Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.
A Common Feedback Narrative
As a writer looking for ways to improve your skills, you may have heard or read this trite advice: writers must develop a thick skin. Don’t take feedback so personally. Blah blah blah. In reality, everything you write seems personal to you. At first. Maybe forever. You haven’t put many words out there, not enough to take the hits like a thick shield around you. Not yet. On top of that, you didn’t start writing because you’re insensitive. Writers happen to be among the most sensitive artist types out there. How else can you tune in to the human condition enough to translate that on-page for your readers to feel? To you, every bit of commentary on your work feels personal.
So, right now, and maybe for a long time, feedback has hurt you. Your words represent you, your skill, your thoughts and feelings, your convictions. You have tied your worth and value to them. Even though feedback feels like a personal attack, you know you have to receive critique in order to get better. I’m not telling you to develop a thick skin, because you may never manage that. But I am telling you to be brave. And most of all, clever.
As in the casting of any magic spell, set your intentions before you begin, keeping these elements in mind.
How to Handle Feedback
Know what you want feedback on. Tell your reader so beforehand. Very often, readers will focus in too much on an aspect of the passage that you don’t view as a problem, or that you are not ready to tackle just yet. Then, what you really wanted help on falls to the wayside, wasting everyone’s time. Having an idea of what needs scrutiny and pointing your reader’s critique at that specific problem will help you the most in the long run. And I don’t mean, “Here, help me with this paragraph.” I mean specific specific, as in, “I want the relationship between the characters in this scene to come off as tender but it seems flat. How can I fix it?” In addition, try to have the passage you want help with as polished up as you can make it. Glaring problems with punctuation, grammar, tense, voice, et cetera will serve to distract your reader from the main issue. They may even have a hard time gleaning a solution for you if your passage is an indecipherable mess.
Don’t argue with critique. Just write down your reader’s feedback and say, “Okay, thank you.” Arguing with suggestions for improvement, after you asked for help, leaves your reader feeling like you don’t want to improve your work, you just want things to stay the same, and you wasted their time. This behavior also sets you up for bad relations with your future editors. Not arguing about suggestions and feedback allows you to consider the advice in private.
In the end, you get to decide whether you should take the advice or discard it. Your conclusions aren’t always right, so keep an open mind, but their conclusions aren’t always right either, so have faith in yourself. Don’t go back and tell your reader your decision about their advice either way. This keeps relations between you and your reader good and leaves open avenues for future help with critique. But most of all, keeping a cool head in the moment of receiving feedback, and recognizing that you get to decide whether to keep or discard the advice, gives you all the power to avoid letting critique hurt you.
Request feedback from readers/writers of your genre/style. If you can. This will make the feedback you receive more relevant to your work. As a gross oversimplification for an example, if you write hard sci-fi and ask a romance writer for feedback, they may focus on trying to get your characters to kiss. And if you write romance but ask for help from a fantasy writer, they may focus on trying to get your couple to go on an epic quest together. But if you write horror and ask for help from another horror writer, they stand a better chance of helping you turn the fright up when that’s the problem you can’t fix yourself.
If you need to ask a non-writer for help, you would do best to approach a reader of your genre over someone who enjoys something else or who does not read at all.
Decide you want critique. This point leads into the next point, but first, a word. If you have been brave enough to seek out feedback, you should remind yourself that whatever form of feedback you receive, this information will help you. That feedback may challenge your views, it may ask of you more than you have the skills yet to give, it may attempt to silence you or demand you speak up, it may even seem vague and wasteful of your time. As long as you remain aware that you always have room to improve, you will come to view critique as a tool in that aim. You just sometimes have to work to dig out the helpful bits from the tone or the content of the feedback. Ready your scalpel.
Figure out whether you want criticism or praise. Too often, we writers hand our piece to someone we trust and say, “What do you think?” If inside you catch yourself hoping something like, please be good, please be good, please be good, you did not want criticism from that interaction. So when your reader dutifully points out something you could improve, you will feel disappointment. You instead wanted praise.
And that’s okay! Oftentimes, you won’t even know you have your fingers crossed for praise. But before you hand your piece over to someone, figure out what you want from the exchange and set expectations accordingly. So if you realize you just need a little hit of the serotonin that comes with praise, maybe include a caveat like, “I don’t want critique; I just want you to read this and tell me what you like.” There’s nothing wrong with asking for this kind of feedback. But you must remain aware and in control of your desires when requesting another’s thoughts.
How I Learned These Skills
In giving feedback to others, I went through a time of feeling guilty when the feedback other writers received from me clearly hurt them. I struggled to balance a genuine desire to help them improve with not hurting them by softening my tone, rounding the corners of my content, and couching criticisms inside praise. That doesn’t always work, but at that point, I can say I tried my best. I also found that writers would argue with my feedback, making me feel like all the effort I put in to picking out the issues causing the writer problems and suggesting solutions was a massive waste. I learned to walk away from those arguments, because they came from someplace personal within the writer that I could never hope to reach. You can only control so much.
In receiving feedback from others, I spent a long time yearning for actual help, instead of the vague, unhelpful phrase: “It’s good.” Whether I am being too hard on my work or not doesn’t matter – there’s always a way to improve my writing and it bothered me when someone did not point out any issues they found. In this way, through trial and error, I found more useful methods for requesting critique, such as finding writers in my genre and specifying where I wanted the critique focused.
Ultimately, requesting and receiving feedback comes down to a sticky social interaction. We have all seen feedback, reviews, and commentary devolve into a nasty mess. Some guiding principles, on both sides, should help we writers to navigate through this necessary evil and come out unscathed on the other side. Experience will lead to that thicker skin one way or another, but until then, may these tips help you dodge some of those scary flying knives.
Got any questions about dealing with painful feedback? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for receiving feedback, I want to hear them!
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