Saturday, September 18, 2010

When feedback zigs instead of zags

Whenever we write, whether we admit it or not, we want to know what people -- could be your editor, could be your source, could be your reader, or any/all of them -- want to think about what we wrote. I started thinking about that this afternoon after I dug around in a couple of notebooks I've used whenever I've gone to a writing seminar and came across some interesting thoughts from Jan Winburn, the great editor formerly with the Baltimore Sun and more recently the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (though I'm not sure she's still there).

At the '99 Nieman narrative writing conference, she talked about a couple of serial narratives the Sun had done. One was on a woman who survived two bouts with cancer and the death of a child, before her illness progressed and she had six months to live. The story was about how she wanted her baby to know who her mom was. Reaction for the first couple days was negative, then turned more positive as the series went on.

And she talked about Ken Fuson's piece on the high schoolers putting on "West Side Story" -- which remains one of the most enjoyable pieces of nonfiction I've ever read -- and she said that the reaction to that was pretty much the same: some negative, some positive.

I'm not saying that's a universal response to narratives, but when readers respond like that, why do you think that is? Do you have stories about reaction like that to a piece you did? What did people like or not like about your piece? How do you deal with negative reaction to a story you believe in?