Don’t Fear the Feedback

Just change the word reaper to feedback and let that play as a soundtrack for you mind. Don’t Fear the Feedback—the fourth installment of the How to Edit Your Novel series.

TAKING FEEDBACK

closetYou may get your feedback face to face or you may get it in an email, but the most important thing when receiving feedback is to receive it with dignity and grace. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. Whoever is telling you what they think is wrong with your story took the time to read the thing. Even if you think they are 100% wrong (unlikely) they deserve your thanks for making the effort.

So at the very least, I want you to memorize this phrase: Thank you for your feedback. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

Your first reaction may be to explain why you wrote it the way you did. Don’t. You may feel like you need to defend your work. Don’t. You may even be inclined to tell them why they don’t know what they’re talking about. Definitely don’t.

If you are to utter any words it’s to say thank you. But, it’s also to ask questions. There’s nothing wrong with clarifying what they’re telling you. For example, if they said something like:

“Your first chapter didn’t make any sense.”

It’s perfectly all right for you to say:

“Can you tell me a few things you found particularly confusing?”

Or perhaps they say:

“There’s just no tension. I feel like nothing’s happening.”

You can say something like:

“Can you give me an example of what you mean? Maybe you can point to one place where you think more tension would help?”

Etc. etc. etc. Whatever the feedback you don’t agree with or you’re puzzled by, it’s perfectly within reason to ask about it. Questions? Yes. Defend? No. Something I learned from my editor friend that I’ve stated before and I’ll state again is:

When it comes to editing, the amateurs raise objections, the professionals ask questions.

Believe me, I’ve been in situations where I had to fight tears it felt so harsh. But I asked more clarifying questions and even though I didn’t agree with everything they said I still got a lot of good advice from the situation. It’s hard to take feedback, but the more you’re willing to accept your story is flawed (and it is) the more you’ll grow.

NOW THE FEEDBACK

You did it. You sent your story out to beta readers, you presented it in your writers group, or you took it to a workshop. Did you soar? Bellyflop? More than likely you came away with several suggestions. Time to sort it out.

Fix the obvious mistakes. Some of the feedback may have included typos or suggestions on things you agree with and can easily change. Make those changes first. See if you can’t apply it to the rest of your manuscript as well. (Maybe you use the same phrases over and over, or lots of words like actually, usually, etc.)

Sort the rest. I had a short story I took to writers group where 80% of the group loved it and the 20% didn’t know what was going on. Does that mean I completely ignore the 20%? Nope. But it does mean I don’t solely cater to the 20%.

Listen to what they’re suggesting and take a look at your work. Are there things you can do to clarify it without making huge changes? I added a couple carefully crafted sentences to the beginning of my short story and made it more obvious it was an older woman. That cleared a lot of their confusion right up. It may be as simple as that.

And it may not be. If I don’t agree with something, I ponder on it and see if the advice really applies to my story. If I keep getting that same advice though, that’s a good red flag that there’s a problem needing fixing.

Get to the core of it. Don’t hear what they’re suggesting, listen to what they’re suggesting. Perhaps they’ve told you:

It would be great if you killed his brother in the beginning because that would be a great motivator for him.

And you want to respond:

I can’t kill his brother. His brother turns out to be the villain later!

But that’s because you’re hearing vs. listening. What the person is really saying is: Your main character doesn’t seem to have enough drive or motivation. The worst thing I could think of, based on what you’ve given me, is to kill his brother. Then he’s seeking revenge—a good motivator.

So instead of killing the brother, because he’s the villain, maybe you kill the girlfriend. Or maybe you don’t kill anyone, you make it so he’s always hated his brother because his mother doted on them more. Or maybe it’s the reverse. The point is you listen for the real problem and come up with your own solution to solve it.

Sometimes you just ignore it. I remember with my short story, I was struggling over a suggestion because the reader said they didn’t believe my main character would behave a certain way. I thought long and hard over it and the story always came to that same behavior. It is what she would have done and it felt right. So I ignored it.

Just as you shouldn’t ignore all feedback, neither should you follow all of it either. Experience will teach you what to ignore and what to apply. And most of the time, I try and come up with my own unique solutions anyway, so that it stays my story in my voice. You should do the same. It’s a delicate balance, but if great writing is your goal, you’ll be honest and figure it out.

NO FEAR

I no longer fear the feedback. I embrace it. I look at every feedback session as a chance to make something even better. Part of me still wants to get that email or that vocal feedback that says: “This is perfect!” But the rest of me knows that’s not true.

We should never be satisfied with our stories. Sure, we may get them to a point where we have to let them go and be published, but we should always be striving for something ever better.

Join me Monday for Edit Wars: The Rewrites Strike Back, where we find out what typically happens after a major editing session.

What do you think about feedback? How do you typically respond? Were you afraid to let anyone read your stuff in the beginning? How did that change? Or if you’re still afraid, have you been convinced it’s time to step out and get some feedback? Any other advice on feedback? Let me know in the comments.

For some reason, I’m thinking, more cowbell!

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16 thoughts on “Don’t Fear the Feedback

  1. I love this series! I believe this is so important…I love constructive criticism..it makes me better in ever facet of my life..you never grow if you don’t look at yourself and your work critically..it’s a hard pill to swallow a lot of the time but the moment you depersonalize and see it as not a ‘your not talented’ comment..rather as you are talented BUT you need to work on this aspect of your craft. It took me a long time to feel that way as well!

    • You said it so well. That’s exactly the point of feedback. It’s nice to have this perspective, right? I feel like I wasted too much time worrying when I could have been improving.

  2. You’ve covered things quite well actually. I agree with what you wrote and don’t really have anything to add. You wrote it too well 😀

    I’ve always been a bit too afraid of feedback because it felt personal but feedback is soooo important and it’s people trying to make something better. So I guess it’s time to step out and start! Thanks!! :mrgreen:

    • You should step out. Some feedback will still sting, but take it in stride and try to focus on knowing it will make you a better writer in the end. Do let us know about your experience with feedback in the future. 🙂

  3. I’m terrible about feedback. I wrote a post about it not long ago (The 5 stages of Critique) that’s slightly exaggerated, but pretty well outlines my reactions. I’m glad my critique partner who’s looking at my novel (God bless her!) can’t see my face when I read some of those comments; I usually end up agreeing, but my initial reaction is usually more like, “Who do you think you are? There’s nothing wrong here!” (OK, but with more swearing).

    It’s probably a good thing I’m not in a writing group that meets in person. 🙂

    As far as actually looking for feedback, that took me a long time. Like, two years of writing, revising, more revising, line editing, etc. before I’d let anyone take a peek. I still get antsy every time someone new reads my work, waiting to hear what they think.

    I have nothing to add, really. The bit about always saying thank you is good. And always wait before responding! I’m very glad I’ve never responded until I’m feeling less defensive.

    • I loved hearing your perspective. I felt like I was reliving the past—some of it more recent past. I think I had to get out of my head this idea of ever sending a novel to someone and have it coming back with them saying, “Perfect as is!” That will never happen. I’m betting even seasoned authors like James Patterson and Stephen King still get notes back from their editors on weaknesses. We’re just built that way, to be blind to some of our faults.

      Tee hee! I’m still smiling over this part you wrote: “I usually end up agreeing, but my initial reaction is usually more like, ‘Who do you think you are? There’s nothing wrong here!’ (OK, but with more swearing).” I totally understand the feeling!

  4. I recognize that Thank You sentence. 😉

    Even the advice you ignore you’re not really ignoring it, you’re just disagreeing with it. It’s kind of like martial arts, someone might suggest you pull more one way, or step another way, even if their advice is good, it might not work for you.

    What’s also fun is when you get advice from two people that totally contradict each other. 😉

    • LOL. Contradictory advice always makes me smile. So many things are subjective. I love that you used martial arts as an example. I often thing of martial arts and writing in similar ways too. 😀

  5. I really like your blog – I think the advice is really sensible. I’m just about to post something on a similar topic. Having hidden away from criticism I found out it was holding my novel back. Once I talked through things with a trusted critic and had a real Q&A on why character X does Y or why Z lives in town A or why B can’t just make friends with C I a) spotted gaps that needed filling, b) got a much tighter sense of what my characters’ motivations were and what the story was and c) got some new ideas that I hadn’t thought of before.

    But it still sucks doesn’t it? At first, before the ‘Thank You’ gets wheeled out and you remember to smile and nod? 🙂

    • Most writers (myself included) have this weird need for perfection straight out of the box. I used to have to fight against it a lot. I still fight against it a little. But now that I’ve been able to see such dramatic improvements because of feedback, I appreciate it more.

      Tee hee! The smiling and nodding. Yep. Especially if at the time you feel like the person is a total idiot in their feedback. 😉

  6. Feedback is vital, but scary, lol. 🙂 And it is *so* hard not to try and explain myself. But I’m learning to ask questions, like you said, and try to dig deeper. At first, there was a lot of cringing going on when I got feedback, lol. But I’m developing a thicker skin, and learning to really listen to the feedback I’m getting, and it’s really made my stories so much stronger. 🙂

    • Sounds like you’re evolving into a professional. I think it’s always going to be just a little hard to hear some types of feedback, but like you said, the important thing is it can make our stories stronger. Thanks for sharing!

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