I am the managing editor of an on-campus literary magazine here at Northwestern, and we’ve just finished accepting submissions for our spring issue. It’s the first issue under our new leadership, so we’re all trying to figure out what exactly we want to do with the magazine. One conversation we recently had was whether to give feedback to writers or not.
My suggestion was to return each submission with editorial comments, even if we are rejecting it. However, some of the other people on our staff were concerned that this might be salt on the wound for the rejections. Not only are we telling you we’re not going to publish it, but we’re also telling you what we think is wrong with the piece.
As someone who has been rejected, I both understand and don’t understand this point of view. Rejection is hard, no matter what, and it always stings to hear that someone doesn’t like something you have written. But most people I know immediately start to parse the rejection and look for clues about why it was rejected. What did they do wrong? If you read any agent blog, you see justifications for why they can’t give feedback on every single query or submission: writers are craving explanations.
This is not just because writers are masochists. One of the ways to learn writing is to learn how readers react to your writing–in fact, my favorite kind of critique is to find out how the readers reacted to a certain part of the story and why. After all, writing is about getting a reaction, be it emotional, physical, spiritual, or intellectual. The most valuable thing to learn, then, is how to evoke certain reactions.
Many beginning writers dread workshops or revisions because they hate finding out what is wrong with their book. Many experienced writers have the same fear. But I think once you’ve been around the block a few times, you learn that after the pain comes revelations and better work. I recently had a long talk with a fellow writer about our work (I was critiquing hers and she was critiquing mine). We spent nearly an hour going back and forth about our projects. Sure, it hurt a little to hear which parts didn’t work. It always will. But at the same time, I was generating ideas of how to fix it, and I know my writing will be better for the revision. Feedback is essential to becoming a better writer, so I say give it whenever you can.