The Art of Feedback and Disagreeing with Neil Gaiman

There are two things writers arguably love just as much as writing: talking about writing and looking for writing advice from famous authors. My roommate and I are both Professional Writing majors, and we just bought copies of Stephen King’s On Writing, fully intending to read the book from cover to cover.


Of course, advice is subjective. You can choose to accept it, adapt it, or question it. Though just the other day, one of my professors quoted five of Neil Gaiman’s—the author of novels like Good Omens and Smoke and Mirrors—eight rules of writing as if they were the gospel.


I agreed with the first four rules:

  1. Write.
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to a friend whose opinion you respect and who will like the kind of thing that this is.


However, when my professor got to the fifth rule, she paused to tell us that this was the most important rule Mr. Gaiman created:

  1. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.


I instantly disagreed with her and with Mr. Gaiman. Feedback from other writers is important in the editing process, but what is even more important is listening to the feedback they give you and letting it inspire your own writing.


The first problem with Mr. Gaiman’s “rule” is that it sends you into revision with a negative mindset. If you listen to someone else’s advice for revision with the knowledge that you aren’t going to do anything they are suggesting, you are closing off your mind. If you start writing with a closed off mind, you aren’t going to be positive while you are creating. If you aren’t positive while you are writing, there may be less passion and less heart in your piece. Without heart, your work may fail to connect with the reader on emotional or personal levels.


The second problem is that you limit your own creativity. The common stereotype is that writing is a solitary pursuit. When some people think “writer,” they conjure up the image of a man who hasn’t trimmed his beard in a decade and is living alone in a cabin in the woods with a typewriter from the 1920s. In reality, writing is something you never do alone. A writer is always getting feedback in order to improve their drafts. That’s what writing groups and workshops are for; that’s what editors are for.


It is shortsighted to believe that other people can’t help you or that they can’t have good ideas. You will always have your own ideas, and those ideas are what you will build your poem or your memoir or your book upon. Maybe someone has an idea you didn’t think of. Maybe someone sees a metaphor you could create about your character you didn’t originally see. Maybe someone thinks of a way to get rid of the plot hole in your climax that you’ve been trying to solve for months.


You have your own ideas, but someone can always help you build upon those ideas. When I write with my writing group here at Champlain—a group that consists of two people who infrequently visit a cafe in downtown Burlington—we always have an open discussion about how we could tackle revision. In those brainstorming sessions, my friend has helped me come up with solutions and revisions I’d never even thought of. I’ve created some of my best lines and story arcs based off some of the ideas she has given me or helped me develop for my writing. My drafts always improve after we have discussions.  


As a writer, you don’t always have to take someone’s advice, nor do you have to do exactly what they said; however, you would be naive to completely ignore their feedback. Is there exactly one right answer to your revisions? No. Who has the right answer? You always have the right answer, but that doesn’t mean you always come to that answer on your own.


You don’t always have to listen to a famous writer’s advice just because they’re famous. You can listen to Mr. Gaiman, or you can listen to your professor or your friend or yourself. Where you get your tips and tricks is up to you, but I—well, I am disagreeing with Neil Gaiman.