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April 24, 2012

Why Does Feedback Hurt So Much?

Bloody hand holding large knife

Several people I know are going through revisions right now based on feedback they received from beta readers, agents, or editors.  Every one of them is dealing with the “I suck” issue along with that.

Yes, sometimes feedback can be a bit too mean or blunt, but that’s not the problem here.  No matter how kind or helpful the comments are, we still feel like crap when faced with the fact that our writing needs work.

How Do We Know When Our Work Is Ready to Share?

Whether we’re perfectionists or not, we’re usually not going to send our writing into the world until we think it’s near perfect.  “Near perfect”?  How do we know where that line is?

We rely on our instincts to judge whether something is working or not, and we rely on our skills to fix what we find.  So we send something out when our instincts tell us it’s near perfect, and when our skills make it the best we can.

What Feedback Really Tells Us

And then what happens?  We get feedback pointing out how this part doesn’t flow and that character is unlikable.  We get comments about how we need to deepen the emotions in this scene and raise the stakes in that scene.

In short, feedback tells us our instincts were wrong.

Whoa…  Think about that for a minute.  (And let’s ignore grammatical flubs that come from a lack of knowledge.)  For deep analysis of the quality of our writing—the characters, plotting, and emotions—our instincts are the one and only tool we have for judging our own work.

When we get feedback that our one and only tool—that tool that told us we were ready to share our work because it was “near perfect”—was wrong, we’re going to react in an understandable way.  *cue panic, self-doubt, and “I suck”itude*

The Self-Doubt Monster

We wail, how can I ever know if my writing is any good if I can’t trust my instincts?  How can I trust myself to know how to fix these issues?  Sure, I think it’s better now, but I was wrong before.  What if I’m making it worse?  I might not even be able to tell because my instincts are Just. So. Worthless.

This is the source of our self-doubt.  What can we trust if we can’t trust ourselves?  We might struggle to write, edit, or revise anything because we can’t trust that our changes are actually fixing things.  And how can we ever submit anything if our internal “near perfect” grade is delusional?

Every time we get feedback going beyond cut-and-dry skills like grammar usage, we will struggle with self-doubt.  We will feel like failures on some level.

Feedback comments like that hit us with “I was wrong” messages on two fronts at once, the writing itself and our judgment of the quality of that writing.  Again, think about that.  Deep feedback makes us doubt both our muse (the subconscious source of our writing) and our self-editor (the conscious judge of our work).  A double dose of doubt—just what we need.  Not.

How to Beat the Monster

For some of us, a major draw of traditional publishing is getting external validation, because we don’t trust our internal judgment at all.  I understand that reason, but I also find it sad.  Traditional publishing can be a great thing for some authors, but putting our sense of self-worth into the hands of others isn’t healthy.

Self-doubt can be debilitating and paralyzing.  Sometimes, we don’t want to move forward because we’re afraid we’ll make it worse and be too blind to realize it.  Or we’re afraid of wasting time with edits that don’t help.  Or we’re afraid to try again with a submission when our judgment is crap.  In short, we’re afraid of ourselves.

Writing is a risk.  We’re constantly taking the risk of wasting time, being rejected, and being told that we’re not as good as we think we are.

There’s only one healthy way through that self-doubt, and it doesn’t come from external validation.  We must accept the risk and ignore the fear.

Maybe that means we say, “So what?”  So what if we waste time?  So what if we need to have another round of edits because this one didn’t fix it?  So what if we get a rejection?  None of those things are the end of the world unless we let them drive us to quit.

We have control over the self-doubt monster.  We choose whether we allow negativity to take over, our fears to hold us back, or the risks to paralyze us.

Yes, learning that we’re a terrible judge of our own work sucks, but it does get better.  We learn more about characterization, plotting and pacing techniques, and emotional triggers so we’ll have less of those issues in the future.  We learn about our weaknesses and work on them.

The gap between our judgment and the reality does narrow with experience.  But we’ll get there only if we beat back the monster and keep moving forward.

Do you feel self-doubt after receiving feedback?  If the comments are “kind,” do you still feel it?  How do you deal with self-doubt?  Do you have techniques for making your internal judgment more objective?  When is “pushing through the fear” harder?  Easier?

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Daniel Swensen (@surlymuse)

Great post, Jami, and I think you get to the heart of why feedback can sting: “In short, feedback tells us our instincts were wrong.”

Personally, I try to combat this by adjusting my instinct as much as I can — I’ve made the draft as good as I can make it, with the foreknowledge that there WILL be problems I didn’t spot. I know they’re there, I just need them pointed out — and suddenly that second set of eyes goes from fear-inducing to invaluable.

“There’s only one healthy way through that self-doubt, and it doesn’t come from external validation. We must accept the risk and ignore the fear.”

Totally.

Buffy Armstrong

Great post, Jami! It’s something we all wrestle with. I think deep down we want someone to read what we wrote and think it’s the most brilliant thing they have ever read even though we know on an intellectual level that it’s not. What we want to be true and what we know to be true are two different things. At least sometimes. I knew I had to revise a story. An editor had turned it down and I hadn’t looked at it in a few months. I was afraid to look at the manuscript. I mean gut-churning terrified. I sent it out to a few people and I got some really good feedback. A lot of it was tough to hear, but I’m glad I did. BTW, it wasn’t the most brilliant thing anyone had ever read. Go figure. I hunkered down last week. I tried to push away my fear and make sense of what people were trying to tell me. It’s scary, like a root canal, but you got to get past it. I went through the whole “I suck/I’m not going to be a writer anymore/I’ll take up knitting” phase. Now I’m in the “I can make this better/I can do this/Sucking is just part of the process“ phase. I feel re-energized somehow and willing to make my manuscript better. So a case of the I-Sucks is actually a good thing. It means you care and that you can do better. Doesn’t help you sleep at…  — Read More »

Nancy S. Thompson

I don’t doubt myself. I know I won’t get it right. There’s no doubt. But I don’t beat myself up about it. The best writing is really a team effort. I do the brunt of the work, but that’s just one layer, one ingredient. I depend on my team of CPs to expose my weaknesses, to show me where I need more ingredients, more flavor. I love how they manage to pull incredible things out of me, things I’m capable of, but I can’t bring out until someone else tastes the product. My first CP was brutal & unnecessarily mean, but he was also right, a lesson I will never forget. Now, I prefer my CPs to be as forthright as possible, even brutal, if that’s their style. It makes me work hard. We all see the same thing, but through a different lens. It takes all those lenses to bring it into a sharp focus. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Donna B. McNicol [@donnabmcnicol]

Great post, had to Tweet it out…thanks, Jami.

Carradee

Hm. I’m not sure I agree that critique of a story is necessarily critique of the writer’s instincts. Some things, we can’t judge, because we’re too close to our own work, and we know what we were trying to do. Also, it’s my experience that critique tends to point out things the writer didn’t attempt to evaluate.

For example, in A Fistful of Fire, the narrator is a paranoid introvert with a quick temper. In earlier drafts, I fought to make her believable in her paranoia, and I managed that… while missing other things. Friends’ critique helped me find those places I’d forgotten.

I think a lot of the pain stems from the popular attitudes. Writing is intense and personal and has a lot of the author in the story—but the story is not the writer. Nor is it an infant.

However, a lot of writers do see their stories as their (brain)children. So critique of a story comes across as critique of them.

Dee
Dee

If I receive some tougher feedback, I take a day or two to gain back my perspective and try to “see” what is really being said. It allows me to refocus and then ask intelligent questions rather than defensive questions when gaining any clarification and keeps the plaintive tone from my reply. Beginning to provide feedback of my own really helped me gain insight on advice that I received as well. I realize now that more feedback isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it means the reader was invested enough in what I did write to take the time to help me make it better. Trite feedback can mean two things; it either came off the page perfect (doubtful,) or they weren’t gripped by my piece. I’ll take the helpful feedback thank you may I have another!

Jennifer Barricklow

Maybe it’s because I work as an editor, but I don’t find feedback depressing. What I find depressing is a lack of useful feedback. When I put something out there, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt it is nowhere close to perfect. While I’m glad when people have nice things to say about my writing, I feel truly let down when no one comes back with ideas about how I could make it better. I guess maybe I need to find a tougher critique crowd!

Heather Day Gilbert

It’s so tricky to figure out that line of “this can change” and “this can’t budge” in our writing. But I think it’s a very internal thing.

You realize that if you change point A, then either it will work if you change a few other things, OR it will knock the whole premise of your book off-kilter.

I don’t mind changing a few things around. I had to change tons of my Viking names in my first draft, since all the “Thor—s” were throwing readers off. So I kept the two Thor names I wanted, the most historically important ones, and changed the rest (trying to use a derivative of their true names).

But any suggestions to change my main characters, making them act in ways I knew they would NOT act, I disregarded. I knew where the story was headed, crit. partners didn’t! Grin.

Tahlia Newland

This is a really good analysis of the problem. I try to take the attitude that even the worst feedback will make my work better if I fix the problem, but you have to evaluate whether the person understands what you’re trying to do first. One comment I got in a rejection note was that I dealt with a dark subject matter too lightly. That’s personal opinion and I ignored it because I don’t want my work to be too heavy.

Indie publishing forces you to rely on your own instincts in that it allows you to write stuff that a trad publisher wouldn’t look at – not because it’s bad, but because it’s different. It takes guts to put yourself out there like that, but nothing new comes without taking risks.

Andrew Mocete

This happened to me last summer. Had my novel all ready for review and sent the first chapter out. It was smashed. Smashed like you wouldn’t believe. My friends told me I needed to put this story to the side and work on learning more craft. They weren’t mean about it, but it was a blow. Mega self-doubt, but I still took there advice and got to work.

The only foolproof way to beat self-doubt is to keep writing and getting feedback. Each comment is a chance to learn and get smarter. In my case, I already sent the worst writing possible, so the only way to go was up. So far so good.

Jessica Thomas

Great insights. I’m glad I’m not the only one who goes into “I suck” mode.

Right now I’m procrastinating working on a second draft because I’m intimidated by my own criticism! Sometimes, you let something sit for months, go back to it and wonder…how did I not notice how bad this is?

Keli Wright
Keli Wright

Great post! I struggle with these doubts before I show my work to anyone. It’s actually a relief when I get feedback, even (especially?) if it is negative. It gives me something concrete to work on. Of course, I’ve never gotten a really fierce ripping yet–not because I’m a great writer, but because the people who critique me are just too darn nice!

Which brings me to the other omnipresent doubt–is my critique group giving me sound feedback or am I so bad they don’t want to crush my pathetic little ego? Any suggestions for differentiating and for getting honest and open criticism? Perhaps the key is submitting often so they know you are serious, and accepting criticism graciously when it is given.

Kerry Gans

I’m not sure that I agree that criticism means our instincts are WRONG. I think it’s more a case of our instincts not being refined enough to give us accurate feedback. I think our instincts are always correct that our manuscript is as near perfect as we can make it GIVEN OUR CURRENT SKILL LEVEL AND KNOWLEDGE.

I think feedback simply tells us that there is more we need to learn, that a further refinement of our instincts is needed. It is rather like developing a discerning pallette for wine–you don’t just wake up with it one morning, it comes from years of learning and practicing.

Don’t ever doubt your instincts–just know that your instincts may still have more to learn, and welcome all that feedback as a treasure that will make your writing (and your instincts) richer.

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[…] Jody Hedlund shares two tests that can help writers sort through feedback, while Jami Gold wonders why feedback hurts so much. […]

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[…] interaction that got me wondering how solitary writers are was a blog post by Jami Gold called “Why Does Feedback Hurt So Much?” Although the post itself explored why criticism can be so painful for a writer, in the comments […]

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[…] when we get negative feedback, whether from a beta reader or a reviewer, it can hurt. We can feel […]

Maryanne

I’ve been at this for 15 years and criticism is only slightly less painful now — and that only because my skin is calloused from all the rejection and criticism I’ve taken! It usually takes a day or two of contemplation before I can set aside the sense of hurt and achieve the perspective to analyze what the person is saying. I no longer feel like it’s a personal attack, but I still struggle with the sense that — like you said — I thought it was good as it was and that I didn’t expect it would need what the reader thinks it needs. For example, I’m good enough now that I think I can catch “telling” so when I get a critique of too much “telling” that sends me into a tailspin. I’m currently deep in the pool of self-doubt, which is why I came looking here… *sheepish grin*

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[…] Jody Hedlund shares two tests that can help writers sort through feedback, while Jami Gold wonders why feedback hurts so much. […]

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