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Surviving the editing process

Quit taking it personally: surviving feedback on your writing

An interview with writer and participant in Banff's Literary Journalism program, Russell Cobb.

Prior to coming to Banff, how much experience did you have sharing your work in such an intimate setting?
It’s a totally new experience for me—I think it is for everyone in the program. It’s been amazing. You really get to hone in on your own writing and you have the time to get involved in deep discussions with likeminded people about what makes a good story generally and what would make your story better.

For me, it’s taken my work in a different direction. And I think this is a common thing as well. A lot of people started out with stories they wanted to tell about particular issues and controversies, but being here and exploring deeply they discovered these profound personal reasons that push the work in a different direction. It’s definitely what happened to me.

And what did happen to you? 
I really wanted to explore the crazy frontiers of genetic therapy and genetic testing. I wanted to know what happens as the human genome is mapped and we get complete genetic profiles of people, and who owns that information and what’s done with it. It was kind of like a news magazine story. But then, when I got here Charlotte Gill, Ian Brown, and Victor Dwyer were all asking me: “Why are you so interested in this?” 

I started talking about my family history of early onset—and particularly fatal—heart disease. Then I began interviewing people in my family and learned terrible stories of relatives who contracted this heart disease and didn’t even know what it was. 

So I started out with these broad issues and then they got narrowed down, but the narrowing created a more human story. 

How do you know what feedback to listen to and what to let go of? 
That’s something I was faced last week when I had my workshop. You submit this piece that you’ve thought about, researched, and poured your soul into, and all of a sudden you have seven other really good smart writers and three really professional talented people giving you all kinds of ideas and feedback. 

And occasionally, as in my case, there are two people whose opinions you really respect who give you totally different feedback. One said “I hated the conclusion. I loved your story but I saw the conclusion coming a mile away,” and someone else said the conclusion had them in tears, that it was fantastic.  So what do I do? 

The way I decided to deal with it was to figure out the things that people agreed on, and work on those. Then with the contradictory things, you kind of have to go with your gut, at least I’m going with my gut. I’m going to keep my conclusion. 

What are some tips for surviving the editing process? 
The most important thing is to remember that a critique or feedback or comments about your writing are not comments about you as a person. I have this great phrase my father in-law taught me, that I love: QTIP or “quit taking it personally.” Remember, the vast majority of people are just trying to make your work better. 

Where are you staying in the residence?
In the “Valentine”. It was built by an architect named Fred Valentine and he built it as a composers’ studio. There’s a grand piano in here! His idea was that he would make a mini cathedral that would inspire the composer to play soaring, inspirational music. So I sit in a corner with my computer, and I look at the grand piano and go “yeah.”


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