Last month, I gave some tips on how to give useful feedback to a writer. Today, I want to talk about how to receive that feedback and use it to make your work better.
Receiving critical feedback is hard. You’ve worked hard on your manuscript, and now someone tells you all the reasons why it doesn’t work. This is the part where some writers tune out and prefer not to listen. They can get discouraged and stop writing altogether.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Learn to detach and don’t take it personally. You need to see your manuscript as a product that can be improved, not a personal extension of yourself. Of course, this is easier said than done. It takes practice, patience, and a lot of perseverance.
I received a brutal critique where the person ripped my first chapter to threads. She told me it didn’t make any sense and didn’t mention one positive thing about it. Then she “consoled” me by saying I shouldn’t get discouraged, that I was still new at this and would get better in time. I was very angry and upset by this feedback. It wasn’t encouraging at all. If it had been my first critique, I would’ve probably given up. But after I took the time to remove the emotions out of it and look at the critique objectively, I found some things I could use.
Based on my experiences giving and receiving feedback, here are seven tips to help you use feedback to improve your writing.
1. Don’t ask for feedback until you’ve finished the first draft.
The first draft is all about figuring out the story and getting to know the characters. If you ask for feedback before you finish, you risk getting discouraged or overwhelmed by a different perspective. You may question your choices and scrap that character you love. Also, if you yourself don’t know what the story’s about, how can someone help you improve it? Get clear on the story and what you want to achieve, then seek out feedback to see what others think.
2. Don’t respond immediately. Take time to let it sink in.
Your first instinct will be to think, “this person doesn’t get it”, and negate their feedback by defending your choices. This will only make the other person feel attacked and like they wasted their time. This applies more to when the critique is in writing and you have time to re-read it.
There were times when I responded to my critiques in a defensive manner. I later realized the person had made good points, so take time to process the feedback before you question it.
3. Ask questions.
Instead of acting defensive, ask the person why they have a certain opinion. Maybe they just have a personal bias and their opinion is subjective. Or maybe there’s something not clear in the writing. Communicating openly with your critique partner will help clear up their point of view. You can also explain your intent or why you made certain choices. In that way, you can assess if you really need to fix the manuscript or if it’s only a matter of personal opinion.
4. Don’t accept all suggestions.
Just because someone says there’s something “wrong” with your work, doesn’t mean they’re right. Only apply the suggestions that really resonate with you and give you an “A-ha” moment.
5. Listen to your gut.
Some suggestions are easy fixes, like those having to do with sentence structure, show vs. tell, etc. But when a person says you should cut a scene or change a character’s motivation, you have to put more thought into it. After analyzing the feedback, ask yourself if you agree or not. If you don’t agree, don’t change it.
6. Stay true to your characters.
Characters dictate the direction of the story, not you. You don’t have to please the reader’s wishes or perceptions. A story should be about characters acting out their truth, no matter how unlikable it may be. As long as you explain why your characters make the choices they make, it doesn’t matter what other people think. For this, you have to really know your characters inside out. You can make motivations clearer, but you shouldn’t change the essence of the character.
7. Always be grateful and thank the person for their time.
No matter what feedback you receive, the other person took their time to read and critique your work. You should be grateful and thank people for their time, even if their feedback is mean-spirited and nasty. When you get a great suggestion, let the person know. It feels great when you know the author found your feedback helpful and plans to use it. It’s even better when they apply it and ask you to take a look at the work again.
If you act defensive but later realize your mistake, apologize to the person. This happened to me multiple times. I didn’t agree with someone’s suggestion and sort of negated it in my response. A few days later, I realized the other person was right and sent a message to acknowledge it. This is especially important when you get critiques on a chapter-to-chapter basis, like on Scribophile. You may have gotten a negative critique in one chapter, but on the next, the person has a brilliant idea, and you feel lucky they caught it.
I hope this is helpful. How do you deal with negative feedback? What have been some of your experiences receiving feedback? How has feedback improved your writing?
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