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July 18, 2013

5 1/2 Steps for Making Feedback Work for Us

Dumpster with text: Garbage? Or Feedback? Make It Work for You

We’re in the dog days of summer here in the U.S., so this is a great time for me to update one of my older posts. Actually, there’s never a bad time to talk about beta reading and critiquing. *smile*

If we want to improve our work, we first need to have beta readers, critique partners, and/or editors provide feedback. Second, we have to evaluate our writing based on that feedback.

Maybe we’ll slap our forehead and say “duh” to their comments. Maybe we’ll ignore their suggestion and instead just tweak our writing to fix a confusing plot point or character motivation. Maybe we’ll decide their misunderstanding is exactly what we wanted and not change a thing.

Regardless, unless feedback is deliberately mean and destructive, it’s always a pointer that something is less than ideal for that reader. And that can be crazy-making unless we make that feedback work for us. Let’s take a look.

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Embrace Our Imperfection—It’s the Only Way to Improve

Are you *gasp* less than perfect? Hey, it happens. I know I’m not the only one.

No matter what aspect of our life we’re talking about, whether we’re searching for parenting advice or kicking our writing up a notch, we can read, experiment, and observe to learn new techniques and improve our skills. But sometimes we need an outside force to provide an epiphany into our strengths and weaknesses. And those weaknesses? Those are the easiest areas to improve.

That outside force could be just about anything, but it often comes in the guise of other people: friends or family with insight into which aspects of our life need work. It can be all too easy to feel defensive and ignore the evidence of our imperfection, but a far better thing is to embrace the criticism and make it work for us.

Every Writer Receives Feedback

In the writing world, there’s a seemingly never-ending line of people ready to critique our work. For us perfectionists, even our own brains often think our work is crap.

Next come the beta readers who tell us about all the boring parts they skipped. Then come our critique partners/groups to rip our work apart. Line. By. Line. With contests or freelance editors, we might even pay someone to tell us all the ways we’re doing it wrong.

If we’re lucky, we’ll get an agent, who loves our work—except for these 20,000 words we have to change. And if we’re miraculously lucky, an editor at a publisher wants to pay us for our work—as long as we’re willing to change these other 10,000 words.

5 1/2 Steps for Tackling Feedback

  • Step One: Breathe. I’m serious. Sometimes criticism can feel like a punch to the gut. Instead of reacting while we’re figuratively doubled-over, take several deep breaths.
  • Step One-and-a-Half: Count. Count to 10, or 100, or better yet, sleep on it before reacting.
  • Step Two: Triage. There are bound to be some aspects of the criticism that make sense to us, others that we highly doubt, and some that we know are flat-out wrong. Divide and conquer.
  • Step Three: Attack the Easy Stuff. Work on improving those aspects we agree with.
  • Step Four: Analyze the Harder Stuff. Look for some kernel of helpful information in those aspects we disagree with and work on that.
  • Step Five: Repeat Step Four. Yep, even those things we know are flat-out wrong might have a useful tidbit to help us improve. Analyze the feedback to figure out what caused them to come to that erroneous conclusion. Maybe we can tweak the writing to prevent that cause. We won’t know unless we try.

How We Handle Feedback Will Either Make Us or Break Us

All that criticism will either tear us apart or make us stronger. Our choice. If we accept that we’re not perfect, that means we have weaknesses.

Maybe the criticism of our work that feels completely wrong can still point us toward those weaknesses. Fine, we don’t agree with their take on what’s wrong or like their suggestion on how to fix it. That doesn’t change the fact that something about that section felt “off” to them. S0 we fix it—our way.

We can try to figure out why they came to that out-of-left-field conclusion. Then we see if we can tweak our writing to prevent that reaction in others.

I talked about this in my post with tips on MS Word comments—how a single word choice on one page led to confusion a page later. Yes, really. Those are the sorts of tweaks we can almost always make to address the “flag” of feedback, even when we don’t agree with it.

Note that there are some who give mean and destructive feedback on purpose. Luckily those trolls are few and far between. That’s not the kind of feedback we’re speaking of here. Instead, we’re talking about taking earnest feedback that doesn’t seem to apply to our work and trying to find the nugget of insight that can help our story.

If we can make criticism work for us and strengthen all the elements of writing, our entire story will hold strong. Only then will our readers see the wonderful ending we have planned down the road. *smile*

What type of criticism is hardest for you to take? How do you get to a point of being able to work with difficult feedback? Are you able to turn even the worst (non-troll) feedback into something useful? Have you had to deal with destructive feedback?

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22 Comments on "5 1/2 Steps for Making Feedback Work for Us"

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chemistken

I haven’t been writing long enough for me to have much of an ego about my writing. The whole point of writing a story, at least to me, is to entertain the reader. If the reader is not entertained or becomes confused, then it’s up to me to make the necessary changes, even if I thought the original prose was great.

The hardest criticism for me to deal with is when someone tells me I’ve broken one of the so-called rules of writing–especially if I disagree with that rule.

August McLaughlin

Cool post, Jami! I’ve found that learning to trust my instincts is super important when it comes to hearing and utilizing feedback. I also have a tough time taking feedback when I’m exhausted, so I avoid doing so in the evening. 🙂

Karin
Karin

The question is: How do you find good critique partners and beta readers?
Thanks for your post!
Karin

Kathryn Jankowski

One of the reasons I appreciate the feedback I get at O.W.W. (the Online Writing Worshop for fantasy, sci-fi, and horror writers–Karin, this is a great resource) is that multiple critiques give me a basis for deciding what to rewrite. If only one person mentions something, I’ll consider it. But if two or more touch on the same thing, I know it needs tweaking.

Karin, you’ll find O.W.W. at http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/index.shtml. Two of my critiquers offered to be beta readers for my YA fantasy as well!

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung

It’s good advice to take a deep breath or sleep on it before reacting to feedback. It makes you less emotional about it.

Hmm, I’m okay with most feedback unless it:

1) Contradicts other feedback. In this case, I’ll have to decide which feedback I agree with more.

2) Advises plot changes. For some reason, I feel like you can’t change the plot because it’s like trying to change history that has already happened. If I change the plot, it feels like I’m committing a betrayal, if you know what I mean.

3) Advises a change in a character’s personality, gender, or appearance. I talked to you about this before. Turn my extrovert into an introvert? Turn my physically unfit bookworm into a jock? What??? O_O I can’t do that! Once again, I feel that would be betraying my characters, because they are (to me) living, real people that have to be respected, not mere lego dolls that you can just tweak to your liking. And as you’ve said, the most I can do is show other aspects of the character that the readers haven’t seen yet which they might like better; or, of course, write a completely different but similar story with a completely different character. (If you change the character/ person, you change the whole story.)

That’s all I can think of so far of feedback that I would be more hesitant about.

Melissa Maygrove

The most difficult kind of feedback for me to take is when it involves major structural changes or cutting a beloved scene.

The second most difficult-to-process is when a critter makes significant changes to a paragraph or passage (when I can see no reason for it) and doesn’t tell me why. I had this problem with one of my CPs and I finally decided it was a voice thing. I ask CPs now, if they make a big change like that, to comment as to why. That way even if I reject their wording, I can still fix the underlying problem.

One thing that really helps when processing feedback is to have more than one person’s opinion (three, minimum). That way you can see if an opinion is in the majority or minority when deciding the subjective stuff.

Great post!

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[…] Gold: 5 1/2 Steps for Making Feedback Work for Us. Excerpt: “If we want to improve our work, we first need to have beta readers, critique […]

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Bobbi Schemerhorn
Bobbi Schemerhorn

I only just published my first e-book (last week), but when I was going through the editing and beta reading process I got some really good criticism. One of my beta’s had made several strong suggestions to the very last chapter. She had written it out on how she believed it should be.

I Hated the changes that she made, and it made me angry that she had the audacity to make such changes. But I did just what you said, I slept on it, reread her comments and changes and slept on it again because it still made me mad and really kind of crushed me.

When I finally cleared my head and could look at it from her stand point, I could see where she was coming from. She shone a light on a portion of the story that needed to be touched up. I scraped all her changes and rewrote the entire section as I thought it would work better. Sent it back out to two new beta’s and they loved it.

I learned a valuable lesson on being humble and not thinking that I’m some brilliant writer. As much as her words and changes hurt, she made the story a better one. And I thank her for that.

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[…] we look for beta readers, we have to ensure that we’re ready to receive feedback. It won’t do any good to track down beta readers if we’re going to ignore everything […]

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[…] Regardless, feedback is almost always a pointer that something is less than ideal for that reader. 99% of the time there’s a kernel of truth in a beta reader’s criticism, so our default should be to try to discover that truth and make the feedback work for us. […]

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