What to do when you receive feedback on your writing, by Jess Gately

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Receiving feedback can be a painful process. As writers, we should actively seek it, but there’s no taking away that sting when your feedback says something isn’t working. And it’s ok to feel that sting. It’s only natural when you’ve shared a project you’ve worked hard on and feel passionate about to be disappointed when someone doesn’t love it the same way you do. BUT it’s also important to remember that feedback is about a piece of your writing and not about you as a person.

In our article 5 Faux Pas That Will Prevent You Getting Published we addressed the issue of replying to feedback (particularly to an editor, agent or publisher) with angry or defensive emails. Not only does responding like this make you look unprofessional and potentially land you on a blacklist, but it also reflects a lack of recognition that someone has offered you advice or feedback because they want you to succeed.

Here at Underground we give feedback on submissions whether we accept them for publication or not. We don’t do this because we like to tear writers down; in fact it’s the complete opposite! It’s because we want to see you succeed and as a third party who is removed emotionally from your work, we can provide feedback from the point of view of a reader. We can see where your writing craft may need some more development, or where there might be plot holes in the story you’ve presented (that is to say, you may not have realised that the way you’ve written your story has left out details that are sitting in your head!). Agents, publishers, editors, beta readers and (usually) writing groups all want to see you succeed. They want you to tell your story and they want others to enjoy it.

I’ll put it out there now: not all feedback is correct, and not all ways of giving feedback are correct. But in this post we’re focusing on how to receive feedback, not how to give it. That’s for another post. So try to think about these points in terms of good feedback, feedback that points out both strengths and weaknesses, and works with the story you have, not the story your reader wanted it to be.

So how do you overcome that sting when you receive feedback? Well, first…

Listen

Take the time to actually hear what the person is trying to say. Don’t immediately start thinking about whether you agree or disagree with them. Don’t immediately try to decide whether it’s right or wrong. Just listen. Take notes if they’re giving verbal feedback and look for patterns if it’s written feedback.

If you’re already trying to explain away the feedback and assuming they’re wrong then you’re not going to gain any benefit from it. The same goes for immediately accepting that everything they say is right. For now, all you’re doing is listening.

Sit on it

Getting feedback hurts when it’s not all glowing, which it never is. So, after you’ve listened, and after you’ve received all the feedback, just put it to one side for a while and sit with it. Don’t launch back in an email or dive back into the manuscript straight away. Give your emotions time to settle so that when you go back to it you go with a level head.

At this point you should also focus on the things your reader said they liked about the piece. It’s easy for us to get hung up on everything they didn’t like, but we can learn a lot from what they did like too. Think about why these things might be your strong points and how you got good at them. Maybe you’re really good at dialogue because you read a lot of scripts or maybe you’re good at world-building because you’ve read lots of books with good examples of world-building. Later you can apply this logic to things you need to improve on; they’ll help you see for yourself the points of your manuscript that may need a bit more work and which bits of feedback you may want to take on board.

Think analytically

Now that the initial emotions have subsided you can approach your feedback with a bit more clarity. Remind yourself that your reader has the best interests of the story at heart and start to work through what they’ve said and why they’ve said it. You may still disagree with some of their feedback but you’ll also probably recognise that some of what they’re saying is right. If you get multiple readers saying it, pay even more attention.

Think about why a reader might feel the way they feel. If they say that they think a particular action isn’t in keeping with a character and you think it is, maybe it’s because you haven’t presented the character in that light. So, you don’t necessarily need to change the action but you may need to develop the character further.

If your feedback is coming from a publication it’s worth noting that what is right for one publication may be wrong for another. It may then be that you need to think more critically about who you are submitting to rather than whether or not you need to change your piece. Always read some part of the publication you’re submitting to and assess whether you think your piece will fit comfortably with the others.

At this stage you need to ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to achieve with this piece?’ and, ‘Did the readers get that?’ Think critically about the feedback they’ve given and whether their suggestions help you achieve your goal.

Think about who is giving the feedback

You should be giving different weight to the opinions presented based on who is offering them. Feedback from your writers’ group or friends is very different to feedback from a publisher who has accepted your manuscript.

Publications like Underground Writers and Voiceworks offer feedback on all submissions; however, most publications don’t offer feedback to everyone, and if they’re offering it to you it shows that they saw something they admired or respected in your work. If they’re offering you feedback take it as a compliment. They thought your work and your writing was worth taking the time to offer feedback on!

The same goes for agents or publishers who decide to offer you feedback on your manuscript, even if they’ve decided not to take you on. They’ve obviously seen something in your work that they think could go really well if you tighten up a few things.

It is important, however, to decide whether this was the best person to give you feedback. If you had multiple rounds of feedback and they were the only one to pick up on a lot of things that you didn’t feel were relevant, it may be that this was the wrong person to ask for feedback and you may be better off approaching someone else next time.

If a publisher has accepted your work keep in mind that they will have a very good idea of what your market expects, what works and what doesn’t work. That’s their job! That means they are offering feedback based on what they think will appeal to most to readers and what they think will make your readers walk away feeling satisfied. Having said all this, just because it is your publisher doesn’t mean you have to accept every change. But pick your battles. Many authors will say that they found the majority of their publisher’s comments were 100% on point but that there were just 1 or 2 things they really wanted to fight for in their manuscript. Trust your instinct and be open to discussion with your editor. If you’re going to defend something, you’re going to need to explain why you want it there and you’re going to need to convince them of why it’s important.

Move forward

It may be that the work you’ve been given feedback on can’t really be fixed. Accept that and move on, but take your feedback with you. If the feedback suggests that your manuscript needed some work to build tension, then do some work to learn how to build tension. If your feedback suggested that your themes weren’t clear, think about how you’ll approach your next project to make those themes clearer. Moving forward may mean refining the piece you received feedback on, or it may mean applying it to your next piece.

But whatever happens, accept your feedback with grace and humility (whether you take it all on board or not!) and don’t throw in the towel.

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