Working With Feedback On Your Writing

Fern

If you’ve recently received feedback on your writing, e.g., after attending a writers’ conference or sharing with your writing group or getting a manuscript critique, here are some broad suggestions towards working out what to do next.

* First, check your ego at the door. You will collect it later, but for now be open to suggestion. Disavow yourself of attachment. What you shared with readers was just a draft anyway – wasn’t it? You might also have been looking for validation (or even a book deal) – which is fine. But if this is a moving and fluid process leading to a desired outcome (that deal), you might need more than strokes to the ego. Patience and some crafty application are probably what will count most. Be reflective, be contemplative.

* Ideally, feedback won’t be too prescriptive, particularly at early stages, and it should not be regarded as such.

* Some feedback will make sense right away, some might suggest alternatives, some will not really work. Some might suggest the reader doesn’t get you or your vision, in which case: also ask yourself if you need to be clearer, or maybe find other readers.

* Some feedback might be contradictory, even from the same person. Good feedback often is. Tussling with the contradictions can force you to go deeper to really figure out what needs to be done. Embrace the idea of negative capability, and even revel in the contradictions. In many ways, after all, contradictions are simply different choices. Which will you take? Be decisive. Or be experimental with different decisions, at least for a while. 

* Maybe avoid thinking in terms of agreement or disagreement with feedback. In some ways, agreement and disagreement are irrelevant. The ideas of right and wrong don’t really apply in creative writing; you’re not writing a technical manual (and clear-cut ideas of right and wrong don’t always apply even there). Instead, simply listen, then hold everything that seems relevant in suspension (maybe along with some of the stuff that seems irrelevant), and then act upon it through revising and drafting to take the work where it needs to go.

(I admit I sometimes get irritated when writers tell me they ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ with what I say – and not just because I am NEVER wrong! But it can suggest we’ve been talking at cross purposes. I’m delighted if writers ‘disagree’ 100% with things I raise but are then prompted to act on their writing in ways that make it stronger. The suggestions I put across are never/rarely hard and fast ideas that are waiting for acceptance. They are usually intended as ideas for thinking about. So the idea of disagreement/agreement seems moot at this stage, or premature. Or simply not really relevant. Feedback is often about exploring departure points for future drafts, and sometimes it’s good for a reader to get provocative suggestions or comments, which can often spur. Sometimes writers need to be challenged. Or: writing needs a challenge. There is too much undercooked writing out there. Come on, we can do better!)

* Be systematic. Create a system – not least as it will take your ego and neuroses out of consideration.

* E.g., lay out on a table in different piles each piece of feedback, whether these are edited scripts you go through comparing them page by page, or a memo from a book doctor, or emails from beta readers you’ve printed out, or Post-its on which you jotted notes and impressions given verbally by readers. You’ll start to ground all of these words of feedback in something tangible; for some weird reason, I think that interacting with things physically makes a difference. It steps you out of yourself, and if you do a lot of your writing on screen it can lead you out of that locked-in work of constant scrolling through a document.

* E.g., you’re a writer, so do what writers do: write. Write yourself a memo or an editorial letter in which you synthesise all the feedback you have received, perhaps summarising different takes with a paragraph each.

* Or write lists of pros and cons.

* Or write yourself a manifesto or a mission statement that brings focus and clarity to what you are trying to do with and for this piece of writing. Maybe rewrite this – or write several manifestos – as you go through different drafts: give your project freedom to evolve. Maybe write a manifesto for yourself as a writer, too.

* A manifesto can help clarify your intention, which is often at the start of a project quite amorphous. Keep coming back to your intention. You may be able to integrate different responses while remaining true to your vision. Your intention might also grow or move on.

* Separate matters of technique from matters of taste. Matters such as uneven pacing or awkward transitions or clunky syntax or a lack of sentence variety are often things that could/should be fixed. Matters such as excessive adverbs (or some of the above, such as sentence variety) could be changed, but they might also be matters of style (a few adverbs are fine and even essential, else why else would the Goddess have invented them?). I guess the important thing is: don’t be careless.

* If several readers question the same thing, this could be something that requires a fix. Or it could be something that presses buttons. In which case, maybe fix it, or do something to press those buttons even more strongly, or more effectively.

* Be open to experiment. Do try things out free of attachment. E.g., you might not end up using first-person, but it could be worth trying if a couple of readers have asked if you’d thought about using it; just travelling in a character’s first-person narration for a few pages might give you new insights into the world of your book.

* Draw up a checklist of things to do. Things you can do, things you must do, things that you need to think about for a little while.

* Separate these checklists into rounds of edits, then go back into the text and start revising, rewriting, redrafting. Expect further feedback on future drafts, and possibly seek out fresh readers. (The matter of revising is another post, or set of posts.)

* Consider who is giving the feedback. An agent, an editor, a book doctor, a teacher, a beta reader, a writer, a general reader, a member of your writing group, a friend or loved one: each will have a different relationship with you and with writing and reading, and might have different expectations or priorities. (This covers a broad subject, and might be another post too.)

* Ask questions of your readers. In some contexts, this is not possible (in which case, maybe you can make it possible?). And it is possible for discussion to get too circular or unfocused. So make any questioning pointed and specific (as, ideally, feedback should be too). It can often, in fact, be good to raise questions in a note or two when you hand over work for feedback, though too it is often good to solicit views cold (yet another post).

* Tame your monkey mind. Understand that going through feedback can invite all sorts of doubts and chatter, and feed all sorts of anxieties and neuroses. Calm down. Some meditation or mindfulness techniques can help. Or just take the dog for a walk or bake a cake or do some work in the garden.

* Be patient, mostly with yourself. Writing a book takes a long time, and sometimes takes many drafts.

* Give yourself some time and space, too. A pause. Maybe put the writing to one side for a while. Understand the value of emptiness; when you stop thinking about something, your instinct can develop. Ironically (as it’s good not to be too outcome-oriented at this stage), taking some time away can eventually make the task ahead easier, once you return to it. You’ll be surer of what needs to happen.

* A pause in the writing can in fact be a good time to go away and do the other work of a writer.

* E.g., reading. Read widely and deeply in your own genre as well as others. Read this year’s bestsellers, but also read the classics, with a view to understanding how your book might sit beside them. And this is not just about reading for pleasure or reading for your book group or reading because you like an author. This is about reading as a writer, and reading to learn what writing can do and what you can do as a writer. Most every book that has been published can teach you something: aspects of craft, style, conventions, taste. And why did an editor choose to publish this book?

* E.g., identify gaps in your knowledge or obvious areas of improvement, and maybe in the mid- or long-term embark on some self-improvement. Read some books on writing, or take a course, or simply carry out some writing exercises to help with things that could be stronger.

* Sometimes, too, rewrites come quickly. Have confidence in them. Spontaneous writing for a project, even if it is later on edited, often taps into something vital. Follow those tangential thoughts, play around with things at the edges, stop all the clocks to do the rewrite commanded by that brainwave you just enjoyed.

* Know when to stop. At least for now. Revising and editing can go on forever. But …

* Keep writing. Maybe not all of your next books at once, but make some plans for one of them, and be starting work on that. Sometimes a project is put to one side for now, or till later. Sometimes, first major projects are overly ambitious, and it might make sense to work something more manageable in the meantime. If you are writing a novel, that might include, for example, practising the art of fiction by writing short stories.

* Importantly, don’t be harsh on yourself (which you shouldn’t be if you checked your ego at the door!). Try to be as clear-sighted as possible, using that clarity of vision to stop you from feeling wounded or offended by what you hear. Or excessively pumped up: praise can be as harmful as criticism, sometimes.

* More than anything: Listen.

If you have other suggestions or things to say about feedback, do raise in a comment below, and if I have anything to add I can try to follow up on that. In future posts I intend to address more specific aspects of revising and self-editing, and discuss related matters such as ways to solicit feedback, setting up a writing group, and readying your work for submission or publishing.

Postscript, September 2015
A couple of links to articles that consider the idea of feedback in other ways:

* The Most Useful Class You’ll Take In College Is Not Science, Math Or Economics

* The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck (which doesn’t mean you totally don’t have to)

6 comments

  1. Michelle Garrett

    What a useful post, thank you.

    One thing I am guilty of is saying ‘I agree’ to someone giving me feedback. Not all the time, just once. From my point of view I guess I felt I was in a discussion with him about my work, so when I said I agreed I meant, ‘yes, I can see what you’re saying and I agree it would work better with/without that’. Interesting to see this from your perspective.

    And I always say thank you. I am grateful for anyone spending precious time (even if I’ve paid for it) not only reading my work, but making an effort to critique it effectively. Every time I receive feedback it helps me in one way or another towards creating a better story.

    I’ve shared this on my writing FB page and have bookmarked. Everyone should know how to take feedback if they are to improve as writers.

    • Andrew

      Michelle: why, thank *you*! You know, I don’t patently disagree with agreeing, or disagreeing. Maybe ‘I see’ is another way of saying ‘I agree’? But that is just semantics, really. I think the thing I am getting at is the fact that the idea of agreeing/disagreeing enters too much into the realm of right/wrong, and that can often be counterproductive during any stage of creation, and as such we can help ourselves by disavowing it. It can produce a mindset that results in tired or stilted or inauthentic writing, where the writer is trying to please something external rather than working from within.

      I am not comfortable when I hear writers saying, ‘But So And So told me to use first-person/make it present tense/begin at Chapter 3’. I do often make suggestions along those lines, but it’s usually intended as something to explore until the writing feels right for the writer. I’d hate to think that writers would be sent off track by advice I give. I feel writers need to own their own work, and not just defer to others (or blame them!).

      Of course, if an agent or editor guarantees to make a prizewinning bestseller of your regency romance if you redo its storyline as a space opera, and if a prizewinning bestseller is what you want to be, and if you’re happy to write space opera rather than regency romance: follow that advice!

      This post could have been much longer. So much to explore in this topic, especially if genuine exchange is to help the writing and the writer improve. When I run workshops, I often spend a lot of time at the start discussing feedback and what the members of the group are looking for. This can set the right tone and approach from the beginning. Sometimes we collaborate on writing feedback manifestos, which are a form of collective feedback rules. Not least, the discussion helps create a safe space. But too, sometimes we need pushing a little bit beyond the comfort of a safety net …

      Also, at the very least, in thinking about considered ways of giving and taking feedback, you can also develop the skills of a good editor. Good editors as well as good writers emerge from writing workshops and writing groups.

      And thank you: of course! It’s interesting how often plain manners define any interaction or relationship.

  2. BRIC

    I continue to be hugely grateful for the feedback you gave me long ago. It felt so positive at the time. At your suggestion I worked through “Steering the Craft” (which incidentally triggered a return to the other books of Ursula le Guin, stories I had devoured as a teenager without ever noting what a fine and serious writer she is). I have been back to your notes many times and now see just how much constructive criticism was hidden inside those glowing comments. I hope I haven’t lost the energy, just improved the focus and delivery. And changed the title. Fifty shades of engineering. Only joking.

    • Andrew

      Thank you, Fiona. Very kind of you to say, and I’m glad you gained so much from Steering The Craft, which I since reviewed here – I’m so pleased it finally has a new edition that is more widely available, as it really is one of the best books on the craft of writing. Also pleased the editorial feedback helped – I find it’s so often about getting the focus right. I remember reading your piece well – I think Fifty Shades of Engineering is just waiting to happen! And if not something with some chemistry or explosive qualities … It seemed pretty unique, so it’s a matter of making that delivery happen in a way that appeals. Meanwhile: do I remember you being a demon doodler in our workshop? Given other trends in publishing since, maybe is an engineering colouring book there. Lots of fractals to colour in?!

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