them, but sometimes, it's not possible at the first pass. Especially when the comments feel unnecessarily snarky. So have a cup of (*insert favorite writerly beverage here*). Eat a meal. Sleep on it. Listen to Mozart. Dance a jig or two.
  2. Re-read the critique to see if the snarkiness is self-inflicted. It's hard to know what the true tone of the writer is behind the review without telepathy (which has always been an issue for yours truly), so try to read it in a simple, calm tone.
  3. Go back and see if there is anything valid in the feedback. The critiquer read your work and put some thoughts together. They may be way off, or they may be right on. Figure out which it is and revise as appropriate.
  4. Maybe she didn't mean it? Sometimes the critiquer left off in the middle of a thought, so a statement came across the wrong way (I've done that!), or maybe they meant to be funny but it came across as mean-spirited. Follow up with her. It might be worth your while.
  5. Maybe you like her. For a critiquer you've known for a while and with whom you'd rather maintain a writerly relationship than not, you could approach her and find out what is behind the comments. Maybe it reminded her of something difficult from her past. Or maybe she was especially crabby that day for other reasons.* Maybe she didn't take the time to re-read her comments before sending them off, and didn't realize how it affected you.
  6. Maybe she's bad news. Some critiquers leave people skills behind during reviews, who are Snarky For The Sake of Snark. When this is the case, it's best to just part ways. And that's okay. What you need for your work is constructive, thoughtful feedback. Take the high road, thank them for their time, and then pursue other critiquing relationships.
Spending too much time and energy on the Snarky For The Sake of Snark reviewers is a waste of your talent, time, and energy that could be better spent on your writing craft. Move on and don't look back. 



*Not that I condone displaced snarkiness.


Michael Haynes said...

Home run post here! This is fantastic life advice, let alone "just" writing/critiquing advice.

Thanks for sharing. Now I'm off to retweet! :)

Kelly Marie Szpara said...

I always knew Fishisms would come back as good advice. Bygones!

Jessica Lei Silva said...

Awe, this is such a great post. AND I needed to hear this.

Marewolf said...

Awesome! Taking and giving critique is one of the hardest (and most important) things we do as writers.

In a former life, I worked in an accounting department and the lady I reported to worked in Canada. We e-mailed CONSTANTLY and never spoke on the phone, and I could swear that she was the rudest, least friendly person on the planet. And that she absolutely hated me.

And then I talked to her on the phone.

She was SO SWEET and had the cutest little voice, but she was still very formal and professional when communicating via e-mail.

Weird, but the experience made me take things in writing much easier than most.

Myrna Foster said...

Great post! I've learned to let the snark slide. Like you said, if you ignore it, pretty soon it quits stinging. I've never had a CP who was deliberately hurtful, though some of them have given less than constructive criticism. Thing is - I don't think they meant it the way I initially took it, and I know that I'm still learning how to critique, too.

CharmedLassie said...

You've helped me deal with *those* people and reminded me how much I love Ally McBeal. Thank you!

Shallee said...

These are great tips for handling a less than happy-making critique. I agree with Myrna, I've learned to let snark slide too-- though I don't have to worry about it too often. I have incredibly helpful and kind crit partners!

Marybk said...

Hi Jessica! I need to be reminded of this, too. :)

Marewulf - that's so funny! It's like the Wizard of Oz.

Myrna - I agree. Most people aren't the Snark for Snark's Sake.

Hi CharmedLassie! Glad to help. Long live Ally! :)

Shallee - Welcome to NAE! I love those kind of CPs. I have several, too. Priceless.

Anita Grace Howard said...

Oh, these are excellent tips. In fact, I think every author who ever intends to read their reviews on Amazon one day should be schooled in this subject. As for #1, I'm going with some red wine. LOL. Awesome post, Mary! #goatwub

Marybk said...

Anita: I can't imagine how hard that might be--the Amazon review thing. Hmmm. Great point. :)

Rosie Lane said...

Perfect timing for this post. I have the critique blues at the moment, and your advice to walk away and come back to it works just as well in the absence of snark.

Thank you.

Marybk said...

I'm glad it's good timing for you, Rosie Lane (fantastic name, BTW). :)

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