May 10, 2016

Writing Feedback: Reaching Our Potential

Plant seedling in the sand with text: Believing in Our Potential

Today’s post will (hopefully) be short, as I’m working on only 3 hours of sleep after an emotional weekend with my brother and his family. His wife’s mother recently died, and Saturday was the memorial service.

(Yes, my sister-in-law had to deal with her mother’s death right before Mother’s Day. *sigh*)

My sister-in-law is mostly doing okay, and with all of us there to help, the memorial service came together beautifully. The family chose to hold a catered-lunch-and-pass-the-microphone-to-share-stories type of service, and guess who was designated the master of ceremonies?

Me. The severely introverted, panic attack prone sister-in-law.

Me. Handling the welcome, introductions, and keeping the schedule going up at the podium.

Me. Speaking in front of 70-plus people while wearing fuzzy slippers. *smile* (The nerve damage in my foot is currently so bad I can’t wear shoes.)

That situation could have gone badly, but my family knows me and my potential. They know that while I’m not a fan of groups and small talk, I’m perfectly fine with public speaking. They believed in me and knew I could do it.

That same attitude is essential for us to be able to open ourselves to feedback on our writing. Let’s take a look…

The Risk of Opening Ourselves to Feedback

Whenever we send our work out into the world, we’re taking a risk. Our beta readers, agents or editors we’re querying, or our freelance editors (not to mention our eventual readers) will be reading our work and judging it.

Reading is subjective, so no matter how good our writing is, we can’t predict their reaction. Their like or dislike might have nothing to do with our writing and everything to do with their personal preferences.

Depending on how much we suffer from self-doubt, the feedback we receive from others might roll off our back, inspire us to work harder and fix issues, or convince us that we should quit writing.

Obviously, that last option is destructive, and we want to avoid it if at all possible. Maybe if we can find the line between constructive criticism and destructive feedback, we might have an easier time avoiding the latter. *smile*

Defining Destructive Feedback

There are probably endless ways to define destructive feedback. We all have different sensitivities to various feedback approaches.

One beta reader I’ve used gives only critical comments, never positive ones. For many writers, that style—no matter how constructive those comments are—would be demoralizing. For others, once they recognized that the style didn’t necessarily indicate dislike of the writing, they might appreciate the efficient focus on what needs to be fixed.

For some writers, emotional negative feedback might hit closer to home than dispassionate critical analysis. Other writers might be bothered only by flat-out insults. Etc., etc.

What Does Non-Destructive Feedback Look Like?

Again, every writer has different sensitivities, but I think one element of feedback is necessary for it to be non-destructive…

Whenever I read a writer’s work-in-progress—either as a beta reader or a freelance editor—I keep in mind that the writing is a Work In Progress.

I’m not looking for perfection; I’m looking for potential.

I wouldn’t take on an editing client unless I thought they had potential to improve. I don’t see a point in taking money from writers that I don’t think can fix their work.

I want to root for them to improve. I want to believe in them. Accordingly, I give suggestions that I hope will help them reach their potential.

One Element of Destructive Feedback

With that requirement of non-destructive feedback in mind, we can see what one element of destructive feedback is: not believing in our potential to improve.

If someone doesn’t believe we have potential—if they don’t think we can improve our writing—that negative attitude will affect their feedback.

They won’t be rooting for us to improve. Their feedback will likely be snarky, mean, or full of insults because they’re not providing feedback for our benefit. They don’t believe in us, remember?

Instead, their feedback is for their amusement, like a heckler. They want to feel superior to our pathetic attempt at writing, self-righteous about how their opinion is the only correct one, or magnanimous for taking pity on the hopeless cause.

After receiving feedback in all of those situations, we’re likely to struggle with our self-doubt. We might consider quitting. We might decide to never try writing—or submitting our work—again.

How Can We Avoid Destructive Feedback?

The best feedback will help us grow. But as the many writers who share horror stories can attest, we have to be careful who we get feedback from.

Maybe if we keep in mind that good feedback comes from someone rooting for us to improve—and believing we have the potential to make it happen—we might be able to sense when someone doesn’t have that attitude.

If we can identify those who lean toward destructive feedback, we could try to avoid working with them. Or if we don’t recognize those negative traits in advance, we might still be able to recognize them later…and know we can safely ignore their unhelpful comments. *smile*

When Considering a Beta Read Exchange…

  • Do they talk only about what they want to get from us (rather than how we can help each other)?
  • Do they act as though they assume their work is already perfect (and therefore might judge our work against perfection rather than potential)?
  • Do they act like they’re doing us a favor because they figure they’re so much better than us?
  • Do they talk down about other authors?

Those might be bad signs of their sense of superiority or self-righteousness.

When Evaluating Freelance Editors…

  • Do they not only share where they have special expertise, but also seem eager to help us take advantage of their knowledge?
  • Do they seem proud or supportive of their author clients?
  • Do they talk about how they want to help us reach our potential?
  • Do they maintain a humble attitude rather than assuming their suggestions are always right?

Those might be good signs of their ability to give non-destructive feedback.

A Good Reminder for Our Own Feedback

Also, as beta readers ourselves, this definition of destructive feedback might be a reminder of how we can make sure our suggestions are given with the right attitude.

If we find ourselves getting frustrated with a writer’s work-in-progress, especially to the point that it’s becoming a hate-read, we should take a step back. Only when we’re able to approach the work with an eye for its potential should we continue to leave comments and suggestions.

An attitude of looking out for a work’s potential will help us give constructive feedback. Remembering that we’re supposed to be rooting for them will remind us to give positive feedback too. And wanting to believe in them will keep us focused on what they can improve.

We don’t want to be the recipient—or the giver—of destructive feedback. With the right attitude when we give feedback, we can make sure that we deserve the best feedback in return. *smile*

How do you define destructive feedback? Have you ever received destructive feedback? What made it so destructive? How did you get past it? Do you have any other tips of what to watch out for or how to avoid destructive feedback?

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Olga Oliver
Olga Oliver

Jami – your excellent “Destructive Feedback” article arrived at a perfect time for me as I am working on my first writing with a development editor, highly recommended. This experience has opened several cans of worms; one can chants “can you do this?” And, of course, I hear several replies to that question blazing around my ears waiting for me to connect to the easy way to chuck the entire thing. However, this editor clearly states her findings and clearly states her suggestions. In some parts of the essay she suggests a new way. In other parts she admits she does not have a suggestion other than, “right here is tough, you can dig deep and find the best way to go, its here in such situations we learn how to dig out the buried roots that make writing worthwhile.”
I find these words dripping with beauty, running over. Thanks for your excellent post.

Deborah Makarios

I find the best way to avoid giving destructive criticism is to speak the truth with love. This means that you don’t just tell them what they want to hear, but you don’t tear them to shreds, either. Once you get in the mindset of helping the writer achieve their best, you also lose the propensity to make suggestions as to how you would write it (a temptation I struggle with).

Christina Hawthorne

My sympathy to your sister-in-law. I lost my mother unexpectedly on Mother’s Day morning in 2003.

An excellent beta reader post. Thank you.


I was taught in giving feed back to start with what you liked, then the parts that you think need help, then end with something positive. It takes some of the sting out while also pointing out that its not all bad.

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

Jami, excellent blog post.
Stay Well,


[…] we have an encouraging attitude for their potential? We should be humble with our feedback, offer suggestions not obligations, and try not to come […]

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