Generally speaking, self-confidence is fickle. We can sway from highly effective, confidence-fuelled motivation, to the depths of discouragement with little more than the passing word of a stranger. So much of our self-worth is affected by our reflection in the mirror of our peers, that many of us use ritualistic affirmations or mantras just to tread water, and some are forced to resort to a chemical bolster.
In my time as a freelance writer, the bulk of my work has been published online. This comes with a built-in feedback engine, but page comments are often little more than an echo chamber for assholes, so reading them can be tantamount to taking a bath in bad tidings. This depends on the quality of the community associated with any given website, of course, but Internet comments regularly present as an outlet for maladjusted monsters, hiding behind anonymity, with nothing better to do than shout at the world for its great many imagined slights.
When I first began releasing my work to the slavering maw of the anonymous Internet, every negative comment caused me physical pain. I felt every slight and correction to my core, and began to fear for the future of my newly formed career. Over time, I calloused myself to their stinging words, and like a fisherman in waders, eventually learned to stride through their murky waters without fear, dragging my prizes from the mud and silt.
By far the most effective method for shoring up one’s confidence is to seek feedback, but feedback is inherently risky. Publishing a creative work is an act of courage, like blindly setting forth on a path that is equally likely to be lined with barbs as moss. “Feedback is vital, I think,” said David Rayfield, my friend, and overlord of raygunbrown.com, in an email on the subject. “The obligatory ‘good article!’ tweet is fine but doesn’t really convey anything other than ‘I read this, and now I’m telling you,'” he continued. “One of the best pieces of feedback I had was for a live music review. It was for a Noel Gallagher show. Since it was for print, someone wrote an actual letter to expand on something I said I wasn’t sure about in the review. Not to criticise, but to say they enjoyed the review and help me with a bit of local history that they were experts about.” This experience really affected David, and gave him a serious boost in confidence, ” it shocked me someone would go to this effort (who the hell writes letters anymore?) but also that they liked what I wrote enough to help me out. It made me want to write more which is the ultimate result of good feedback.”
The feedback you receive could inspire your next great work, or send you forever into the slough of despond. The trick, of course, is to seek feedback that you are confident will encourage, whether praise or criticism, to pierce the blindfold and better help you to seek the mossy side of the path.
When I wrote my first article for a print publication back in 2013, I was not confident. My brief was vague, and this freedom soon began to feel like a noose. Had I overreached and strayed too far from my original point? On submitting my first draft, my editor’s response was “not bad,” and included an attached copy of another writer’s work as an example of what I should be aiming to produce. My heart sank. Confidence low. My initial instinct was to drop everything and disappear into a cave. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and I decided to sit down with both articles and take comparative notes. I realised that some of my fears had proven accurate. I was correct to worry that I had gone off-brief, so I rewrote my conclusion to better answer my introduction. Aside from that, and a few grammatical niggles, I decided that second draft was worth submitting. Confidence rising.
When that draft went to print, I was incredibly excited. I bought two copies from a local newsagent before my subscription copy could even make its way to my desk. I marvelled at my words, laid out for the first time in traditional print-format columns. I pointed out my byline to any passing colleague that would look, and drank in their congratulations like a refreshing draught. Confidence high.
Days passed. Had anyone even read my column? Why hadn’t I heard anything? Is it so bad that no-one wants to mention it, hoping that eventually I’ll get bored and go away? Negative feedback is one thing, but a dearth of feedback is a special kind of torture. The adulations of friends and family rang hollow in my ears, dulled by the social contract that requires them them to be encouraging. What I needed was feedback from an honest source, but how would I find it? If I had requested feedback, the response couldn’t be trusted; either the responder would deliver more hollow positivity, or they would feel compelled to pick holes in order to make themselves relevant. Frustrated, I gave up on my search. Confidence low.
More time passed, until a tweet caught my eye. A conversation between two people that I follow made reference to my article. I clicked to view the entire conversation, only to find that it was started by someone that I didn’t follow, who had hoped to pitch an entry to the column I had written for, but had read mine and feared that it was too hard an act to follow. Wow! Confidence soaring.
I was struck at how much I was affected by this unsolicited feedback. Before I’d seen it, my confidence in the article was so low that I wouldn’t even bother to include it in my portfolio when pitching work to new publications. Now, it tops the list. Where once I would wince at every unnecessary adjective and overlong paragraph, I now see some solid work, with quirks from which to learn and improve. My entire perspective on the article was changed by fewer than 140 characters, written by someone I had never met. Feedback is important.
I was initially frustrated by how much of an effect this tweet had on my confidence in the article. I worried that the opposite could easily occur. I was annoyed that there was no objective method for assessing whether or not a piece of my own work was ‘good enough.’ As a response to this, I am putting together Feedback Loop, a community of writers that wish to both give and receive high quality feedback to those that seek it.
Members of Feedback Loop understand that good feedback is hard to find. For the most part the best feedback we get tends toward the negative, especially from time-pressured editors that just need to get content published. Truly helpful feedback needs to teach the author to evaluate themselves, to be able to positively and objectively assess their own work. Feedback shouldn’t conform to arbitrary rules that turn positive feedback into a cloak for negative feedback, rather it should be designed to edify the author. Seek to teach a writer to view their work through the lens of the audience and the editor.
In closing I charge you with a task: if you see a piece of creative work that you like, please find a way to let the author know that you like it, and why. If you see something that could be improved, find a way to constructively describe how. If you know the author, find a way to give them feedback without it seeming hollow or obligatory. Most of all, when you are providing feedback on a creative work, remember that the author has far more of themselves invested in that work than they may know. Your words are powerful, please use them wisely.
Header artwork by the incredible Cal Skuthorpe, aka @buzz_clik. Go tell him how great he is.